What Is a Sacramental?

A lesson inspired by the Baltimore catechism

Rosaries and scapulars
Rosaries, scapulars, and other sacramentals left by visitors to the Santuario de Chimayo, a Catholic church in Chimayo, NM, built by Spanish missionaries in 1816. Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Sacramentals are some of the least understood and most misrepresented elements of Catholic prayer life and devotion. What exactly is a sacramental, and how are they used by Catholics?

What Does the Baltimore Catechism Say?

Question 292 of the Baltimore Catechism, found in Lesson Twenty-Third of the First Communion Edition and Lesson Twenty-Seventh of the Confirmation Edition, frames the question and answer this way:

Question: What is a sacramental?

Answer: A sacramental is anything set apart or blessed by the Church to excite good thoughts and to increase devotion, and through these movements of the heart to remit venial sin.

What Kinds of Things Are Sacramentals?

The phrase "anything set apart or blessed by the Church" may lead one to think that sacramentals are always physical objects. Many of them are; some of the most common sacramentals include holy water, the rosary, crucifixes, medals and statues of saints, holy cards, and scapulars. But perhaps the most common sacramental is an action, rather than a physical object—namely, the Sign of the Cross.

So "set apart or blessed by the Church" means that the Church recommends the use of the action or item. In many cases, of course, physical items used as sacramentals are actually blessed, and it is common for Catholics, when they receive a new rosary or medal or scapular, to take it to their parish priest to ask him to bless it.

The blessing signifies the use to which the item will be put—namely, that it will be used in the service of the worship of God.

How Do Sacramentals Increase Devotion?

Sacramentals, whether actions like the Sign of the Cross or items like a scapular are not magical. The mere presence or use of a sacramental doesn't make someone more holy.

Instead, sacramentals are meant to remind us of the truths of the Christian faith and to appeal to our imagination. When, for instance, we use holy water (a sacramental) to make the Sign of the Cross (another sacramental), we're reminded of our baptism and the sacrifice of Jesus, Who saved us from our sins. Medals, statues, and holy cards of the saints remind us of the virtuous lives they led and inspire our imagination to imitate them in their devotion to Christ.

How Does Increased Devotion Remit Venial Sin?

It may seem odd, however, to think of increased devotion repairing the effects of sin. Don't Catholics have to take part in the Sacrament of Confession to do that?

That's certainly true of mortal sin, which, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes (para. 1855), "destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law" and "turns man away from God." Venial sin, however, doesn't destroy charity, but simply weakens it; it doesn't remove sanctifying grace from our soul, though it does wound it. By the exercise of charity—love—we can undo the damage done by our venial sins. Sacramentals, by inspiring us to live better lives, can help in this process.