November 8, 2013

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: Devotions and sacramentals

John F. FinkMany people through the centuries have been attracted to the Catholic Church because of its many devotions. Catholics always seem to be doing something special, whether it’s getting ashes put on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, using incense at Mass, or blessing themselves with holy water.

Some of those devotions are known as sacramentals. Like the sacraments, they are sacred signs, but they differ from the sacraments in that they were instituted by the Church rather than by Jesus. (There are a couple other technical differences, too.)

Sacramentals include blessings, ceremonies such as processions, prayers such as the Divine Praises or the rosary, and various objects that are used for religious purposes such as candles, medals or palms.

First among the sacramentals are blessings. Catholics seem to have blessings for everything, or everyone—for sacred vessels used at Mass, for rosaries and medals, for leaders of congregations, for mothers and fathers, and the list could go on.

A popular blessing is the blessing of throats on St. Blaise’s feast day, Feb. 3, because of the legend that this otherwise obscure martyr once cured a boy who had gotten a fishbone caught in his throat.

Catholics, of course, also bless themselves when they make the Sign of the Cross while invoking the Blessed Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When entering or leaving a Catholic church, they bless themselves with holy water from a font by the entrance, and holy water is also used in the blessing of other objects.

Parents teach their children from an early age to bless themselves with the Sign of the Cross. We also ask for God’s blessing when we say grace before meals.

Processions don’t seem to be as popular among Catholics in the United States as they are in other countries, but they still occur in our parishes. In many countries, especially in Italy and Latin America, processions through the streets of cities on a saint’s feast day are quite popular.

There are Catholic devotions or forms of piety to match any preference. Our churches have the Stations of the Cross on the side walls for people who like to pray the Way of the Cross on Fridays or during Lent. These are 14 depictions of Jesus’ march to Calvary, from his condemnation to death through his burial.

Other Catholics like to light candles by side altars dedicated to the Blessed Virgin or other saints. Many of us are familiar with photos of the many candles lit at the Grotto at the University of Notre Dame. The Grotto is a replica of the place where Mary appeared to St. Bernadette in Lourdes, France.

Some Catholics like to make novenas, which are special prayers said for a period of nine days, usually in petition for special favors. Many Catholics wear crosses, medals or scapulars (pieces of cloth with pictures of a saint) around their necks.

The number of special Catholic devotions seems endless. There’s something there for every taste. They are powerful forms of prayer that have proved to be of spiritual benefit down through the centuries. †

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