The Use of Sacramentals in the Catholic Church

Essay, 2017

13 Pages



What are sacramentals?

The difference between sacramentals and sacraments

Biblical references to sacramentals

Who can establish sacramentals?

Types of sacramentals

The ministers of sacramentals in the catholic church

Can lay people be ministers of the sacramentals?

Consecration of persons

Dedication of places things




What are sacramentals?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines Sacramentals as “sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church. By them, men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy.”[1]

There are three classes of sacramentals, which are blessings, consecrations[2] and exorcism in the strict sense. The code of canon law assigns four general canons to sacramentals and they refer to some paragraphs of the document Sacrosanctum Concilium.[3] The document specifies their nature and purpose; their relationship with the Paschal mystery; their pastoral value; and the need to reform them as well as the criteria to carry out such reforms.

The sacramentals are certain blessed items that are spiritually beneficial to the faithful for example Holy Water, Medal, Rosary, Scapular, Blessed Salt, Crucifixes, Candles, Blessings, etc.

According to Sacrosanctum Concilium, the sacramentals are sacred signs which have a sacrament-like structures. They have been created by the Church to produce spiritual and material fruits; and their efficacy originates from the intercession of the Church.

The difference between sacramentals and sacraments

The code of canon law links sacramentals to sacraments (there are seven sacraments in the catholic church which are baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, matrimony and holy orders) and thus defines the sacramentals that they like sacraments, are sacred signs, and they produce supernatural effects, even though their efficacy is not ex opera operato but ex opera operantis Ecclesiae. This means that sacramentals are both sanctifying and worshipping actions and there is a relation between sacramentals and sacraments, especially with the Eucharist. As far as sacraments are concerned when they are established and administered validly, they produce their effects, principally the sacramental grace, ex opera operato, that is, without the influence of the moral dispositions of a minister or even of the receiving subject.

In respect of the sacramentals we can differentiate between ex opera operantis Ecclesiae and ex opere operantis. The ex opera operantis effects by the minister or subject refer to the fact that God grants His gifts in such quantity or quality as is determined by virtue of the merit and dispositions concurring in the person who administers.

Critically examining the sacraments and sacramentals we can make some difference between the two. Sacraments are of divine institution, while sacramentals are of ecclesiastical institution. In the sacraments Christ himself brings efficacy into operation, the intervention is immediate. In sacramentals, this intervention takes place through the Church, specifically through the hierarchy though in some cases lay administration is permitted.

The effects obtained by ex opera operantis Ecclesiae include the very intercessory prayers of the Church in all sacramental matters and the acceptance by God of the objects and persons that receive constitutive consecration or blessing, as being reserved to its exclusive use.

Canon 1166 states that “Sacramentals are sacred signs by which, somewhat after the fashion of the sacraments, effects, especially spiritual ones, are signified and are obtained through the intercession of the Church”.[4]

1917 Code of canon law defines sacramentals, as “things and actions”. However, the 1983 Code of canon law indicates that, sacramentals are “sacred signs”, and thus making a reference proper to the ontological nature and, thereby making the definition of sacramentals seemingly supersede the previous one.

It is noteworthy to mention Peter Lombardo who in the 12th century applied the scholastic concept of efficient cause to that of sensible sign, and thereby completed the definititon handed down by St. Augustine. Efficient cause in scholastic philosophy means “direct cause of change” : “ something that acts directly to initiate or produce changes in something else.” Thus, sacraments were sensible, effective signs of grace that he managed to distinguish from the sacramentals, which were sometimes referred to as minor sacraments.

We can also mention the resemblance borne by sacramentals with regards to sacraments as indicated in the canon by the use of the term of “imitation”: “sacramentals are sacred signs… in a certain way, an imitation of sacraments.”[5]

According to St. Thomas Aquinas they are sensible signs, often with form and matter[6] and they are public means of sanctification. They are intended to produce “mainly spiritual” effects in the faithful and their administration belongs to the public worship of the Church.[7] Finally, the important thing to note is that their efficacy flows from the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ.

Sacrosanctum Concilium 26 states that “The intercession of the Church” imparts a markedly public character to sacramentals and it is a social, community, ecclesial, hierarchical, and accordingly a liturgical path. Such social and hierarchical character is represented by the mediation of the Church, all of it penetrated by God’s mercy and love.

Biblical references to sacramentals

i) 2 Kings 5:10

Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”[8]

ii) 2 Kings 13:20-21

Elisha died and was buried. Now Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring. Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.[9]

iii) Numbers 5:17

17 Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water.[10]

iv) Ezekiel 9:4-6

And the Lord said unto him, Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof.

And to the others he said in mine hearing, Go ye after him through the city, and smite: let not your eye spare, neither have ye pity: Slay utterly old and young, both maids, and little children, and women: but come not near any man upon whom is the mark; and begin at my sanctuary. Then they began at the ancient men which were before the house.[11]

v) Ezekiel 43:23-24

When you have finished purifying it, you are to offer a young bull and a ram from the flock, both without defect. You are to offer them before the Lord, and the priests are to sprinkle salt on them and sacrifice them as a burnt offering to the Lord.[12]

vi) John 9:6-12

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. 7 “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” Some claimed that he was.

Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”

But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”

“How then were your eyes opened?” they asked.

He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

“Where is this man?” they asked him.

“I don’t know,” he said.[13]

vii) Luke 8:44-46

She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped.

“Who touched me?” Jesus asked.

When they all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.”

But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.”[14]

viii) Acts 19:11-12

And God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul:

So that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them.[15]

Who can establish sacramentals?

According to 1983 code of canon law only the Apostolic See can establish new sacramentals, or authentically interpret, suppress or change existing ones and the rites and formulae approved by ecclesiastical authority are to accurately observed when celebrating or administering sacramentals.[16] In Sacrosanctum Concilium 22, bishops and bishop’s conferences may also have competence regarding diverse celebrational or other aspects of sacramentals.

Vatican has already indicated areas that fall within the competence of the bishops’ conferences or of the diocesan bishops. Thus, the Sacrosanctum Concilium actually indicated that it is incumbent upon the bishops’ conferences to carry out the task of adapting the liturgical books with respect to the administration of sacraments and sacramentals.[17]

The code echoes the conciliar teachings, and underscores the power of the diocesan bishop to set mandatory standards in liturgical matters, within his diocese and on those things entrusted to him.[18]

The competence of the Apostolic See with respect to the ability to establish new sacramentals or suppress existing ones shows their ecclesiastical institution, and consequently indicates that their number can be varied and new sacramentals can also be added as required.[19]

Types of sacramentals

There were transient sacramentals, which are the ceremonies underlying the entire objective entity of sacramentals; and in the opposing case, there were permanent sacramentals, such as rosary and holy water. The transient sacramentals corresponded to sensitive actions, while the permanent sacramentals were things. However, it was also stated that there were actions like blessing that were transient by nature, but produced a permanent effect.


[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1667.

[2] Canons 1196ʂ1; 1171.

[3] Sacrosanctum concilium 60,61,62,63,79.

[4] Canon 1144; Sacrosanctum concilium 60.

[5] Canon 1166

[6] St. Thomas Aquinas’ traditional doctrine – the “act of administering” is the form and the “sensible thing” (matter).

[7] Sacrosanctum concilium 26.

[8] New International Version (NIV)

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] King James Version (KJV)

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] King James Version (KJV)

[16] Canons 1167§§ 1, 2; 10, 331, 838 § 4, 1166-1169.

[17] Sacrosanctum concilium 39.

[18] Sacrosanctum concilium 41-46; Canon 838 § 4.

[19] Sacrosanctum concilium 79.

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The Use of Sacramentals in the Catholic Church
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Ignatius Ayivor (Author), 2017, The Use of Sacramentals in the Catholic Church, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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