By: Kathleen M. Carroll and Diane M. Houdek
The Catholic Church is a universal Church, one that unites its members through belief
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in certain basic truths and practices: the Creed, the Mass, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We attend liturgy together and partake of one Eucharistic meal, and we profess the same faith regardless of what language we speak or where in the world we live and worship.
The seven sacraments—the word means “an outward sign”—provide privileged witness to our life in Christ; they are special signs of God’s grace.
But the genius of the Catholic Tradition is that its patchwork of devotions, customs, and “small-t” traditions combine to create the brilliant colors and vibrant patterns that reflect the beauty of the faith to the greater world.
These practices—outward signs of faith known as sacramentals—provide witness to what we believe as Catholics. They’re our unique ways of expressing and deepening our personal spirituality while remaining closely tied to our faith community. In the Catholic Church, sacramentals are everywhere! In this Update, we’ll describe some of the most common and help you understand which ones might fit best into your spiritual life, and how.
One of the most recognizable symbols of Catholic devotion is the rosary. During the Middle Ages, the Benedictines recited the 150 psalms as part of their prayer practice. The laity, less educated but no less pious, wanted to imitate this. Illiteracy made reciting the psalms impractical, but most Catholics knew a few basic prayers by heart. The rosary, with its 150 Hail Marys, became a popular way to pray throughout the day.
The word rosary comes from the Latin rosarium, meaning “garden” or “garland of roses.” The prayers and their accompanying meditations are an offering of devotion and supplication to Our Lady.
For centuries the rosary consisted of fifteen “mysteries”— events in the lives of Jesus and Mary on which one was to meditate during the recitation of a “decade”—ten Hail Marys. During his pontificate, John Paul II offered an additional set of mysteries, which he called the “Mysteries of Light,” often called the Luminous Mysteries.
Step-by-step instructions for how to pray the rosary are available in lots of books and pamphlets or online. Rosary bracelets or rings (usually consisting of just one decade’s worth of beads) can be used instead of the customary strand of five decades.
Any devotion that uses a set of beads to keep track of a number of prayers is known as a chaplet. Some chaplets use a traditional set of rosary beads, while others have a special set of beads. This varies with the number and kind of prayers being said. The Chaplet of Divine Mercy and the St. Michael Chaplet are two common chaplets. Others are dedicated to the Infant Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the angels, various saints, and in support of causes such as missionaries and vocations to religious life.
Perhaps the most widely known of medals is the Miraculous Medal. Inspired by a vision of St. Catherine Laboure in 1830, it has an image of Mary on the front under an arch of words saying, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” On the back of the medal is the “Marian cross” (a large letter M with a cross on top of it), twelve stars, and images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. During the vision the Blessed Mother promised that “All who wear this medal will receive great grace.”
Visit any Catholic book shop and you will see numerous medals depicting other saints. You might choose a patron saint based on your name, your profession, or other interests. Check out the website SaintoftheDay.org to browse a variety of saints, their stories, and interesting facts about their lives and patronage.
Just as the common folk wished to imitate the pious practices of the monasteries, so too were they inspired by the religious habits worn by their vowed counterparts. The Carmelites wore a brown work apron as part of their dress, and the scapular recalls this tradition. The scapular consists of two pieces of cloth connected by long strings. It is worn around the neck so the cloth rests on the chest and back—or over the shoulders (scapulae in Latin). The practice has its origin in a vision granted to St. Simon of Stock, in which Mary urged him to spread the custom of wearing a scapular as a sign of devotion.
Just as there are several chaplets, there are a variety of scapulars in addition to the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. If you find one that interests you, your parish priest can bless it, help instruct you in its use, and help you enroll in the associated confranternity.
Pope St. Pius X permitted a medal to be substituted for a scapular, in cases where the cloth version was undesirable or impractical for some good reason.
Most Catholic churches and homes have statues of saints. These remind us of holy men and women and inspire us to seek their guidance and intercession. Just as one might carry photographs of loved ones, images of Mary and other saints can comfort us in times of need and help us grow closer to God.
Though some statues spring from an artist’s imagination, others are crafted specifically to remind us of certain aspects of a saint or events in his or her life. You might see an image of the Blessed Mother with the children of Fatima, St. Sebastian with arrows, St. Anthony with lilies and the child Jesus, or St. Francis with birds.
Candles and Incense
Candles play an important role in the liturgy of the Church. We light candles at baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Each of these customs has its origin in the Paschal candle lit at the Easter Vigil. All of these lights remind us that Christ is the Light of the World.
Most churches also have votive candles—some small, some large. These usually appear in front of a statue or image of Mary or another saint. Lighting a candle for a particular person or intention is a time-honored tradition. In doing so, we imagine that the burning flame continues our prayers, even when we have left the building. A box for suggested donations enables the church to replenish the supply of candles. A donation is not required for God to hear your prayer.
Many Catholics light votive candles in their homes to serve as a constant reminder of God’s presence in daily life.
Our use of incense has its roots in Jewish liturgical practice. Psalm 141, in particular, describes how our prayers rise before the Lord like incense. The incense we use in churches is just one more way we identify these sacred places as set apart for the worship of God.
Holy water recalls for us the sacrament of baptism and our rebirth to new life in Christ. The water in the baptismal font is blessed at Easter and throughout the year when baptisms are celebrated or a rite of sprinkling takes place.
Holy water is placed in fonts at the doors of the church, especially when a central baptismal font is not accessible.
We bless ourselves with holy water and sign of the cross as we enter and exit the church as a reminder of our own baptismal commitment.
Some people have holy water fonts by the doors of their homes or individual rooms in the home. Most churches have holy water available for people to take home with them for use when blessing themselves or one another. This is often in a stainless steel or ceramic container with a spigot. Water also can be dipped from a baptismal pool into a small container for home use.
A popular Catholic tradition is printing the image of a saint on a small card, often with a prayer or inspirational verse on the back. These are often distributed in Catholic schools, perhaps to commemorate the feast day of a particular saint or as academic prizes. A godparent might present a godchild with a holy card at first communion, confirmation or another noteworthy event.
The memorial cards we receive at a funeral Mass or visitation also serve as holy cards reminding us that our loved ones are now a part of the communion of saints.
The blessed palms we receive at Mass on Palm Sunday commemorate the triumphal entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. The people laid palm branches on the road before him as a sign of his identity as the promised messiah and son of David.
Some Catholics display these palm branches along with another holy object, such as a crucifix, an image of the Sacred Heart, or a statue of the Blessed Mother. The palms can even be woven into crosses.
Like any blessed object, palms must be disposed of by burning. The ashes we receive on Ash Wednesday are made from blessed palms from the previous year.
Almost every Catholic home or institution has a crucifix hanging on a wall. They are a fixture in every Catholic school room and, of course, in every church.
Though the cross is a universal symbol of Christianity, many non-Catholic Christians prefer a cross (with no image of the body of Christ) to a crucifix (which, by definition, contains an image of Jesus). Most rosaries have a crucifix affixed and many Catholics wear a crucifix on a chain around their necks as a sign of devotion.
A popular home tradition during Advent is the Advent wreath. It is a circle of evergreens or holly and four candles—one for each week of the Advent season. Three of the candles are purple; the candle lit during the third week of Advent is pink or rose-colored in observance of Gaudete Sunday (so called because the first word in the ancient Latin Mass was Gaudete, meaning “rejoice”).
The universal prayer of the Church is sometimes called the Liturgy of the Hours, the Divine Office, or the Breviary. This book (there are now also websites and apps) contains prayers for the canonical hours—Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, the three hours of daytime prayer, Night Prayer and the Office of Readings. Priests, deacons, and many other vowed religious are required to pray in this manner. Many lay Catholics have taken a renewed interest in this ancient form as new technologies have made its use easier and the prayers more accessible.
We are all created in the image and likeness of God. Part of the Catholic understanding of the goodness of all created things is a reverence for the dignity of the human person, even the human body when someone is deceased. As part of the canonization process, the bodies of saints are exhumed. Sometimes, “relics” of these saints are obtained. These can be bits of cloth from a habit, an object (such as a rosary or prayer book) used by the saint, or even a piece of the saint’s body.
First-class relics (as these body parts are known) are often used to consecrate chapels or altars and are sometimes venerated in a special container called a reliquary. Lesser relics (bits of fabric, for example) are sometimes attached to holy cards.
It’s All Good
If one image of the Eucharist is a family meal, then personal devotions and various ethnic traditions—the stuff of Catholic can be seen as the seasoning that gives flavor to that meal.
The diversity of prayer methods and worship styles doesn’t separate us; in fact, it unites us in the appreciation that even with different words, Catholics all speak a common language.
New Ways to Pray
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Many Catholic prayers and devotions are primarily acts of the “domestic church,” the families that together make up the larger family of the Church. Many were begun by laypeople at times when the official liturgy of the Church seemed too distant or failed to meet their needs. Praying at home will always make Sunday Mass a richer experience.
Here are some suggestions for ways you and your family can begin praying together at home or add some variety to the prayer activities you already do:
• Get patron saint or name saint medals for each member of the family.
• Set up an altar dedicated to a saint that has particular significance for your family.
• Establish a routine of meal prayers or night prayers.
• Set aside time during the week to read and discuss the Mass readings for the coming Sunday.
• Try praying the rosary together as a family.
Here are some other resources to enhance your prayer at home:
Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers (Washington, D.C.: USCCB, 1989).
Catholic Prayer Book (Cincinnati: Servant, 2013).
The Blessing Cup: Prayer Rituals for Families and Groups, by
Rock Travnikar (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2012).
Kathleen M. Carroll and Diane M. Houdek collaborate on Bringing Home the Word, a lectionary resource from Franciscan Media.
NEXT: Halloween: Season of the Saints