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Chapter 29: Prayer: The Fundamental Category of Christian Action

Question G: What is the role of sacramentals and devotions in Christian life?

1. Two things are fundamental in Christian life: the liturgy and one’s personal vocation. By the liturgy one participates in the redemptive work of God in our Lord Jesus. By accepting one’s personal vocation and carrying it out in daily life, one makes one’s own contribution to fulfillment in Jesus, in union with his redemptive act.

2. Sacramentals and devotions are subordinate and instrumental to these two fundamental things. Sacramentals extend the liturgy into personal, daily life, while devotions foster the personal assimilation of divine realities and prepare one to participate more fruitfully in the liturgy.

3. Sacramentals are acts which are somehow related to the sacraments. They are done by the Church and are effective by the prayer of the Church as an articulation of the sacraments (see SC 60). Some are directly associated with the sacraments. For example, various acts included in the liturgy of the Eucharist, such as the priest’s washing of his hands, which go beyond the essentials are sacramentals. Others are less directly related to the sacraments. For example, holy water recalls baptism; the ashes of Ash Wednesday prepare for penance; the anointing of kings is perhaps related to confirmation.

4. “Sacramental” is very often taken to refer to particular objects: holy water, candles, palms, and so on. This is not wrong, but it can be misleading if it is forgotten that the objects have a likeness or relation to sacraments only insofar as they are blessed by the Church’s prayer and/or used in a way which is somehow connected with the central liturgical rites.11

One can most easily understand sacramentals if one compares them to various aspects of other human relationships. A couple could consummate their marriage in a few minutes. Normally, they do not hurry so. The joyous occasion is given an appropriate setting and elaborated into a honeymoon. People having a dinner party do not settle for McDonald’s. The young couple bring home souvenirs; they extend their honeymoon into their later life by recalling it and using items connected with it. Company takes home a gift, perhaps a bit of dessert for the next day’s lunch. Similarly, with sacramentals the Church elaborates the sacraments and extends them out into daily life (see SC 61).

5. Devotions are essentially specifications of worship which provide a personalized focus and pattern suited to the needs of particular individuals and groups. They are rather like the optional extras on an automobile: Not essential for everyone, they nevertheless personalize the essentials in a way which can be extremely important to different people according to their diverse needs.

6. Each devotion focuses attention on some particular religious truth or truths, some particular religious value or values. The special focus calls for specific acts of mind and will, specific emotions, and specific practices. Such specification is needed, for revelation and Christian values as a whole can only be assimilated by people little by little and with help, over and above the common liturgy, which suits their widely differing temperaments, levels of maturity, personal vocations, moral situations (degrees of sinfulness and holiness), and so forth.

As specifications of Christian devotion as a whole, the devotions must conform to the principles of the whole—in other words, they must be in accord with Catholic teaching, worship, morality, and law.12 If devotions meet this criterion, they ought never to be despised or treated with disrespect; condescending attitudes toward other peoples’ devotions are wrong. The liturgy itself ought not to be adapted (except as the Church has stipulated) to suit personal inclinations and needs. The necessary adaptation should be achieved not within the liturgy but by adding appropriate devotions to the liturgy. Thus, the present poverty of popular devotional life is one factor which impedes sound and fruitful completion of the liturgical renewal mandated by Vatican II.

Prior to Vatican II, the comparative dryness and tendency to formalism in the Church’s proper worship made a rich devotional life essential by way of compensation.13 Yet even with the reform of the liturgy, popular devotions remain necessary. Vatican II itself, precisely in reforming the liturgy, warmly commends them, provided they conform to the principles of the Church’s worship as a whole, and somehow derive from and lead to the liturgy (see SC 13).

11. A good treatment of sacramentals: Colman E. O’Neill, O.P., Meeting Christ in the Sacraments (Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, 1963), 323–53.

12. See P. F. Mulhern, “Devotions, Religious,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 4:833–34.

13. See Braso, op. cit., 194–208.