Catholic Sacramentals — Gifts of Grace

In November of 1955 a plane carrying 27 passengers crashed. All died except one young lady. When this girl saw that the plane was going down, she took hold of her Scapular, and called on Mary for help. She suffered burns, her clothing was reduced to ashes, but the flames did not touch her Scapular.

In the same year of 1955, a similar miracle occurred in the Midwest. A 3rd-grader stopped in a gasoline station to put air in his bicycle tires, and at the very moment an explosion occurred. The boy’s clothing was burned off, but his Brown Scapular remained unaffected: a symbol of Mary’s protection. Today, although he still bears a few scars from the explosion, this young man has special reason to remember our Blessed Mother’s protection in time of danger. 1

Accounts of this nature, of wonderful prodigies associated with the Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, are (or used to be) familiar to most Catholics. Similarly, so numerous are the miracles attributed to the Miraculous Medal that entire books have been published for the sole purpose of recounting the details of such events.

These items, the Brown Scapular and the Miraculous Medal, are just two of the sacramentals of the Catholic Church. In this brief article we will look at sacramentals in general, and at one ancient and venerable one in particular.

The word sacramental, comes from the Latin verb sacrare , meaning “to consecrate, make sacred, or dedicate.” It is closely related to the word “sacrament,” and has the same general meaning, though, as we will see, the two words have quite distinct uses in Catholic Theology. As their common origin suggests, both sacraments and sacramentals are things that have power to sanctify , or make holy. Christian sacramentals are as old as the Church, and are integral to both Her solemn worship and the every-day practice of the Faith.

There are two basic types of sacramentals: those which have a direct connection to the sacraments, which, for our purposes, we will refer to as ceremonial sacramentals ; and those like the two mentioned above, that the Church has instituted for private devotion.

Ceremonial Sacramentals

Within both types of sacramentals there are numerous categories. The Catholic Encyclopedia 2 lists nine categories of the first type, providing some examples:

  • Substance: the mixing of water with Eucharistic wine
  • Quantity: the pouring of the water in Baptism three times
  • Quality: the specificity of “unleavened bread” for the Eucharist
  • Relation: the capacity of the Minister of the sacraments
  • Time: the establishment of Feast Days
  • Place: the churches [oratories, monasteries, etc.]
  • Livery: various religious habits and liturgical vestments
  • Posture: genuflections, prostrations
  • Actions: chanting, incensing, sprinkling

All of these are parts of the basic rites or rituals of the administration of the sacraments. Included are both things and actions : things — such as candles, cruets, altar cloths, incense, blessings, and ritual books; and actions — such as genuflections, signs of the cross, and elevations.

One major distinction between sacraments and sacramentals is that the sacraments confer sanctifying grace ex opere operato (“by the work performed”). That is to say, a sacrament infallibly effects grace regardless of the devotion of the recipient. Sacramentals, on the other hand, do not confer grace merely by their use; their effects depend on the devotion of the individual using them. Another distinction is that there are seven sacraments, all instituted by Christ (there will never be as many as eight or as few as six), but the number of sacramentals is not limited. The Church may institute more as She sees fit.

Sacramentals of Private Devotion

When they hear the word “sacramentals,” most people think of objects belonging to this category. The present article began with references to two of them: the Brown Scapular and the Miraculous Medal. These and, above all, the Rosary are the most well known sacramentals. Others include certain practices of piety, holy water, other things blessed by the Church (crucifixes, medals, statues, spiritual books, scapulars, etc.), and even some blessings themselves, e.g., blessings before and after meals. These do not of themselves give grace, but, in virtue of the prayers of the Church, they help to excite good dispositions in the soul. 3 Their effects vary from one to another, depending upon the prayer of the Church and the intent of their use. “These prayers move God to give graces which He would not otherwise give, and when not infallibly acceded to, it is for reasons known to His Wisdom.” 4

Holy Water is a perfect example of a sacramental. The water, in and of itself, is but water. Once ritually blessed in a manner which details the effects the blessing is to impart, however, it possesses the blessing of the Church. The effects of Holy Water are well known. It is particularly efficacious in driving out and keeping away evil — so much so that its use in exorcisms is familiar to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Holy Water is used at the entrance of Catholic churches for the faithful to call upon God’s grace and blessing. It is used on Sunday at High Mass to bless the faithful as the priest sprinkles them and prays: “Thou shalt sprinkle me, O Lord, with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed; Thou shalt wash me, and I will become whiter than snow.” Many Catholics keep Holy Water readily available in their homes and cars, knowing that, united with the prayers and blessings of the whole Church, the use of this sacramental calls upon God to provide the graces necessary for the moment.

The Agnus Dei

One of the oldest of the Church’s sacramentals used in private devotion is the Agnus Dei — the “Lamb of God.” Though its origin is shrouded in the mist of antiquity, the Agnus Dei sacramental is mentioned in historical Church accounts as early as the sixth century and mentioned frequently by the early-to-middle ninth century. Thus, for at least fifteen centuries, the Agnus Dei has been a popular and treasured sacramental of Catholics, especially those living in Europe where it was most readily available. Yet, regrettably, few Catholics living today have ever even heard of the Agnus Dei.

The name was given to special wax disks of various sizes (which, based on the pictures we have seen, appear to be as small as 8 inches in diameter, and as large as perhaps 16 inches in diameter). The disks were impressed with the coat of arms of the pope who “consecrated” them and the figure of a lamb, the “Lamb of God” (a reference to the words of St. John the Baptist in Jn. 1:29, 36). This consecration was traditionally accomplished during the first year of a pope’s pontificate, and in every seventh year in which he remained in office.

In earlier times, during Holy Week (most sources indicate this occurred on Holy Saturday), the Pope, with the assistance of the Archdeacon of Rome, prepared the wax from the previous year’s paschal candles, adding both chrism and balsam to the wax and forming the wax into disks. The Agnus Deis were subsequently consecrated on the Wednesday of Easter week and distributed to the Cardinals on Saturday of the same week. In more recent times, the wax was prepared by monks, then consecrated by the pope and distributed. When Cardinals would visit the Holy Father on Easter Saturday, an Agnus Dei wax disk (or, perhaps more than one, depending on circumstances) would be placed into his miter. The Cardinals then distributed the Agnus Deis as they saw fit. It was the custom that the cardinals would then have some pious souls in their charge, generally cloistered nuns to whom they may have been favorable, to process the Agnus Deis further.

It was the practice of the sisters to prepare favorite prayers or passages from the Bible on small pieces of paper. They would then take a small bit of wax from the large disk and enclose it in the paper, praying the prayer (or reading the Scripture passage), offering this, and the effort of doing this work, for the individual who would ultimately possess that particular Angus Dei. The paper would then be tied with a string and placed into a small cloth pouch, which was sewn up and hand-decorated according to the talents of the sister preparing the sacramental. Each Agnus Dei became both a work of art and a labor of love. Because of the Papal blessing, it was also a powerful intercessory weapon against the powers of evil in the world.

In order to provide a comprehensive look into the meaning and importance of the Agnus Dei, we cite the Catholic Encyclopedia 5 as it describes its “Symbolism and Use”:

“As in the paschal candle, the wax typifies the virgin flesh of Christ, the cross associated with the lamb suggests the idea of a victim offered in sacrifice, and as the blood of the paschal lamb of old protected each household from the destroying angel, so the purpose of these consecrated medallions is to protect those who wear or possess them from all malignant influences. In the prayers of blessing, special mention is made of the perils from storm and pestilence, from fire and flood, and also of the dangers to which women are exposed in childbirth. Miraculous effects have been believed to follow the use of these objects of piety. Fires are said to have been extinguished, and floods stayed.”

In his wonderful article entitled “The Forgotten Sacramental,” Charles Hugo Doyle provides a summary of the special virtues of the Agnus Dei. Citing Popes Urban V, Paul II, Julius III, Sixtus V, and Benedict XIV, Doyle enumerates the following benefits:

  • They foster piety, banish tepidity, preserve from vice and dispose to virtue.
  • They cancel venial sins and purify the soul from the stain left by grievous sin after it has been remitted in the Sacrament of Penance.
  • They banish evil spirits, deliver from temptation and preserve from eternal ruin.
  • They are a protection from a sudden and unprovided death.
  • They dispel fears occasioned by evil spirits.
  • They are a protection in combat, and have power to ensure victory.
  • They deliver from poison and from the snares of the wicked.
  • They are excellent preventatives against sickness and are also an efficacious remedy — especially in cases of epilepsy.
  • They hinder the ravages of pestilence, of epidemics and infectious diseases.
  • They quiet the winds, dissipate hurricanes, calm whirlwinds, and keep away tempests.
  • They save from shipwreck and the danger of lightning and floods.

In reference to the last named benefit, Doyle recalls an episode in the life of Pope St. Pius V. When the Tiber was flooding and seemed likely to submerge the city of Rome, an Agnus Dei was thrown into the river. At once, the angry waters subsided.

Needless to say, due to the limited quantity of the Agnus Deis available, those which could be obtained were cherished by the faithful and gratefully passed down from generation to generation.

The End of an Ancient Tradition

Elected to the Chair of Peter in the latter half of 1963, Pope Paul VI is said to have consecrated Agnus Deis in the traditional manner during the Easter season of 1964. According to the ancient tradition, Pope Paul VI would have again consecrated the Agnus Deis during the Easter season of 1971. Inexplicably, he did not. Nor did he ever again consecrate the Agnus Deis.

Being Sovereign Pontiff for only 33 days, Pope John Paul I was unable to renew the custom during his pontificate.

There is no indication that Pope John Paul II, closing in on his 24th year as Pope, has ever undertaken to reestablish the tradition. As is the case with so many of traditional Catholic practices subsequent to the Second Vatican Council, the Agnus Dei was abandoned, probably “in the spirit of the Council” — just at a time when God’s graces were most needed.

To the best of our knowledge, no official reason has ever been given by Rome as to why the ancient and revered traditional practice was abandoned. We wrote to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments — and have encouraged others to do the same — but, to the best of our knowledge, no one has yet received a response.

Recourse to the Grace of Heaven

From the earliest days of the Church, sacramentals also “helped to distinguish the members of the Church from heretics, who had done away with them or used them arbitrarily or with little intelligence.”* Could the same be said in our own day?

Sacramentals are indeed a great gift — truly a treasure — given to the faithful by the Church. Sadly, the Agnus Dei, a cherished and ancient sacramental of inestimable value, has slipped into the fog of the current process of secularization seizing so many within the Church. Because it was rare to begin with, it slipped away with few noticing, and with no one in any position of authority willing to protest its abandonment.

Let that be a warning to us all! We must not fail to be alert in the defense of the Faith — the whole Faith. We must continue to have recourse to the abundant graces granted through such powerful sacramentals as the Holy Rosary, the Scapular of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, the Miraculous Medal, and so many others that have found favor with God. In these dawning years of the 21st century, in days of increasing compromise and capitulation that come from embracing the world, we must protect our authentic Catholic patrimony. A significant and invaluable part of that patrimony is found in Catholic sacramentals.

1 Garment of Grace, p. 24. Imprimatur, Most Rev. Timothy J. Harrington, Bishop of Worcester, 1990. Buffalo, N.Y., The Immaculate Heart Publications, n.d.

2 Ed. 1913, Vol. XIII, pp. 292-93.

3 The Catholic Guide: Imprimatur; John Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of New York: Murphy & McCarthy, New York, 1920.

4 The Catholic Encyclopedia, loc. cit.

5 Ed. 1913, Vol. XIII, pp. 292-93.