Another Look at Sacramentals and Devotional Prayer
by Jim Gontis
Incense wafts above the golden monstrance with the large white host in the luna while everyone sings Tantum Ergo. We recall the reassuring voices of our mother and father, praying their beads in a series of Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and Glory Bes. The parish priest says, "We adore you O Christ and we praise you," and we respond, "Because by your holy Cross, you have redeemed the world." We remember the humility of our grandmothers and grandfathers, making brief but meaningful visits to the Blessed Sacrament at the simple country church, or at the beautifully intricate downtown cathedral.
The Role of Personal Experience in Prayer
These experiences reach deep into our souls. We know we are Catholic. More than knowing, we feel we are Catholic. I would wager that if you asked practicing Catholics what their strongest memories are of their Catholic faith, most would speak of liturgical experiences, sacramentals, and devotional prayer. They wouldn't use those terms, though. They might say Holy Hours, incense, rays of sunlight shining through stained-glass windows, or lighting a votive candle. They might speak of Corpus Christi processions and the crowning of the statue of Mary in the month of May. They might mention the Brown Scapular they received from their grandmother when they made their First Holy Communion, or a favorite statue from their childhood church.
The Hierarchy of Prayer
There is a hierarchy in prayer that begins with the liturgy: especially with the highest of prayers, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Mass is the greatest reality this side of heaven! Other forms of liturgical prayer, such as the Liturgy of the Hours and the celebration of the other sacraments, also occupy high rungs in this hierarchy.
But we must not forget about sacramentals and devotional prayer. Properly ordered, they do not detract from the sacred liturgy. To the contrary, they enhance it. The Church tells us that sacramentals are "sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects . . . 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" (Sacrosanctum Concilium [SC], 60; Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], no. 1667).
Sacramentals and devotions should be utilized in faith formation and introduced to the young at an early age. "They prepare the faithful to receive and cooperate with grace and so are catechetical by nature" (cf. National Directory for Catechesis [NDC], 38 A).
Blessings, Exorcisms, and Popular Piety
There are different kinds of sacramentals. Foremost among them are blessings. When the priest makes the Sign of the Cross over the congregation and says, "May Almighty God bless you, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit," he is performing a sacramental. When we approach the priest, perhaps after Mass, and ask him to bless a rosary or a medal, he is performing a sacramental and the object that he blesses then itself becomes a sacramental.
Another kind of sacramental, not quite as common as blessings, is what is known as exorcism. An exorcism is an action whereby the Church, by the authority of Christ, takes command of the forces of evil and expels the dark powers. A common form of exorcism is the minor exorcism administered immediately prior to the conferral of Baptism. This is reserved to the priest or the deacon. There are also major exorcisms. These are reserved to the priest, but only with permission from the bishop. A major exorcism is based on the premise that a person is possessed by demonic powers (cf. United States Catholic Catechism for Adults [USCCA], 296).
Some Particular Devotions
A third kind of sacramental is popular devotion. Devotions are never a replacement for liturgical prayer. Rather, they draw their efficacy from the Sacred Liturgy and orient us back to it. Devotions also help us to fulfill St. Paul's exhortation to "Pray without ceasing" (1 Thes 5:17). Though there are too many devotions to list them all here, some of the most prominent are Eucharistic Adoration, the Rosary, and the Divine Mercy devotions.
Encouraging Eucharistic Adoration, Pope Benedict XVI invoked the words of St. Alphonsus Liguori. "'Certainly,' wrote Alphonsus, 'among all the devotions, this one of adoration of the sacramental Jesus is the first after the sacraments, the dearest to God and the most useful to us. O, what a beautiful delight to be before an altar with faith and to present to him our needs, as a friend does to another friend with whom one has full confidence!'" (General Audience March 30, 2011).
Of all the popular devotions in the Latin Rite, the Rosary is the most widely known. It has been promoted by saints and popes for centuries. St. John Paul II referred to the Rosary as "my favorite prayer" (Angelus Address, October 29, 1978). Pope Francis wrote, "The Rosary is a prayer that always accompanies me; it is also the prayer of the ordinary people and the saints . . . it is a prayer from my heart" (Il Rosario. Preghiera del cuore [The Rosary. A prayer from the heart], 210).
There are many aspects of the Divine Mercy devotions, including the Chaplet, the Divine Mercy Image, and the Hour of Great Mercy (3:00 p.m.), to name a few. The popularity of these devotions, focused on the Lord's infinite mercy, has grown rapidly in recent decades. Regarding the Chaplet, St. Faustina wrote that Jesus said to her, "At the hour of their death, I defend as My own glory all souls that will say this chaplet; or when others say it for a dying person" (Divine Mercy in My Soul, 811).
Of course, there are so many popular devotions other than the three mentioned! A few that deserve special mentions would be Stations of the Cross, Sacred Heart devotions, and Miraculous Medal devotions. All are enthusiastically approved by the Church!
The Incarnational Principle and Inculturation in the Life of Prayer
What accounts for this enthusiasm among Catholics for popular piety? Perhaps it is because devotions accord with how God designed us, as body-soul composites. We are people of the senses. We are enfleshed spirits. The Eternal Word became man and dwelt among us (cf. Jn 1:14).
Not only is the Catholic Church the bearer of the ongoing Incarnation of the Word, but she is also the universal Mother of all nations. She embraces persons of every race and culture. She finds nothing that is truly human to be unknown to her. From her very beginning, the Church reached out beyond her Jewish origins to the various nations known collectively as "the Gentiles." We do well to become aware of the various cultural traditions present in our communities. Doing so can provide rich soil for the blossoming of beautiful and varied flowers that will grow and thrive in the unity that is the garden of Christ's Church.
We receive grace and are drawn to God through what are known as "the transcendental qualities of Being," viz., truth, beauty, and goodness. Jesus established sacraments as outward signs—"seeable, hearable, tasteable, smellable, touchable"—that confer a grace that can be neither seen, heard, tasted, smelled, nor touched! St. Thomas Aquinas, basing himself on Aristotle, said in his treatises on the sacraments, "Nothing is in the intellect that is not first in the senses" (De veritate, q. 2 a. 3 arg. 19). The point, of course, is that the body is the pathway to the soul. Devotions have the power to stoke within our souls the desire for encounter with the living God.
Outstanding catechists—whether parents leading their families in their domestic churches, parish catechists, or Catholic school teachers—find ways to involve the senses of their students, often through popular piety. We pray the Rosary; chant the Chaplet; sing the mystically beautiful Stabat Mater in the Stations; see the fire burn atop the purple and rose candles in the Advent Wreath; feel the wetness of the Holy Water; and bend the knee before the majesty of the God-Man, present truly and substantially in our tabernacles.
Our beautiful Catholic faith is not a mere intellectual enterprise. It is a prayer that rises up like incense, morning, noon, and night, before the Throne of God, from his faith-filled people.
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