Circular Letter: Summer 1994

Sacramentals: Means of Grace and Help

Sacramentals,… what are they? and what is their place and role in the life of the faithful?

Practically, they are like ‘little sacraments,’ signs and means of grace blessed and offered by the Church to the faithful. The very name, sacramentals, relates them somehow to the sacraments. In this reflection we wish to situate their place and purpose in the spiritual life. First, we need to juxtapose them to the sacraments in order to distinguish and identify their nature. Grace and truth come through Jesus Christ, Who as man is the one mediator of all grace between God and man. There is no other name under heaven given to men by which they may be sanctified. In His Incarnation, as the WORD made visible in the Flesh, Christ is  the  sacrament of salvation. To communicate His salvific and sanctifying presence and to perpetuate it through time in His Mystical Body, Christ instituted the seven Sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Penance, Matrimony, Holy Orders and the Anointing of the Sick) which by the divine power efficaciously sanctify those who receive them with the proper disposition. The sacraments, though, do not exhaust the mediation of Christ’s grace in the Church. We meet His grace and light in Holy Scripture, in the Holy Liturgy, in the ministry of the Angels and the intercession of the Saints. We draw from the wells of His grace in all our prayers. The Church is the treasury of all these graces; indeed, she herself is like a sacramental presence of Christ in and to the world.

Holy Mother the Church has also instituted sacramentals, holy signs and gestures, which through the intercessory power of her prayer and the power of the priesthood (whether hierarchical or common) also contribute to the sanctification and welfare of the faithful.(cf. Cath. Catechism. On Sacramentals #1667-1679). Many of the Church’s sacramentals have their origin directly in Sacred Scripture: Christ blessed the little children; the hemorrhaging woman was healed by merely touching the tip of His mantle with faith; the Apostles anointed the sick unto healing (this is commonly understood to have been before the institution of the sacraments); Christ drove out evil spirits, and gave this power of exorcism to His Apostles on their first mission; Christ wrought our Redemption upon the wood of the Cross. St. Luke recounts other events in the Acts of the Apostles which similarly recommend the institution of sacramentals: the very shadow of St. Peter worked the healing of the sick (Acts 5,15); handkerchiefs and aprons touched by St. Paul were carried to the sick and the diseases left them and evil spirits departed (Acts 19,12). Elsewhere faith is presented as a shield (Eph 6,16) and the walls of the heavenly City as a protection against evil and uncleanness (Apoc. 21,27). Already in the OT the entire tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry were purified and sanctified with the blood of victims. Indeed, nearly everything was cleansed with blood according to the law (cf. Heb 9,21-22). How much greater a power of blessing must we attribute to the Blood of Christ, the true Lamb!

Theologically the matter stands like this: if believing contact with Christ is salvific, and if believing contact with His Sacraments is salvific, then so too may our contact through prayers, gestures and objects blessed in His Name and in the power of His Cross be salutary for us, the faithful. If the Gospels depict before our eyes the Life, Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ (cf. Gal 3,1), then artistic objects presenting these same mysteries and blessed in Christ’s name may also contribute to our spiritual edification, sanctification and protection.

Evidently, all human contact and communication is ‘sacramental,’ in this sense: all our communication is through signs which convey our thoughts and affections. And what is true of our natural converse, remains true for our life of faith, particularly since God has communicated with us in this fashion in Christ.

The sacramentals “communicate the grace of the Holy Spirit, though not in the same way as the sacraments” (Catechism. #1670). The efficacy of sacramentals derives from the sanctifying power of the Church and her prayer, and is furthermore contingent upon the proper disposition on the part of the faithful. Practically every realm of Christian life is sanctified by divine grace of Redemption through sacramentals. His Incarnation and Redemption, moreover, were beneficial not only to mankind, but to the physical universe as well (Catechism # 1670; cf. Vat.II. SC 61) which, groaning, awaits the revelation of the glory of the sons of God. Hence, all things of nature and social intercourse can be blessed and sanctified for the good of the faithful.

It is not surprising that the Church has developed a wide variety of sacramentals. Principal among these are the blessings of persons, objects, places or meals. Every blessing is an act of divine praise — whence, we say, ‘bless the Lord’ — and a petition for His gifts (Catechism #1671). These blessings may be permanent, as is the case in consecrations of churches, liturgical vessels, and persons, as in the consecration of an Abbot or an Abbess, or a Virgin, or other personal consecrations to Christ or His Mother. The minor orders of Lectorate and Acolyte as well as religious vows fall into this category.

In other cases, the eviction of evil stands in the foreground; here the Church provides a number of sacramental exorcisms. While some of these are reserved, other prayers and blessed objects are placed at the disposition of the faithful. New Testament authors present Christian life also under the form of a spiritual battle in which the faithful, after the likeness of Christ, are tempted and bitterly opposed by the spiritual powers of darkness. The devil roams about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour (1 Pt 5, 8). Satan vehemently set upon Job, receiving first the permission from God to destroy his possessions and family, and then finally to lay his hand upon Job’s flesh (Job 1,13-19; 2,8). St. Paul tells us that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the evil spirits (Eph 6,12). He was himself harassed by a demonic thorn in the flesh against which he cried out in prayer for deliverance. The Lord responded that His grace was sufficient for him (2 Cor 12,7-9), but indeed, a grace received through prayer. And finally, to our own woe, we read that the dragon and his angels were cast down upon the earth, where they make war on the Woman’s children, that is, against all who obey God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus (Apoc 12,13.17).

Unfortunately in these days, while charity and faith grow colder, satanic evil proportionately proliferates on all sides. The faithful witness and suffer the manifold effects of the evil one in the form of intensified temptations, obsessions, curses and maledictions which oppress body and soul, health (death) and property. Job not only lost his possessions, but his family as well. St. Anthony Mary Claret writes: “I could quote many more examples of the effects of maledictions which I myself have seen happen or which I have heard about. It is interesting to note that the curses have been fulfilled to the letter, in the exact way, and at the exact time willed by those who have called down the maledictions. I have seen it happen in all states of live, but more so between mothers and sons, fathers and sons, husbands and wives, between masters and servants, and also between lovers who have deceived their beloved and broken their promises” (Autobiography. Part IV, ch.13; Tan, p.207).

In such straits it is fitting that the faithful avail themselves of the many sacramental helps offered by the Church in order to defend themselves and their loved ones against the spiritual powers that threaten. This presupposes a certain knowledge of the means at our disposition, and a sober sense of proportion in their application. Many innocently think that the Leonine Exorcism is the all-purpose weapon for the job. To be sure, its use is strictly reserved by the Church. Contrary to popular opinion the Church has never allowed the laity to say this prayer. When it was first introduced into the Rituale Romano in 1925 it was strictly reserved to Bishops and to priests duly delegated by their bishops. This prohibition was repeated by Cardinal Seper of the Congregation of the Faith on Nov. 18,1981 and more recently by his successor, Cardinal Ratzinger. Hence, not even every priest may use the Leonine Exorcism. Indiscriminate use had led to superstition. Moreover, it is a weapon whose use demands wisdom, holiness and humility. This restriction does not mean, of course, that the faithful are defenseless against the powers of darkness. The Faith, the Church, provides us with many prayers and sacramentals. Here in a practical development, we wish to discuss a number of these means of grace and protection:

First of all, the faith itself is a shield of defense capable of extinguishing all the fiery darts of the enemy (cf. Eph 6,16). The frequent renewal of our Baptismal Vows and the recitation of the Creed could greatly strengthen the light of faith within us against the surrounding darkness. Too little heed is given to sins of omission and human respect in situations where the moral obligation requires us to stand up and profess the faith. Such faults dangerously undermine the foundations of faith and consequently expose the soul to the attack of the enemy. Unfortunately, these sins often go unconfessed. A better knowledge of the faith would also be a healthy tonic. How fitting it would be to get the New Catholic Catechism and systematically deepen our knowledge of the truths of salvation. This is a strong protection against the ‘father of lies.’

The submission of our intellect and faith to God in the Covenant of Faith not only makes us His children and servants but also frees us and protects us against the servitude to the devil. Ultimately, this is the reason why epochs weak in faith are marked by growth in spiritualism and satanism. When Adam and Eve broke their covenant of Faith they fell under the yoke of the devil.

This lesson is graphically portrayed in the Book of Tobit, where St. Raphael instructs Tobias to burn the heart and the liver of the fish upon the incense coal so as to drive out the evil spirit which had been obsessing Sarah and which had already slain seven prior husbands. The heart and liver, in near-eastern symbolism, represent the intellect and the will. To place them on an incense coal along with prayer, therefore, signified the holocaust of one’s intellect and will to God in the Covenant of faith. This alone was a protection from the evil spirit, but what is more, it allowed St. Raphael to definitively drive off and bind the evil spirit. That is to say, the angelic ministry is, in part, linked to the voluntary collaboration and petition of souls. Lack of faith and collaboration on man’s part hinders the holy Angels in the execution of their salvific ministry. God has conditioned a great part of it upon the free will and petition of man. Given the physical nature of man, Raphael chose to offer Tobias a physical, tangible means to express his bond with God and so cooperate with the angelic ministry. St. Thomas maintained that the principal helps against temptation are prayer and the ministry of the holy Angels (Sermon on the “Our Father”).

From this particular instance, we may draw a much wider conclusion: the holy Angels have some important ministry in relation to the sacramentals of the Church. This mission is overtly expressed in the older blessings of the baptismal font, the ashes for Ash Wednesday, of homes, schools, of automobiles, etc. What is expressed in a few instances, is implicit in many others, namely, that God communicates His blessing through the Angels, as we read in the book of Tobit: “The prayers of both were heard in the sight of the glory of the most high God. And the holy Angel of the Lord, Raphael, was sent to heal them both” (3,24). Later, St. Raphael affirmed: “It was I who offered your prayer to the Lord” (12,12). Now since sacramentals are constituted by prayers, and since the Angels offer our prayers and bring the divine response (cf. Apoc. 5,8), it categorically follows that they have a ministry with respect to all the sacramentals. And this conclusion is even more certain from the fact that the Church implores GOD to command His Angel to take the Eucharistic sacrifice itself to the heavenly altar so that we be blessed with every heavenly grace and blessing (Rom. Can.). If this is true of the Sacrifice of the Mass, it must also obtain for the sacramentals.

With respect to the communication of faith, we may mention the Green Scapular, which, by the blessing prayer of the Church and the faith of those who use it, becomes a sacramental means of actual grace to help non-believers accept the Faith.

Secondly, prayers of contrition and other prayers associated with the Sacrament of Penance. Indeed, we need to insist on the frequent use of this great sacrament. Many times people come seeking a blessing for themselves, their car or their home; yet, not infrequently their life is not in order with God. What good does it do to wash the outside of the cup, and fail to cleanse the inside of our heart with the frequent use of the Sacrament of Penance, which in the power of Christ’s Blood, destroys all the works of the devil within us and strengthens us greatly for the spiritual battle? This Sacrament transfers souls from the kingdom of darkness back into the Kingdom of Light. In addition to forgiveness, it produces three extremely important effects in the soul: 1) it enlightens us so that we know ourselves, the nature of our weaknesses and temptations better; 2) it strengthens us in resisting evil and practicing good; and 3) it heals the wounds of sin in the soul, in the measure of Christ’s donation.

Third: the priestly blessing, which is anchored, first of all, in the Hypostatic Union, in virtue of which Christ is our High Priest, and, secondly, in the power of the Church. The greater the reverence and the esteem for the priestly blessing, the greater will be its efficacy, since this also depends upon the disposition of the recipient. Similarly, it is also true: the greater the sanctity of the priest, the greater the blessing communicated. Among these blessings, special mention should be made of the blessings for the sick, and for expectant mothers for a safe delivery and a healthy child. In addition to personal blessings, the faithful ought to request the blessing of their homes and automobiles. The traditional rite for these not only called down a blessing, but also besought angelic patrons to watch over, guard and protect the family and their home (automobile). For the different professions there are very appropriate and powerful blessings: for crops and fields, for livestock, for airplanes, for office equipment, etc.

Fourth, prayer and fasting. Recall our Lord explaining that some evil spirits can only be cast out by prayer and fasting. It was in the power of prayer that St. Paul resisted and overcame the demonic thorn in the flesh. St. Maximus the Confessor writes: “Grievous is the demon of fornication and he presses heavily upon those who struggle with this passion, especially if one neglects to practice moderation in food,… The demons grow feeble when our passions diminish through the keeping of the commandments; they perish [that is, they become powerless] when the soul becomes passionless.” (Philokalia, 20-22; Faber. p. 302). The passionless soul is free of all desire and attachment to anything in this world. Moreover, by fasting the soul humbles itself before God, removing the greatest impediment to grace and making itself worthy of divine help and protection.

Fifth, the Church provides the faithful with what we may call ‘deprecatory exorcisms.‘ These prayers, in contradistinction to the ordinary exorcisms which directly adjure the devil to begone, are addressed to God, to the Blessed Mother, to the Angels and Saints asking them to “deliver us from the evil one.” The St. Michael’s Prayer is a classic example. (The Holy Father, in one of his recent addresses, encouraged the faithful to recite this prayer frequently.) The “Our Father” also formally includes this intention: “deliver us from evil” (cf. Catech. of Cath. Church, #2851-2854).

Sixth, those prayers which form a spiritual shield around the soul in virtue of the mystery and sentiments expressed. Here we may especially mention the Last Gospel (John 1,1-14), formerly said at the end of mass for its exorcistic power, celebrating as it does the mystery of the Incarnation, against which the devil first rebelled. The more a prayer expresses our adherence to the Mysteries of Salvation or expresses praise for the Trinity and the Incarnate Word, the more we are assimilated to these mysteries and accordingly are protected by them. The same holds true for special Marian prayers, for she, the Immaculata, was completely victorious over the enemy and crushed his head. Hence, the Creed, the Sanctus, the Divine Praises, the Magnificat, the Litanies of our Lord and His Blessed Mother, are powerful helps of this kind. Let us also not forget St. Joseph, the terror of demons and protector of the Church and the Angels and Saints. In these matters, the faithful must learn from experience, since not every spiritual malady responds equally to the same ‘remedy’ or mystery of the faith.

Seventh come the exorcised sacramental objects such as: holy water, blessed salt, blessed oil, etc. All of these here mentioned, at least according to the traditional rite of the Church, were themselves exorcised and imbued by the blessing with special power for the extirpation of evil.

There is a proper fittingness for this spiritual power over evil spirits. Theologians commonly hold that the trial of the Angels at the beginning of creation was about the Mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God: Would the Angels serve the God-Man, Jesus Christ, and His Blessed Mother in the economy of salvation? The devil, seeing human nature thus elevated above himself in the Divine Plan, rose up in rebellion, declaring: “I am I! I will not serve!” (cf. Jer 2,20; Is 14; Ez 28). With his tail [his power of influence and persuasion], he swept down a third of the stars, that is, angels, down to the earth. (Apoc 12,9). St. Michael, inspired by a singular grace of God, animated the faithful Angels with his exclamation: “Who is like God? I will serve.” The correctness of this interpretation is demonstrated there in the Apocalypse where, under the Sign of the Woman with Child and clothed with the Sun, St. Michael and his Angels drove out the dragon and his angels, such that their place was found “no more in heaven.” “No more,” of course, can happen only once. Therefore the trial of the angels at the beginning of time took place under the Sign of the Woman. Now, it is fitting that those spirits who refused to serve the Word made Flesh be now made subject to sacramentals blessed in the power of the Incarnation and Cross of Jesus. Similarly, the blessed Angels avail themselves of the sacramentals to come to the aid of the faithful.

Eighth: blessed images, especially the crucifix, the sign on which Christ destroyed the works of the devil and relics. Every home and place of work ought to have a crucifix or at least a blessed image. The home in which I grew up had a crucifix in every room of the house. Even more than blessed images, the relics of the saints are a powerful means of grace. The Saints in heaven not only pray for us, imploring Divine grace for us, but their merits and holiness are present before God, in such wise that God reciprocates by granting grace through them. St. Thomas observed that it is fitting that God fulfill the wishes of His Saints, since they spent their lives fulfilling His will. While we may not always have access to holy relics, we always have direct access to the Saints and Angels through prayer. The Church assigns various patronages to their care, and we should confidently call upon them for these special graces; they are closer to God than we are. The Curé of Ars, for example, attributed all his miracles to the intercession of St. Philomena.

Ninth: special protective sacramentals, the most powerful of which are the Miraculous Medal of the Immaculate Conception and the medal of St. Benedict. Each celebrates respectively the singular triumph of Mary and St. Benedict over the enemy and communicates this spiritual strength to the faithful. When carried with faith and devotion they offer great protection. Since, as the Catechism affirms, the efficacy of sacramentals depends upon the prayer of the Church, it is to be hoped that priests avail themselves of the complete formula, although it is true that the Church grants priests the power to bless objects even without a formula. We might add, furthermore, that the Miraculous Medal has a rite of enrollment analogous to that of the Brown Scapular.

The devout and pious usage of these means of spiritual combat and protection will not only help defend us, but foster a greater growth in faith, hope and love for God, Who is our ultimate refuge in life and in death. The sacramentals, then, are means, while the goal is the glory of God and the sanctification of the soul. Nothing therefore is more important than living in the state of grace. And if we keep this simple truth in mind, we shall have the wisdom to make a discreet and prudent use of the sacramentals.

Fr. William Wagner, ORC


Daily Ejaculatory Prayers of St. Anthony Mary Claret

Who is like God?
Who is like Jesus Christ?
Who is like Mary Immaculate, Most Holy Virgin and Mother of God?
Who are like the Angels of Heaven?
Who are like the Saints in glory?
Who are like the just on earth?
Long live Jesus! Long live Mary Most Holy!
Long live the commandments of God!
Long live the holy evangelical counsels!
Long live the the holy sacraments of the Church!
Long live the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass!
Long live the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar!
Long live the Most Holy Rosary of the Mother of God!
Long live the grace of God!
Long live Christian virtues!
Long live the Works of Mercy!
Away with vice, guilt and sin!

The texts of the Circular Letters are copyrighted and may not be reproduced without written permission.

©2021 Opus Sanctorum Angelorum Inc.