Difference between Sacraments and Sacramentals

In Almost Catholic book, Catholic imagination, Spiritual practice on December 30, 2008 at 11:09 pm

There is a difference between a sacrament and a sacramental. The former is the means of grace formally instituted by Christ and the Church; the latter are the methods by which Catholics do their spiritual exercise. Sacramentals are all of the physical ways that we marks the occasions of life holy. These rites may change with time and circumstances, just as St. Paul said they would way back when he was writing to the church in Corinth. After advising them on how to observe the sacrament of the Eucharist, or the Shared Meal, he finished by saying, “The other matters I shall arrange when I come.” (1 Cor. 11: 34)

Sacramentals are by definition limitless; the most popular ones are rosaries, little books, icons. But there are many others, such as ashes (at Lent), bows and prostrations, vigil candles, holy water, incense, the sign of the cross, and chant. All of them have the power to spur on devotion, encouraging Catholics to express and deepen their love, sorrow, and joy. And almost every sacramental includes prayers. The Catholic Encyclopedia goes to great pains to explain that while sacraments certainly convey God’s grace to us, “as experience teaches, the sacramentals do not infallibly produce their effect.” Instead, sacramentals are more like private coaching from a Hall of Fame ball player to a rookie. These things work, he’ll tell the new guy. Why wouldn’t you try them?

For more on sacramentals, see the chapter about all of this in my book, Almost Catholic.

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