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What Does It Mean to Get Something ‘Blessed’?

What does it really matter if a religious object is blessed or not? And if so does it matter who blesses it?

For instance, my rosary was blessed by Father Jeremy when we ambushed him outside the parish church. Is it less “blessed” than the Guadalupe statue in our garden, over which Father Juan Diego did a mini-ceremony, using blessed oil and holy water?

And does that blessing pale by comparison to the Sacred Heart picture and Madonna statue in our house? Those were lugged in a duffle bag to St. Peter’s Square, and blessed by a pope — and a saint — John Paul II.

I turned to the internet to answer these questions and didn’t get a lot of help. Articles tend to tell you how Scripture uses the word “blessing” and then quote the Catechism on “sacramentals” (rosaries, statues, etc.) to explain.

There is good stuff there, certainly. But I still have a lot of questions: What’s the difference between sacramentals and superstitions? Between, say, a blessed scapular and a “lucky” jersey? And how are sacramentals different from sentimentality? How do the dried flowers made special by my wedding differ from the Little Flower holy card made special by the bishop’s blessing?

Sacramentals can seem almost like a guilty pleasure for Catholics. Somewhere deep inside, we suspect we ought to be above such things, but we sure like our rosaries to be blessed.

Maybe it’s because some sacramental-like pious practices truly should creep us out, like the chain emails that attach promises to those who pray a certain way — and imply threats to those who don’t. Or maybe it’s because we think of sacramentals as the “light side of the Force” for which Tarot cards and pentagrams serve as the “dark side of the Force.”

The Church doesn’t think that way. The Church embraces sacramentals: baptismal candles and wedding rings, ashes and palms. We bow to kiss the crucifix on Good Friday, then kiss the Baby Jesus nine months later.

The Church knows that sacramentals are no more (or less!) mysterious than prayers.

In fact, you could say that sacramentals are prayers. We pray with words. We also pray with gestures — the sign of the cross, bended knees, bowed head. But we also pray with physical objects: lighting a candle, hanging a crucifix, setting up a Nativity scene.

When we pray with words, praying alone is great, praying with someone else is even better — and praying in union with the Church is the best of all. It’s the same when we pray with objects. A priest can pray with me after Mass, and that would be a great, one-time thing. But he can also bless my rosary as an “officer” of the Church, such that my prayer is united with his blessing. Then, it’s not a great one-time thing — it’s a great perpetual thing.

Praying using a blessed object unites your prayer with the prayer of the one who blessed it, and with what he represents. He could represent the Church through the parish or diocese, or he could represent the Church through the Chair of Peter. In any case, he represents the Church.

Are sacramentals effective? That’s like asking if prayers are effective.

Sacraments are guaranteed. When a priest says the words of absolution in a sacramental confession, or the words of consecration at the altar at Mass, those words will always have their effect, conferring the grace intended.

Sacramentals are no more guaranteed than ordinary prayers. Sometimes God grants them; sometimes he doesn’t, either because they aren’t for our own good, or because we block him by our free choices.

Sacramentals don’t confer grace on those who use them, they “prepare” and “dispose” the user for grace such that “the liturgy of the sacraments and sacramentals sanctifies almost every event of their lives with the divine grace which flows from … Christ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1670).

Christ himself gave us the sacraments — he opened seven God-sized windows for the light of grace to pour into our lives. The Church gives us sacramentals to reflect the light in every corner.

So, yes, it matters that my rosary was blessed by Father Jeremy, and it matters that my Madonna was blessed by John Paul. They remind me that my faith is not my own. It is from Jesus Christ, given through his steward, the Church.

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Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Fatima Family Handbook and What Pope Francis Really Said, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. He writes weekly for the National Catholic Register and Aleteia. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.