What is a sacramental?
The Catechism teaches us that sacramentals are “holy things or actions of which the church makes use to obtain for us from God, through her intercession, spiritual and temporal favors.” A sacramental is anything set apart or blessed by the church to excite good thoughts and to help devotion. It is through the prayers of the church offered for those who make use of these sacramentals, as well as through the devotion they inspire, that they convey and obtain God’s grace and blessings.
Sacramentals are not unlike the sacraments in that they are channels of grace and can obtain for us these benefits:
1) Actual graces
2) Forgiveness of venial sins
3) Remission of temporal punishment
4) Health of body and material blessings
5) Protection from evil spirits
One difference between sacraments and sacramentals is that the latter do not produce sanctifying grace, a power that belongs to sacraments alone. Another difference is that sacraments were instituted directly by Christ while sacramentals were instituted by Christ through His church. Sacramentals should never take the place of sacraments. The sacraments are necessary for salvation; sacramentals are not necessary. Nevertheless, the prayers, pious objects, sacred signs, and ceremonies of Mother Church are means to salvation.
Since they are blessed objects, sacramentals should always be treated with reverence and devotion. It is a custom of Catholics to kiss a rosary or scapular that they have accidentally dropped on the ground. The sign of the cross or a genuflection should be made deliberately and prayerfully.
How do they work?
“Sacramentals obtain favors from God through the prayers of the Church offered for those who make use of them, and through the devotion they inspire.”
Sacramentals should not be thought of as contracts, investments, or good luck charms. To wear the scapular does not give us free reign to commit mortal sin and still be assured of heaven. The scapular is a symbol of Marian devotion and a silent prayer to Our Blessed Mother in heaven for salvation that she most certainly will not ignore. Using holy water is not an infallible wiping away of our venial sins unless we have contrition for our sins when we use it. The power of sacramentals, then, depends greatly on the devotion of both the priest who gives the blessing and the person who is receiving the sacramental. They depend on the prayers of the Church, the prayers of the blessings that are imposed on them, and the merits of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Mother, and the Saints. Of themselves they do not save souls, but they are the means for securing heavenly help for those who use them properly.
Regarding blessed objects of devotion, it is good to remember that it is the blessing the priest gives an object that makes it a sacramental. The blessing gives God ownership over the object and dedicates it to Him, and He then works through it. This is why it is very important to have sacramentals blessed; without the blessing they do not hold any of the graces of benefits promised by the Church. To believe otherwise is to degrade the sacramental to the level of a good luck charm. It is superstition to hold that the grace and spiritual benefit one may receive comes from the sacramental itself; all grace comes from God. A sacramental is merely a channel through which He has chosen to work.
Types of Sacramentals
We are surrounded by sacramentals. The Church has placed them in every aspect of our day-to-day life. They may more or less be divided into categories, though some sacramentals may fall under more than one. For instance, a rosary is both a prayer and a blessed object of devotion.
1) Blessings of deacons, priests, and bishops -- All blessings are considered sacramentals. The blessings of deacons, priests, and bishops, such as the consecration of churches, the absolution contained in the Confiteor at Mass, the Asperges, and the blessings bestowed on palms, candles, or ashes are all sacramental actions.
Lay Catholics are free to bless objects, and we do so often in blessing our children, blessing meals, blessing Advent wreaths or Mary Gardens, etc. However our blessings act as ‘mere’ plea to God. Ordained Catholic clergy (deacons, priests, bishops) alone have been given the power to bless with a guarantee, as it were, and it is they and they alone who can take a new crucifix or rosary and turn them into sacramentals with the power and prayers of the entire Church behind them.
2) Exorcisms -- One of the most remarkable effects of sacramentals is their ability to drive away evil sprits. Exorcisms constitute the second category of sacramentals. They can be found in prayers or even placed upon other sacramentals such as the St. Benedict medal.
3) Blessed objects of devotion -- The Church blesses an untold variety of objects which the faithful use to inspire devotion. It would be impossible to list them all, but some of the main ones are holy water, candles, ashes, palms, crucifixes, medals, rosaries, scapulars, and images of Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints. Some of these blessed objects, namely candles, ashes, and palms, are given to us directly through the liturgy. Others, such as the scapular, rosary and Miraculous Medal have been instituted or directly propagated by Our Blessed Mother. Sacramentals such as these play a pivotal role in the devotion and spiritual life of any Catholic and should be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.
4) Rubrics and prayers -- It is easy to forget that rubrics and prayers are all sacramentals, such as the bowing of the head at the holy name of Jesus or the sign of the cross. Many of these actions are used so often that they are performed flippantly and without thought. How easy it is to forget that a sincere recitation of the Confiteor before communion and the absolution of the priest afterwards can remit venial sin and be used as a way of purifying one’s soul before receiving Holy Communion. How often in a day do we make the sign of the cross, forgetting that it is a testimony of faith in the Trinity to Whom we belong and in the act of Redemption. All these things should be done deliberately and devoutly, since they were deliberately instituted by the church to aid us in attaining a deep love of God.
Disposing of Sacramentals
When a material sacramental becomes so worn that it can no longer be used as a sacramental, one should not casually toss it into the trash. To prevent desecration, the sacramental should be returned to the earthly elements. Holy water, for example, should be poured into a hole dug in the earth, in a spot no one would walk over. Combustible sacramentals, such as scapulars and holy books, should be burned and then buried. Larger sacramentals that do not burn should be altered so that their form no longer appears to be a sacramental (for example, a statue should be broken up into small pieces) and then buried. Objects made of metals can be melted down and used for another purpose.
Items lose their blessing or consecration if they are desecrated, if they are substantially broken such that they can no longer be used for their sacred purpose. It is forbidden to sell blessed objects, see CCC 2121.