Most Catholics are familiar with sacramentals even if they don’t realize it. Chances are good that most Catholics own a rosary or they still have a holy medal they were given years ago. They might even hang a crucifix in their house. These objects are, after all, the way we sanctify ourselves and our daily life.
Most of the sacramentals the Church has approved are still with us. No pious devotion or item should be truly lost since they signify the unchanging realities and mysteries of our Catholic Faith. It is truly astounding that the faithful of the present age would recognize what Christians in the first centuries would carry with them and with the most sacred object they would use to adorn their churches and homes, too. Yet there is one that is so rare, it has almost fallen out of modern memory altogether.
What are sacramentals?
The world of sacramentals is incredibly diverse. Indeed, the Church tells us that “nearly anything” can become a sacramental.
“There is hardly any proper use of material things which cannot thus be directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God.”— Sacrosanctum Concilium, 61
With such an admission by the Church, we are compelled to want to know exactly how the Church defines sacramentals. The 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC), defines a sacramental as a “sacred sign, instituted by the Church, which bears resemblance to the seven sacraments” (Can. 1166). That definition begs for more detail. Gratefully, we can turn again to Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Here, the Church further describes sacramentals by their ability to, “signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy” (60).
That’s a lot to unpack, even for a tested theologian. The Church is telling us that sacramentals are not efficacious as the sacraments are: they do not offer sanctifying grace (or any other grace) in and of themselves. Rather, what they do is they dispose the believer to seek personal sanctification through devotion—they lead the believer to receive the sacraments whose primary effect is sanctifying grace.
Signs to a sanctified life
With this in mind, it’s easy to see that sacramentals are no small item of piety. If heaven is our destination, then the Church’s sacramentals are the signs that point us in the right direction. With its rightful authority over the use of sacramentals, the Catholic Church has instituted a multitude for the faithful to utilize. All sacramentals are further broken down into blessings, exorcisms, and signs of piety. The final category is where we find the common objects like crucifixes, scapulars, and vessels used at Mass. But these “signs” also include the popular devotions approved by the Church: the Holy Rosary, novenas, Stations of the Cross, and so on.
All of these, in their own capacity and special meaning, are approved and recommended for regular use.
A not-so-simple candle
There exists a special sacramental that is so rare, that it’s possible even the most well-traveled Catholic has never seen one and even the Catholic with excellent connections and position might never obtain one.
As you might know, the Church has sacramentalized candles. To many, this might seem as common as any household item, but when pause is given for a moment to reflect on the inclusion of candles in nearly every sacred rite and sacrament, it is easy to see the high regard set aside for these.
In actuality, candles have a special way of representing some of the core teachings in Christianity.
“All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”— St. Francis of Assisi
Candles provide light in dark places, but Jesus is the light of the world! Jesus tells the Pharisees and the crowd who wished to stone the woman, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12). Here Jesus is elucidating the truth that we need his light to survive the spiritual struggles of our pilgrim journey on earth. The world is dark, and Christ is the light.
The construction of a candle is also encompassing of powerful spiritual realities. When made of a clean beeswax (being the preferred material) candles represent Christ’s purity and his spotless body, emitting no toxic chemicals even when burned. The wick of a candle, a thin and straight braid of rope, is the perfect soul of Christ encased in its perfect body of wax.
From the “pasch”
Present in every Catholic church is a large, ornate candle known as the paschal candle. Its name is derived from the term “pasch” which is the traditional name for the Passover. For Christians, this became the Easter celebration. Thus, every Easter, the Church continues the practice of creating a new paschal candle to be lit throughout the season, and then at baptisms throughout the year, too.
Have you ever wondered what happens to the millions of paschal candles used in Catholic parishes throughout the world?
Well, they’re usually melted and recycled for new candles. Which is great.
But there is a very old method of preserving them that is almost lost in practice. It’s known as the Agnus Dei. The Latin phrase Agnus Dei—“Lamb of God”—is of course well known to most practicing Catholics. It is said and sung at every Mass, and it comes from the word of John the Baptist: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
Disks of wax
The sacramental known as the Agnus Dei is a small disc of wax impressed with the figure of a lamb, an image representing Christ as our paschal sacrifice. Aside from bearing the image of the sacrificial lamb, they are made from the paschal candles of the previous year. They are usually formed in a round or ovular shape and kept safe inside a circle or heart-shaped covering. Accompanying the image of the Lamb of God, a saint’s likeness, the name of a pontiff, or the coat of arms of the presiding pope are also commonly found on the Agnus Dei. They may be worn by the faithful and suspended round the neck, or preserved in some other fashion for devotion.
Again, they are very rare and have historically distributed only to bishops and special guests in attendance of a papal audience or other important event. They are formed and receive a consecration by the pope during the first year of his pontificate, and customarily every seventh year after his installment. The consecration, as opposed to a blessing, is a sure sign of their historical admiration and reverence. Special events prompted the popes to make the Agnus Dei, such as the Jubilee Year of 2000.
We read in the text of an old catechism from 1731:
What do you mean by Agnus Deis?
Wax stamped with the image of the Lamb of God, blessed by the pope with solemn prayers, and anointed with the oil chrism.— The Catholick Christian Instructed, Richard Challoner (1737)
Of ancient origin
The Angus Dei is likely the result of years spent in an attempt to aid the consciences of converted pagans, who so loyally kept to their custom of carrying charms and amulets. The Church’s solution to this remnant of idolatry and superstition? Baptize it. As a visible reminder of their full acceptance of the doctrines of Christ, the Church permitted and in fact encouraged the use of such trinkets to preserve the faith of these new followers.
This is generally the same way the Church faithful began using holy medals, and it is likely that wax was preferred by those whose means and methods were too meager to afford and shape metals.
What more is that these wax medallions are generally dated to the 4th century, perhaps earlier than the Edict of Constantinople in AD 380. By the ninth century we find common references to it, and by the Reformation the Angus Dei was found everywhere and regarded as an important sacramental of the Church. Enemies of the Catholic Church found these wax castings to be such a symbol of Catholic identity that in the penal laws against Catholics in Reformation England, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, they were specified as a “popish trumpery.” As such, the possession or importation of Agnus Dei brought harsh punishments.
What an amazing gift to the faithful. Yet, we don’t see or hear about them much today. It is well-known that Pope John Paul II consecrated them, as did his predecessor, Paul VI. There are rumors online that Benedict XVI did distribute them, but little else has been documented in recent years. Hopefully, we don’t let these magnificent sacramentals fall into disuse and mere memory.
If you are looking to learn more about this and other sacramentals, you will be thrilled with my new book Compendium of Sacramentals. Published by TAN Books, this gorgeous volume explores and explains the massive world of the sacramentals instituted by the Catholic Church. And it does so in spectacular pages of color, sacred art, and images of historical examples of these holy objects in a beautifully bound hardcover design.
Featured Image: From Papal Artifacts. Used with written permission.