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Do We Appreciate the Church’s Greatest Sacramentals?

OnePeterFive is pleased to share the following homily from a priest of the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest. Canon Francis Altiere, ICRSS is rector of Old Saint Patrick Oratory in Kansas City, Missouri. This homily was first preached on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost in 2018; it has been slightly modified for publication.

Often when we think of the sacramentals, we think of blessed objects like the brown scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel or the Miraculous Medal given to St Catherine Labouré. There are good reasons for this, since Catholic piety has always had the healthy impulse of wanting to attach God’s blessing physically to the objects that surround our person. Today, however, I do not want to speak to you about blessed objects as such, but rather about liturgical blessings in general. In other words, I would like for us to think about those sacramentals that are more directly related to the public worship of God rather than those used for personal devotions.

There are two main sorts of sacramentals in this sense: the ceremonies that enhance the solemnity of the Mass and other sacraments, and the special blessings that the Church bestows in rhythm with the feasts and seasons of the liturgical year.

The reason this thought comes to mind is that we have an example of — or, at least, an allusion to — each of these two types of liturgical sacramentals in today’s Mass [for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost]. After Holy Communion, we will hear the following antiphon taken from the Book of Proverbs: “Honor the Lord with your wealth, with first fruits of all your produce. Then will your barns be filled with grain, with new wine your vats will overflow” (3:9–10). This puts us in mind of the solemn blessing of herbs and fresh produce once universal on the feast of the Assumption, and fortunately making a slow comeback. This Assumption blessing of herbs is an example of the blessings traditionally associated with certain feasts: you could think of other examples, like the blessing of wine for the feast of St. John the Evangelist (a very popular one!) or the bonfire blessing we had for the feast of St. John the Baptist, not to mention the liturgical blessings of candles on Candlemas, ashes on Ash Wednesday, and palms on Palm Sunday.

In the Gospel today, we find the story of Our Lord’s healing of the deaf mute by touching his ears and his mouth. Obviously, Our Lord could have performed the miracle directly without any intermediary, but he chose to act through an outward sign. If you have ever paid attention to the ancient ritual of baptism, you will have been struck by the fact that the Church has simply lifted this scene from Our Lord’s life and inserted it into the preliminary ceremonies of baptism. Human experience shows us that book knowledge is an important thing, but most of us learn more by watching something being done. And so, although catechism study and Bible reading will always be essential, we learn most about our faith through the sacred liturgy. Children learn to walk and talk and sing and cook and garden by watching their parents and trying to do what they do. So, like good children, we watch our Mother the Church as she does what she does. And what our Mother does, her main mission in life, is the sacred liturgy.

The point of the liturgy is that it has no point — not humanly speaking, anyway. There is no earthly usefulness. The point is to worship God; there is no mere functionalism in the liturgy. But even though the liturgy is about God and not about us, we do also learn from the liturgy. Indeed, the liturgy gives glory to God by instilling in us the reverence without which true religion is impossible. And this is why, for a Catholic, it is inconceivable that there could be Christianity without the liturgy. The meeting house or lecture hall of Protestantism can never replace the sacred action of the liturgy.

That is why today, I want to say a word to you about ceremonies. The Fathers of the Church spent so much of their effort explaining the meaning of the sacred mysteries to their neophytes that a special word was even coined to describe this divine science. It is called mystagogy, a Greek word that literally means “to lead into the mysteries.”

Why, then, do we have ceremonies? One advance of theology in the Middle Ages was the clear definition of the essential aspect of each sacrament: the words and the matter needed to make a valid sacrament. But in the reductionist minds of later men who were not saints, this approach could lead to a sort of minimalism. We only care about making sure a sacrament “works.” Why have a two-hour solemn Mass when you can get in and out of Low Mass in 35 minutes to fulfill your obligation? Why would a priest, tired after a busy Sunday, return to church in the afternoon to sing Vespers when he could flip quickly through his breviary in an armchair — and why would the faithful attend Vespers when they are not even obliged to recite it at all?

This minimalist approach to the liturgy was already far too common before Vatican II, and it is no surprise that what is not loved is easily lost. The disorienting liturgical reform of the 1960s was the fruit of a tree that was already unhealthy. We return, then, to our question. Why has the Church decided to adorn the sacraments with ceremonies that add nothing to their bare validity? The holy Council of Trent teaches:

Whereas such is the nature of man, that, without external helps, he cannot easily be raised to the meditation of divine things; therefore has holy Mother Church instituted certain rites … whereby both the majesty of so great a sacrifice might be recommended, and the minds of the faithful be excited, by those visible signs of religion and piety, to the contemplation of those most sublime things which are hidden in this sacrifice. (Session XXII, chapter 5)

Or, as St. Thomas puts it: “The human institutions observed in the sacraments are not essential to the sacrament; but belong to the solemnity which is added to the sacraments in order to arouse devotion and reverence in the recipients” (Summa theologiæ III, q. 64, art. 2, ad 1).

There are different types of ceremonies in the liturgy. Some of them are for simple reverence or decorum, like the rubric directing the priest to approach the altar with downcast eyes. Many of these ceremonies exist especially to show reverence to the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, and we can even say that a liturgy will be good or bad in proportion as it shows or omits signs of reverence to the holy Eucharist. Other ceremonies underline the link between inward and outward worship, like the practice of beating one’s breast in contrition during the Confiteor. Others recall events in the life of the Lord, like the baptismal ear-opening ceremony that comes from today’s Gospel. In this vein, still other ceremonies have a properly mystical or symbolic value, like the rite for blessing the paschal candle, whose goal is not to light the church but to represent the resurrection of Our Savior.

There is another reason for ceremonies — a deeper supernatural reason — even though a materialist age may scoff at it. This reason is among the most important: the reality of good and bad spirits. St. Thomas Aquinas explains simply: “the power of the devil is restrained by prayers, blessings, and the like, from hindering the sacramental effect” (Summa theologiae III, q. 66, art. 10). Because of the disorder introduced by original sin, Scripture refers to the devil as the “prince of this world” (St. John 14:30). He is no rival for God, of course, but as a spirit he still has a natural authority over matter. The blessings of the Church remove terrain bit by bit from the empire of Satan. Consider, for example, the Assumption blessing we have mentioned: “We urgently call on Thee in Thy great kindness to bless these various herbs and fruits, thus increasing their natural powers with the newly given grace of Thy blessing[.] … May these blessed objects be a protection against diabolical mockery, cunning, and deception wherever they are kept, carried, or otherwise used.” The prayer means what it says. This is one reason the sacramentals are so important in a world that is slipping again into paganism, and thus inviting in the evil spirits.

Hopefully this explanation is enough to make you think twice if the ceremonies of divine worship ever seem too long or useless.

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