First a definition: a sacramental is a sacred sign that signifies effects
obtained through the Church's intercession. While all of the seven Sacraments
are Christ-instituted and always do exactly what they signify ex opere
operato ("from the deed done"), sacramentals are usually
Church-instituted (though some are Christ-instituted). They work through
the power and prayers of the Church (ex opere operantis Ecclesiae)
and, subjectively, ex opere operantis, that is, through the pious
disposition of the one using them. Sacramentals drive away evil spirit, and
when piously used, remit venial sin and prepare the soul for grace.
Sacramentals can be material things (blessed objects, such as
Holy Water, etc.) or actions (the
Sign of the Cross,
the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday,
etc.). Note that only a priest has the power to bless an object and make
it a sacramental. Lay Catholics are free to bless objects, even using the
prayers priests use -- and we do so often in blessing our children, blessing
meals, blessing Advent wreaths or
Mary Gardens, etc. -- but our blessings act
as "mere" pleas to God. Priests 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.
Fr. Arthur Tonne's "Talks on Sacramentals," published in 1950. He sums up
how to view sacramentals:
Some years ago
two women were touring a desert region of our southwest. They wandered off
from their party and were lost. For two full days they tramped and tramped
in search of a road or dwelling. They found none. Completely exhausted, aching
with thirst and hunger, they could not walk another step. One of them, in
true womanly fashion, took out her compact to repair the damage done by sun
and dust. The sun flashed off the mirror. She got an idea. Someone might
see the reflected light. They flashed the mirror in all directions. Rescuers
saw the flashes, hurried to the source, and saved the two ladies.
Who would have thought that such a simple thing as a mirror could save human
lives? This essential piece of female equipment did not directly save their
lives, but it was the means, the instrument for attracting attention and
are something like that. Of themselves they do not save souls, but they are
the means for securing heavenly help for those who use them properly. A
sacramental is a sacred object or religious action which the Catholic Church,
in imitation of the sacraments, uses for the purpose of obtaining spiritual
favors especially through her prayer. A sacramental is anything set apart
or blessed by the Church to excite good thoughts and to help devotion, and
thus secure grace and take away venial sin or the temporal punishment due
...We might divide the sacramentals into prayers, pious objects, sacred signs,
and religious ceremonies. Some sacramentals are a combination--they fall
into two or more classes. The Rosary, for example, is a pious object and
a prayer. The Sign of the Cross is a prayer and a sign. The crucifix, pictures
and statues are pious objects. The ceremonies performed in the various sacraments
are also sacramentals, like the extending of the hands in Confirmation...
...Do we have to use sacramentals? Does a Catholic have to wear a scapular,
or use holy water, or pray the Rosary? Strictly speaking, no. The sacraments
are necessary for salvation; the sacramentals are not necessary. Nevertheless,
the prayers, pious objects, sacred signs and ceremonies of Mother Church
are means to salvation.
If you were lost in a desert, as were the two women of our story, you don't
have to have a mirror to be saved. But that lifeless, senseless object was
the means of saving their lives.
In a similar way the sacramentals, lifeless, helpless in themselves [Ed.
in terms of our sanctification and the fruits that we personally derive from
them], are helps to winning life-giving graces. They must never take the
place of the sacraments. You will find Catholics who place more confidence
and trust in these material objects than they do in the reality of the
For example, you may see a Catholic enter Church and go directly to the vigil
light stand without seeming to pay any attention to our Lord in the Blessed
Sacrament. That Catholic does not appreciate the difference between a Sacrament
and a sacramental.
It is with a desire and holy ambition to make you appreciate these aids to
spiritual life, the sacramentals, that we propose to explain some of them
on succeeding Sundays.
In the desert of daily life they are mirrors that will lead us to the fountains
of spiritual help and spiritual life. Amen.
Disposing of Old, Worn-out
Sacramentals & Consecrated Material
Sign of the Cross
Bowing the head
Blessing of people
Churching of women
Washing of the Feet
When a material
sacramental becomes so worn that it can no longer be used as a sacramental,
a Catholic won't 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 don't burn should
be altered so that their form no longer appears to be a sacramental (ex.,
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, are
substantially broken such that they can no longer be used for their sacred
purpose, or if they are publicly sold (if an item is sold by one individual
to another for only the price of the material itself -- i.e., if no
profit is made, the blessing remains. E.g., if you were to give someone, say,
a blessed rosary or sell it to him at cost, he would not have to have it
re-blessed; if you sell a blessed rosary to someone for profit, he would
need to take it to a priest.)
Note that on 23 June -- the Eve of the Feast of St. John the Baptist -- it
is custom to build large bonfires in which no longer useful material sacramentals
are burned. Read more about this tradition in the The
Seasonal Customs area of this site.
The Blessed Sacrament
Be certain that
the Blessed Sacrament (the Eucharist and Precious Blood) is not a "sacramental,"
but for the sake of information, here is how the Blessed Sacrament is disposed
of in case of corruption:
In the sacristy (also called "vestry") of a church -- the room where vestments,
vessels and oils are stored -- there is a special sink called a "sacrarium"
(also "piscina") which is used for cleaning sacred vessels. This basin's
drainage pipe doesn't lead to the sewer as do those of most sinks; instead,
it goes directly to the earth so that liquid sacramentals, such as Holy Water
and oils, or even the tiniest morsels of the Blessed Sacrament or drops of
the Precious Blood which might be found on Patens or in Chalices, will be
disposed of correctly and with reverence. If the accidents of a consecrated
Host or chalice of the Precious Blood were to become contaminated in some
way such that it could not be consumed, they are disposed of in the sacrarium.
See also the page