Most Catholics are familiar with the seven Sacraments — Baptism, Reconciliation, Eucharist, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick. The Sacraments are the foundation of the spiritual life and are sources of grace— God’s very presence in our lives and unmerited favor from God. They are an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace, and these signs make present what they signify. To receive the full benefit of the Sacraments, it’s important to cooperate with what the Spirit is doing in and through the sacrament received.
Sacramentals are different. These are also sacred signs that can build holiness, but unlike the Sacraments, they do not confer grace. Rather, sacramentals prepare us to receive the grace of the Sacraments and dispose us to cooperate with this grace (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1667, 1670). Sacramentals are given to us to make holy certain actions in life and life’s circumstances. There are many such sacred signs that are reminders to us of God.
The sign of the cross is perhaps one of the most fundamental of these signs. For Catholics, this invocation is done at the start of every sacred action and prayer. Holy water is itself a sacramental, a reminder of our Baptism. By dipping our fingers into holy water and making the sign of the cross, we are combining two foundational symbols of the Christian life and the Paschal Mystery — the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ — and bringing them to life in us.
The exchange of peace in the Mass — and at other Catholic rites — is another example of a sacramental. By making some kind of meaningful sign of peace, we are giving the peace of Christ to another person. The chalice and other sacred vessels at Mass also are sacramentals, as they remind us of what they are to contain — the very Body and Blood of Christ.
It might be helpful to organize the types of sacramentals into categories, as author Michael Pennock lists in This Is Our Faith: A Catholic Catechism for Adults:
“Actions (blessings; genuflections; the sign of the cross; bowing one’s head at the name of Jesus; church processions); Objects (candles; holy water; statues and icons; holy pictures; blessed ashes; palms; rosaries; relics; incense; vestments; scapulars; church buildings; crosses; religious medals); Places (the Holy Land; Rome; Fatima; Lourdes; the National Shrine in Washington, D.C.; and other places of pilgrimage; chapels, retreat centers, and even Catholic cemeteries); Prayers (short prayers we say throughout the day; grace before and after meals; prayers at rising and going to bed; praying the rosary, praying a host of other traditional Catholic prayers and devotions); Sacred Time (liturgy; holy days; feasts of saints; your saint’s name day; special days of prayer; fasting and abstinence; retreats, etc.)” (This Is Our Faith: A Catholic Catechism for Adults, 176-177).
Sacramentals are an important part of incorporating our Catholic faith into our everyday life. They do not replace the liturgy but rather work as an extension of it. In a word, all devotions of piety, including sacramentals, should point us toward the liturgy of the Church, a connection to a local parish community, and to the Eucharist (CCC 1675).
The Church has given us these sacred signs to lead us in holiness and to help enrich our lives as Christians. How many sacramentals can you recognize in your life? Probably more than you think.