There is this sensitive misconception among Catholics that Sacramentals comprise medals alone, but this is very far from the truth. Generally considered, Sacramentals are sacred signs which signify effects of a spiritual nature, gained through the intercession of the Church. They have some similarity to the sacraments, and are sometimes called “small sacraments”. Through them, people are disposed to receive the principal effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy [cf. SacrosanctumConcilium, 60].
Specifically, Sacramentals are sacred rites, pious objects, and religious actions and prayers which the Church, in imitation of the sacraments, appropriates to inspire good thoughts and increase devotion in order to obtain spiritual favours through her prayers.
The purpose of the Sacramentals is to sanctify certain ministries of the Church, certain states of life, varied circumstances of the Christian life, and the use of many things helpful to humans (cf.CCC 1668). They teach and enable us to direct every material good and every human situation properly towards the praise of God. For in all things, we should give thanks to God and rejoice always in the Lord (cf. Col 3:17, Eph 5:19-20; 1 Cor 10:31).
Against this backdrop, let us briefly discuss the various forms of SACRAMENTALS:
SACRED RITES: Some Sacramentals are religious ceremonies; for instance, the ceremonies built around the sacraments or other ceremonies that sanctify or give praise to God for the circumstances of life. Churching of women is example. (That is uka nwa in Igbo).
HOLY OBJECTS: Since objects are set apart or blessed by the Church and used as sacramentals. Such objects include rosaries, scapulars, medals, liturgical vessels, statutes, crucifixes, religious habits, church buildings, and so on.
RELIGIOUS ACTIONS: These are sacred signs in worship like sign of the cross, bowing of the head, genuflection, prostration, folding of the hand, washing of the feet, etc.
PRAYER: Certain prayers are sacramentals. Prayers take different forms. Mainly, we have exorcism and blessings. “When the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the evil one and withdrawn from his dominion, it is called exorcism”. There are simple forms of exorcism like the one performed during baptism. The solemn exorcism (also called major exorcism) is rare and can be performed only by a priest appointed by the bishop to do so.
Besides exorcism, there are prayers of blessings directed towards praising God and asking for his favours upon persons, places or objects. Among sacramentals, blessings have pride of place.
Indeed, every sacramental is also a plea for God’s blessing, and every blessing praises God and asks for his favours. A sacramental is the Church’s plea for a share in God’s life. It is a Christian plea for God’s influence in human life. It always involves a prayer, often accompanied by an explicit sign, such as the laying on of hands, the sign of the cross, or the sprinkling of holy water. The individual who uses sacramentals submits to God’s sovereign and loving authority. Now when we talk of blessing, what are we actually and concretely referring to? Basically, blessings belong to the essential aspect of sacramentals. These blessings are also identified under different liturgical contexts, as consecrations, dedications and benedictions.
CONSECRATION/DEDICATION: Certain blessings have an enduring significance because they consecrate persons to God or set apart objects and places for divine worship. Such blessings with lasting significance are usually designated as consecrations or dedications. Thus, consecration or dedication is a ritual withdrawal of persons, things or places from purely secular purposes; and their solemn commitment to God alone. The persons that are thus consecrated are abbots or abbesses of monasteries, brothers or sisters in religious life, minor ministers in the church like readers, acolytes and so on. Places and things that are dedicated are churches, cemeteries, alters, oils, vessels and vestments, bells and so on
BENEDICTIONS: A Benediction is the imploration of divine favour on the person, things or places being blessed. Various persons, including the sick, children, the old, expectant mothers, field, houses, automobiles and medals could be blessed in this way
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SACRAMENTS AND SACRAMENTALS
The difference between the sacrament and the sacramental lies, first in the fact that the sacraments are of divine origin while the sacramentals are instituted by the Church. Second in the fact that the sacraments achieve their effects ex opere operato, through the saving power of Christ present in the Sacraments, (confirm from tecsthought.com vol.1 no.24), while sacramentals achieve their effects ex opera operantis ecclesiae, that is through the intercession of the Church. For the sacraments to cause grace, it requires that the rites be properly celebrated. Sacramentals cause grace primarily through the faith and devotion of those who are using, receiving and celebrating them. It is the devotion, love of God or sorrow for sin that they inspire, in conjuction with the prayers of the Church that render sacraments efficacious.
ABUSE OF SACRAMENTALS
Far more significantly, Sacramentals have been at different times in history subjected to several abuses. Some of those abuses are noticeable in our time. It is not therefore, rare to find people who wear Sacramentals as charms or amulets, expecting some magical occurrence through the use of them. Some people have superstitious attachment to them. In the light of the abuses, it therefore becomes necessary to make further elucidation about them.
In the first place, as human being, we are embodied spirits and not pure spirits therefore, need material visual aids in our relationship with God and the spirit world. Signs and symbols are great significance in this respect.
On the other hand, as earlier mentioned, Sacramentals are sacred actions and objects which the Church employed in order that through her intercession, we may obtain for us spiritual temporal favour from God. They are sacred signs which produce effects of a spiritual nature and dispose us for the greater effect of the sacraments and/or for the attainment of grace. Hence we say; Sacramentals are not an end in themselves but channel or means of attaining grace and growing in holiness and strength of faith .both sacramental action and objects has motivational effects, and aids to spiritual effects that increase our sanctity. By way of a counter example, if we place before us a nude picture of a young woman or man (or simple a pornographic picture) and focus on it, the tendency is that we shall be having impure imagination that might produce sinful emotion in us. This becomes more the fact when somebody consciously and cherishingly adopts the practice of exposure to obscene pictures. Accordingly, holy things inspire us in the opposite direction.
CONCLUSION: I wish to express the clarification that, Sacramentals arouse holy thought in us, motivates us to spiritual disciplines and good actions and inspire devotions. They are expression of our love of God and commitment to accomplish his will. Moreso, Sacramentals are pleas to God’s blessings and protection. They work through the devotion they inspire, and the motivation with which they afford us to change our way of life from bad to good. Indications therefore emerge that the use of sacramentals is not a licence to Gods favour and protection. This is predicated on the fact that if we use sacramentals without commitment, they will remain ineffective. For instance, if you wear the scapula of our lady of Mount Carmel and lead a dissolute life, you will not only loose divine favour through it but will be guilty of desecration of a holy thing.
So the sacramentals are effective when we are responsive to the demands they make on us though they cause grace (not supernatural grace) they are not magical instruments and should not be wielded as such. God is the principal cause of grace, and grace remains a gratuitous gift of God. Sacramental have no intrinsic supernatural powers in themselves, and we should not use them as good luck charms or amulets. Amulets are worn to fill the wearer with the powers associated with the gods they originate from, and not for spiritual reasons. Each amulet is made to produce a specific effect and they are touted to have powers corresponding to their effects in them. Sacramentals operate on a different wavelength from amulets. It is an abuse to equip or rate them to charms or amulets. More emphatically, Sacramentals should not be employed as magic wands, it is an abuse to do so, and not a few are guilty of this abuse.