November 20, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: Devotions and sacramentals

John F. Fink(Forty-first and last in a series)

Many 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. They are like sacraments in that they are sacred signs. But they do not confer grace like a sacrament does. Rather, sacramentals “prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1670).

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 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 because of the legend that the otherwise obscure martyr once cured a boy who had gotten a fishbone caught in his throat. (Catholics do seem to like to receive things at Mass—St. Blaise’s blessing, ashes on Ash Wednesday and palms on Palm Sunday, for example.)

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 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 exist in our churches—especially on the feast of Corpus Christi or on Holy Thursday. In many countries, especially in Italy and Latin American countries, processions through the streets of the city on a saint’s feast day are quite popular.

Since all of us are different, there are Catholic devotions or forms of piety to match any preferences. Our churches have the Stations of the Cross, 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.

Pilgrimages remain extremely popular, especially to the Holy Land, Rome, Assisi or to Marian shrines. Some Catholics like to make novenas, 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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