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Introduction to Sacramentals


A sacramental is a sacred sign that signifies effects obtained through the Church's intercession. While the 7 Sacraments are Christ-instituted and do exactly what they signify ex opere operato  ("from the deed done"), sacramentals are Church-instituted and work chiefly ex opere operantis, that is, through the pious disposition of the one using them. When piously used, sacramentals remit venial sins.

The number of the 7 Sacraments can never change, and they work infallibly when offered using the proper matter, form, and intent by those properly authorized to offer them; sacramentals, on the other hand, can vary in number, and they work fallibly, through our beseeching God. While sacramentals work mostly ex opere operantis, they do have a value and efficacy in themselves, and are effective in driving drive away evil spirit.

Sacramentals can be material things (blessed objects, such as scapulars, Rosaries, Crucifxes, medals,  Holy Water, etc.) or actions (the Sign of the Cross, genuflection, prayers, etc.).

For the rest of this page, I will just reproduce the introduction to Fr. Arthur Tonne's "Talks on Sacramentals," published in 1950. He sums it up...

"Waters are broken out in the desert, and streams in the wilderness. And that which was dry land shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water." Isaias, 35:6.

Some years ago two women were touring a desert region of our southwest. They wandered off from their party and were lost. For two full days they tramped and tramped in search of a road or dwelling. They found none. Completely exhausted, aching with thirst and hunger, they could not walk another step. One of them, in true womanly fashion, took out her compact to repair the damage done by sun and dust. The sun flashed off the mirror. She got an idea. Someone might see the reflected light. They flashed the mirror in all directions. Rescuers saw the flashes, hurried to the source, and saved the two ladies.

Who would have thought that such a simple thing as a mirror could save human lives? This essential piece of female equipment did not directly save their lives, but it was the means, the instrument for attracting attention and bringing help.

The sacramentals are something like that. Of themselves they do not save souls, but they are the means for securing heavenly help for those who use them properly. A sacramental is a sacred object or religious action which the Catholic Church, in imitation of the sacraments, uses for the purpose of obtaining spiritual favors especially through her prayer. A sacramental is anything set apart or blessed by the Church to excite good thoughts and to help devotion, and thus secure grace and take away venial sin or the temporal punishment due to sin.

Let us compare and contrast the sacraments and the sacramentals:

1. The sacraments were instituted by Christ Himself; the sacramentals were founded by Christ's Church.

2. The sacraments are limited to the seven instituted by Christ, namely, Baptism, Confirmation, Confession, Holy Eucharist, Extreme Unction, Holy Orders and Matrimony; the sacramentals are numerous and varied, according to the directions of Mother Church.

3. The sacraments produce grace directly in the soul, if there is no obstacle on the part of the recipient; the sacramentals do not produce grace directly and of themselves--they produce grace indirectly by disposing and preparing the soul for this divine gift.

4. The words used in the sacraments, except in Extreme Unction, positively declare that God is producing certain effects in the soul; the prayers used in the sacramentals merely ask God to produce certain effects and to grant certain graces.

5. The sacraments give or increase sanctifying grace; and the sacramentals are the means to actual graces.

We might divide the sacramentals into prayers, pious objects, sacred signs, and religious ceremonies. Some sacramentals are a combination--they fall into two or more classes. The Rosary, for example, is a pious object and a prayer. The sign of the cross is a prayer and a sign. The crucifix, pictures and statues are pious objects. The ceremonies performed in the various sacraments are also sacramentals, like the extending of the hands in Confirmation.

How can mere material things help us on the way to heaven? How can water, metal, or a piece of cloth help save our souls? You must ever remember that these objects in themselves have no power to save or help us. It would be superstitious to say they had any such power. But things like a crucifix, a holy picture, a statue, a candle, do excite spiritual thoughts and feelings in those who use them correctly. They excite the fear and love of God; they arouse trust and hope in His mercy; they awaken sorrow and joy in the Lord. Their value lies in the fact that they have been set aside by the Church for sacred purposes, by the power of the Church's official prayer, and by the merits of Christ, preserved and distributed by His Church.

That Church not only sets things aside for a sacred use, she also attaches definite benefits and blessings to certain objects and good works. Many sacramentals have indulgences attached. An indulgence is the taking away, outside of confession, in whole or in part, of the temporal punishment due to sin which is already forgiven.

The sacramentals also try to express the supreme beauty and goodness of Almighty God. The words and language of the blessings are beautiful; the form and art of statues and pictures is of the best very often; the ceremonies of the sacraments are adapted to express the graces given.

Do we have to use sacramentals? Does a Catholic have to wear a scapular, or use holy water, or pray the Rosary? Strictly speaking, no. The sacraments are necessary for salvation; the sacramentals are not necessary. Nevertheless, the prayers, pious objects, sacred signs and ceremonies of Mother Church are means to salvation.

If you were lost in a desert, as were the two women of our story, you don't have to have a mirror to be saved. But that lifeless, senseless object was the means of saving their lives.

In a similar way the sacramentals, lifeless, helpless in themselves, are helps to winning life-giving graces. They must never take the place of the sacraments. You will find Catholics who place more confidence and trust in these material objects than they do in the reality of the sacraments.

For example, you may see a Catholic enter Church and go directly to the vigil light stand without seeming to pay any attention to our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. That Catholic does not appreciate the difference between a sacrament and a sacramental.

It is with a desire and holy ambition to make you appreciate these aids to spiritual life, the sacramentals, that we propose to explain some of them on succeeding Sundays.

In the desert of daily life they are mirrors that will lead us to the fountains of spiritual help and spiritual life. Amen.

Note: only a priest has the power to bless an object and make it a sacramental. Lay Catholics are free to bless objects, even using the prayers priests use -- and we do so often in blessing our children, blessing meals, blessing Advent wreaths or Mary Gardens, etc. -- but our blessing of something (or a person or an action) is a "mere" plea to God. Priests alone have been given the power to bless with a guarantee, as it were, and it is they and they alone who can take a new Crucifix or Rosary and turn them into sacramentals with the power of the entire Church behind them.


Fire, Candles, Lamps  

God tells Moses to make a 7-Branched Candlestand

Leviticus 6:12-13 "And the fire on the altar shall always burn, and the priest shall feed it, putting wood on it every day in the morning, and laying on the holocaust, shall burn thereupon the fat of the peace offerings. This is the perpetual fire which shall never go out on the altar."

The light of fire, penetrating darkness, is a symbol for the Trinity and for the grace or Person of Christ, in particular. He is "the Light of the world," as St. John tells us, and "in Him there is no darkness." While the light of fire illumines, the heat of it warms us -- and purifies. 1 Corinthians 3:13-15 tells us that fire will reveal and try our works, burning up the traces of those that can't enter Heaven (Revelation 21:27). This fire of God's love, baptizing us, illuminating, warming, and purging us, manifested before Moses in the burning bush and at the Pentecost when tongues of flame appeared over the Apostles' heads. It is in part because of the obvious symbolism grounded in these accounts that candles and lamps have been used in Christian liturgy from the beginning. Their use, though, isn't only symbolic; it is rooted thousands of years ago in the Old Testament.


The Tabernacle Lamp (or "Sanctuary Lamp" or "Altar Lamp")

tabernacle lamp, or ner tamidIn Catholic churches, at least one tabernacle lamp burns eternally outside the tabernacle where the Eucharist is kept, signifying the divine presence of God just as the ner tamid burned outside the tabernacle, signifying the presence of God in the Holy of Holies during Old Testament times:

Exodus 27:19-20
All the vessels of the tabernacle for all uses and ceremonies, and the pins both of it and of the court, thou shalt make of brass. Command the children of Israel that they bring thee the purest oil of the olives, and beaten with a pestle: that a lamp may burn always,

The tabernacle lamp is usually a light that hangs down from the ceiling, encased in a red globe. It is often called a "sanctuary lamp" because, barring extraordinary circumstances, such as in an historic cathedral with lots of tourist traffic, the tabernacle is to be kept near the Altar, in a prominent, honored, and well-decorated place, in the sanctuary.



Used as far back as the days of Moses, --

Exodus 25:31-40
Thou shalt make also a candlestick of beaten work of the finest gold, the shaft thereof, and the branches, the cups, and the bowls, and the lilies going forth from it. Six branches shall come out of the sides, three out of the one side, and three out of the other. Three cups as it were nuts to every branch, and a bowl withal, and a lily; and three cups, likewise of the fashion of nuts in the other branch, and a bowl withal, and a lily. Such shall be the work of the six branches, that are to come out from the shaft: And in the candlestick itself shall be four cups in the manner of a nut, and at every one, bowls and lilies. Bowls under two branches in three places, which together make six coming forth out of one shaft. And both the bowls and the branches shall be of the same beaten work of the purest gold. Thou shalt make also seven lamps, and shalt set them upon the candlestick, to give light over against. The snuffers also and where the snuffings shall be put out, shall be made of the purest gold. The whole weight of the candlestick with all the furniture thereof shall be a talent of the purest gold. Look and make it according to the pattern, that was shewn thee in the mount.
Baptismal Candle

-- to foreshadow the Messias to come, candles for Christians are symbols of the Christ Who has come and Who will come again. The pure wax, made by bees born of a "virginal" queen mother, is seen as a fitting symbol for the flesh of Christ, His very body. The wick symbolizes His soul; the flame, His divinity. For this reason, candles are to be lit on the Altar during The Mass.

On Easter, the Paschal Candle is lit from fire blessed in the Easter Vigil ritual known as "The Blessing of the New Fire." Traditionally, this candle is inscribed with a cross, an alpha and omega, and the numbers designating the current year. Five grains of incense are inserted into the candle's cross, symbolizing the Five Wounds of Christ. Then, after the candle is lit in the new fire, it is carried into the darkened Church, showing us how the risen Christ is the source of all light and hope. It remains near the Altar throughout the days of Easter, until Ascension Thursday. Thereafter, it is lit only for Baptisms and funerals, showing us the link between His Resurrection and our hope for eternal life through death to sin in Baptism, and resurrection after physical death. The small Baptismal candles given to new Catholics, who are generally received at Easter time, are lit from this Paschal candle symbol of Christ's body, soul, and divinity, lit from the new fire, on the day of His resurrection. These Baptismal candles should be kept and used, if possible, in one's wedding, Unction, and funeral.

On Candlemas (2 February, also known as the "Feast of the Purification" or the "Feast of the Presentation"), a day for commemorating Mary's post-birth purification, candles are blessed and given to the faithful and/or the faithful bring their own candles to be blessed. Candles can be blessed at other times, though, by a priest using the proper form. The candles blessed at Candlemas are used during Sick Calls, Unction , funerals, (if Baptismal candles aren't available for these purposes), and after sunset on All Saints' Day for private devotions during which we pray for our dead in anticipation of All Souls Day. February 3rd is the Feast of St. Blaise, a day on which we are blessed through prayer and the holding of two crossed candles against our throats.


  Votive Candles

When you enter a Catholic church, you might see a shrine, small side chapels or side altars with statues or icons and rows of votive candles. The word "votive" comes from the Latin "votum" meaning "vow," and these candles (which aren't blessed and usually aren't made of beeswax) are, when lit, used to symbolize our prayers, vows of prayer, or simply our honoring God or one of His Saints. They are lit by the people outside of Mass (before or after, or during simple visits to a church) -- usually for a specific intention. It's a very Catholic thing to say to someone that you will "light a candle for them," meaning that you will pray for them and ritually symbolize those prayers by the lighting of votives. It's not uncommon, too, to find these intentions written out and placed near the candles. Another common reason to light votive candles is out of gratitude to God for answered prayers.

We light the candle while praying for our intention or offering our thanks and then leave the flame burning as signs of our prayers. You might see a little coin box or basket nearby for donations to pay for the candles. If you're truly poor, don't worry about it! But if you are able, it is right to drop in a dollar or two to offset the costs.

Catholic families make use of votive candles at home, too, especially at family altars and, of course, during the Advent and Christmas Seasons with their respective Candles, and on Easter Sunday with its white Christ Candle symbolizing His divinity.

Other Uses of Fire by Catholics

Large bonfires are built to symbolize the Light of Christ on the Eve of the Feast of St. St. John the Baptist (23 June), a day that falls near the Summer Equinox. It was St. John who said "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30), and the day with the most sunshine, along with the bonfires of St. John's Eve, symbolize this perfectly.

If you live in a relatively temperate zone, it is appropriate to build fires on the Feast of St. Brigid ( February 1), too, another St. associated with fire. After her death in Kildare, her Sisters kept a fire burning in an enclosure near the convent. This fire burned from A.D. 525 to A.D. 1200, and was relit to burn for another 400 years until the Protestant Reformation.




Holy Water

Baptism of Christ, by Guido Reni, 1623


Numbers 5:17 "And he shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and he shall cast a little earth of the pavement of the tabernacle into it."

When the Israelites entered the Temple, they had to undergo purifcation by immersion in a mikvah (modern Jews still make use of mikva'ot on Yom Kippur, on wedding days, for purification after menstruation or coming into contact with a dead body or semen, etc.). These ritual purifications by water prefigured Christian Baptism, which we recall when we bless ourselves (cross ourselves) using holy water upon entering our churches. Devoutly blessing one's self with Holy Water remits venial sins.

When you enter a church, you might find a holy water font ("stoup") attached to the wall at one or both sides of each door, or you might find a free-standing font. Simply dip the tips of the fingers of your right hand into the water and cross yourself while mentally contemplating the words, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Don't rush through this; make it meaningful, remembering the meaning of your Baptism and mentally expressing your gratitude to God. Many Catholics repeat this process upon leaving the church, too. (Note: you might see one Catholic dip his fingers into the Holy Water and touch fingers with another Catholic to share it if that second Catholic can't reach the font comfortably)

This holy water is also used by the priest to sprinkle the people before the beginning of Mass. This is called "Asperges" and the accompanying words (which should be chanted) are rooted in the Psalms, "Thou shalt sprinke me, O Lord, with hyssop and I shall be cleansed; Thou shalt wash me, and I shall become whiter than show. Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy." ("Aspérges me, Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor: lavabis me, et super nivem dealbador. Miserére mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam."). Holy water is blessed on the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6).

Holy Water for Personal Use

Where to get it
To get holy water to use in your home, bring a clean flask to your parish church and look for a faucet that will probably be labelled "Holy Water." If there is no faucet, it might be kept in an urn of some sort. If you can't find it, don't be shy; just ask! Unlike votive candles, there is no real cost to the church in making holy water, so there is no offering expected.

How to use it
You can keep it in a nice flask, put it into little bottles made for this purpose to carry with you, or, as is most common, put it into holy water fonts.

One of the loveliest fonts I've seen. Someday, I will get this for my birthday! hint hint!Holy water fonts for the home come in all sizes and shapes, some tacky and plastic, others quite lovely and made of alabaster, marble, porcelain, sandstone, or metals -- as inexpensive or as expensive as you like -- some resting on tables, most hanging on walls. One example is shown at left. You can buy one from most Catholic gift shops or make your own (consider using bivalve seashells as basins or the shell motif in design. The shells of large molluscs -- weighing up to 500 pounds -- have been used in churches as basins for holy water).

Catholics often keep a font near their front door, in their bedrooms' doorways, and near the family altar. Use the water in the same way you do at church. Bless your children with it as you tuck them in at night, using your thumb to sign them with a cross of holy water on their foreheads.

How to dispose of
Holy water is usually made with a touch of salt which is a preservative, but if your holy water were to go a little, um, green, the proper way to dispose of it is the same as for any sacramental: you want to return it to the earthly elements. You should dig a hole and pour it into the earth.


Easter Water

I can't leave this topic without mentioning a special kind of holy water: Easter water. This is the water that is blessed on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter) and is used to baptize Catechumens. This water receives a more solemn sort of blessing than "regular holy water," and the Easter Candle is dipped into it three times. (Mind you, any clean water can be used in Baptism, and often is, as in cases of emergency; but the use of Easter water is the normal way of doing things).


When Christians were still being persecuted by the Romans and overtly by Jews, the only bells that could be used were small hand bells; but when Constantine put a stop to the persecutions, larger bells came into general use. Tradition (small "T") attributes Paulinus, Bishop of Nola, Campania, Italy, with introducing them into Church use around the year 400, and St. Patrick (A.D. 389-446) is said to have taken metalworkers to Ireland so they could make bells for the churches he built there. These earlier bells weren't the great cast bells we generally think of, but were hammered-iron bells, the technology and/or materials for the former not being readily available out in missionary lands. It wasn't until the 8th c. that the gorgeous cast bells came to outnumber the less sonorous iron ones -- bells of great enough size that bell towers began to be constructed just to house them.

Over time, founders experimented with their bells' shapes and features to control for pitch and tone, and eventually devising various methods of ringing them. Where there were different types of bell in one church, each was used, alone or with others, for a different purpose -- one bell or stroke pattern to announce death, another to call the faithful to prayer, another to announce the grade of the Feast being celebrated, etc. They were used daily to announce the canonical hours and the Angelus. Descriptions of these various functions made their way onto the bells themselves, which were often inscribed with their name (see below) and/or a line of poetry signifying their use. Just one example:

Laudo Deum verum plebem voco congrego clerum
Defunctos ploro, nimbum fugo, festa decoro.

(I praise the true God, I call the people, I assemble the clergy;
I bewail the dead, I dispense storm clouds, I do honour to feasts.)



Holy Oils
Samuel annointing David with oil



Exodus 30:22-25 "And the Lord spoke to Moses, Saying: Take spices, of principal and chosen myrrh five hundred sicles, and of cinnamon half so much, that is, two hundred and fifty sicles, of calamus in like manner two hundred and fifty. And of cassia five hundred sicles by the weight of the sanctuary, of oil of olives the measure hin: And thou shalt make the holy oil of unction, an ointment compounded after the art of the perfumer..."

James 5:14 "Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the priests of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord."


There are three kinds of sacred oils, all of which signify the work of the Holy Spirit and symbolize it in that oil "serves to sweeten, to strengthen, to render supple" (Catholic Encyclopedia). The three holy oils are:

  • The Oil of Catechumens ("Oleum Catechumenorum" or "Oleum Sanctum") used in Baptism along with water, in the consecration of churches, in the blessing of Altars, in the ordination of priests, and, sometimes, in the crowning of Catholic kings and queens.
  • The Holy Chrism ("Sanctum Chrisma") or "Oil of Gladness," which is olive oil mixed with a small amount of balm or balsam. It is used in Confirmation, Baptism, in the consecration of a Bishop, the consecration of a various things such as churches, chalices, patens, and bells.
  • The Oil of the Sick ("Oleum Infirmorum"), which is used in Unction

The blessing of oils is performed by the Bishop of each diocese on Maundy Thursday ("Holy Thursday") in the diocese's cathedral during a "Chrism Mass." The oils are kept in metal or glass bottles called "chrismatories," "chrismals," or "ampullae."  These vessels are then stored in a cabinet called an "ambry," which is usually fixed to the wall of the sanctuary. Priests also have a portable "oilstock" which has a section for each of the three holy oils. Lay people are not to handle the holy oils, even to carry them, except in emergencies.


Angel with censer


Psalm 140:1-2 "I have cried to Thee, O Lord, hear me: hearken to my voice, when I cry to Thee. Let my prayer be directed as incense in Thy sight; the lifting up of my hands, as evening sacrifice."

The "sweet savour" of incense was used in Old Testament liturgy as far back as the time of Moses as an offering to God:

Exodus 30:34-36
And the Lord said to Moses: Take unto thee spices, stacte, and onycha, galbanum of sweet savour, and the clearest frankincense, all shall be of equal weight. And thou shalt make incense compounded by the work of the perfumer, well tempered together, and pure, and most worthy of sanctification. And when thou hast beaten all into very small powder, thou shalt set of it before the tabernacle of the testimony, in the place where I will appear to thee. Most holy shall this incense be unto you.

... and its continued use was predicted, along with the Eucharistic offering, by Malachias:

Malachias 1:11
For from the rising of the sun even to the going down, my name is great among the Gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to my name a clean oblation: for my name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of hosts.

Frankincense and myrrh were two of the three gifts the Magi brought to Baby Jesus:

Matthew 2:11
And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they adored him: and opening their treasures, they offered him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

-- and even the very angels in Heaven use incense, the smoke of which comes with the prayers of the Saints.

Apocalypse 8:3-4
And another angel came and stood before the altar, having a golden censer: and there was given to him much incense, that he should offer of the prayers of all saints, upon the golden altar which is before the throne of God. And the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God from the hand of the angel.

The Catholic Church still uses incense in this same way and in accordance with prophecy of Malachias, the fragrant smoke symbolizing our prayers rising to Heaven and purifying what it touches. The incense is kept in a covered, often boat-shaped liturgical vessel called, unsurprisingly, a "boat," which symbolizes the barque of Peter. The boat, made of bronze or brass and often silver or gold-plated, comes with a spoon for scattering the incense in the bowl-shaped matching burner, called a "thurible" or "censer." The thurible holds burning charcoal (or wood) to ignite the incense and hangs on chains (see angel picture above) so that it may be swung by the priest when censing things (or people) and so it may be easily carried by the thurifer -- the "Altar server" who assists the priest by carrying the incense.

Thurible & Boat

Incense is used during the Mass to bless the Altar when the priest first ascends to it, and, during the Offertory, to bless the bread and wine, the Crucifix and Altar (again), and the congregation.

Incense is also used during the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, during processions, funeral rites and to bless things like relics, bells or the Gospel.

Other uses of incense are the 5 grains of incense, symbolizing the 5 wounds of Christ, inserted into the Paschal candle on Easter, and the incense burned on the altar stone of a new Altar during its consecration. Incense is also placed inside the cavity (the "sepulchre") of the Altar along with a relic, to symbolize the prayers of the
Saint to whom the relic belongs.

Frankincense is blessed on the Feast of the Epiphany. The faithful may take some of his home with them for use at their family altars.


Incense Use in the Home

Though stick and cone incense may be used, the classic way of using incense at your family altar is to use resin incense (like the priests use), which comes in large "grains," in a charcoal incense burner. Simply place a piece of charcoal in the burner, light it until it is glowing (it might spark at first), and place about a 1/2 a teaspoon or so of incense on top (not so much that the charcoal will be smothered). It is good to have a supply of those bamboo sticks that are used in making shishkabobs: they come in handy for lighting not only charcoal inside the burner, but for lighting tall pillar candles that've burned down deeply inside their glass holders.

Charcoal can smolder for a very long time, so don't leave it unattended -- and remember that the incense holder will be HOT, so keep little hands, and your own, away. You can find incense burner charcoal and a large variety of resin incense here and a large variety of incense burners here

If you don't have or don't want to buy a regular incense burner, you can use any fire-proof container -- bowls, a seashell, even -- for the purpose. Place a little sand for insulation at the bottom of your container if it sits directly on your table.

Sacred Images:
Statues and Other Icons

John 8:12: I am the light of the world. The one following me will never walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life.


God became man.

The "earthy" reality of the Incarnation is probably one of the main concepts the focusing on which separates Catholics (and Orthodox) from most other Christians. Adherents to more Puritanical forms of Christianity are scandalized by images; seeing a Corpus on a Crucifix instead of an empty Cross, seeing churches adorned with statues and other icons, etc. seem so -- "undivine" or "wordly" to these people; but we Catholics know that Christ, by taking on flesh and becoming man, redeemed us and gave to us the offer of a dignity which, without Him, would be impossible. It is to always be remembered that we are not souls trapped in flesh, but enfleshed souls who are called to use our bodies and time on earth glorifying Him and, in consequence, becoming divinized and sharing in His Divine Nature. Our time in this material world isn't some kind of cruel joke.

All Truth, all Beauty, all Goodness point to Him, amen, and the beautiful and good things of this world are a shadow of the world to come. Our statues and other icons help us to see this as they also inspire us to meditate on the specific divine realities they mean to convey. When Christ incarnated at the Annunciation and was born of the Virgin nine months later, He demonstrated one of the first Biblical Truths: what God made is good, and flesh, while humbling for God to take on, while weak, and while prone to corruption and sin after the Fall, is not inherently evil. Christian understanding of the consequences of this reality is evident from the beginning, as far back as the Catacombs, and two-dimensional painted icons, statues, and mosaics have always been used as aids to Christian worship.

Nonetheless, during the 8th c., two great waves of iconoclasm struck Christianity in the East, the first led by Emperor Leo III who was influenced by the success of iconoclastic Islam and a revival of the Monophysite heresy which denied Christ's humanity. Pope Gregory II denounced Leo and his iconoclastic movement, and the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicaea (A.D. 787) firmly explained the difference between idolatry and the veneration given to icons. Pope St. Gregory the Great explained this difference and extolled images' catechetical value in a letter he wrote to an iconoclast Bishop:

Not without reason has antiquity allowed the stories of saints to be painted in holy places. And we indeed entirely praise thee for not allowing them to be adored, but we blame thee for breaking them. For it is one thing to adore an image, it is quite another thing to learn from the appearance of a picture what we must adore. What books are to those who can read, that is a picture to the ignorant who look at it; in a picture even the unlearned may see what example they should follow; in a picture they who know no letters may vet read. Hence, for Barbarians [those who don't speak Latin] especially a picture takes the place of a book.

Icon writer, Leontius the Hierapolian, wrote about the Christian use of images:

I sketch and paint Christ and the sufferings of Christ in churches, in homes, in public squares and on icons, on linen cloth, in closets, on clothes, and in every place I paint so that men may see them plainly, may remember them and not forget them . . . And as thou, when thou makest thy reverence to the Book of the Law, bowest down not to the substance of skins and ink, but to the sayings of God that are found therein, so I do reverence to the image of Christ. Not to the substance of wood and paint – that shall never happen . . . But, by doing reverence to an inanimate image of Christ, through Him I think to embrace Christ Himself and to do Him reverence . . . We Christians, by bodily kissing an icon of Christ, or of an apostle or martyr, are in spirit kissing Christ Himself or His martyr.

Nonetheless, the iconoclasts raged on in the East, and Christians there begged the Pope to intervene, with St. Theodoret writing, "Whatever novelty is brought into the Church by those who wander from the truth must certainly be referred to Peter or to his successor . . . . Save us, chief pastor of the Church under heaven" and "Arrange that a decision be received from old Rome as the custom has been handed down from the beginning by the tradition of our fathers."

Eventually, with the popular help of Empress Theodora in A.D. 843, the iconoclastic nonsense was finally squelched, but not until after monasteries were trashed, icons were smashed, monks were tortured and killed, and relics and shrines destroyed.


2-D Icons

Though the word "icon" (also "ikon" or "eikon") refers to religious images of any sort -- 2-D, 3-D, made of any material, in this section, I will use the word to refer specifically to two-dimensional representations which have become highly stylized over time and which one typically associates with the word "icon." Like all religious images, an icon has as its purpose acting as a "window to Heaven," a portal through which one sees greater Truths than can be revealed by word alone.

Christ is the first icon in that He revealed the Father ("He who has seen Me, has seen the Father," John 14:8-9); we ourselves are creatures made in the image of God and who are to put on Christ in order to restore our likeness to Him. We are called to be iconic in that we are to reveal the Father in our Christian witness, through the grace of Christ and the Gifts of the Holy Ghost. And, of course, there is the Holy Shroud which was made without human hands...

While the first Icon Writer (one speaks of "writing icons," not "painting" them) is God -- Who begot the Son Who is God and Who reveals the Father, Who created us who are called to reveal Him, and Who miraculously formed the Holy Shroud, St. Luke is said to have created the first icon written by human hands: an icon called the Hodegetria -- a prototype of the Eleousa icon (Our Lady of Tenderness) which is an image of Our Lady holding her Son. Over time, icons came to be written according to very definite rules of design and system of symbols (see table below); the arrangement of elements, colors used, the manner of showing light, etc. are all governed by theological principles and ecclesiastical custom. Various schools and ages of icon writing arose, each with distinctive styles: the 6th c. Justinian period; the 10th c. - 12th c. rise of Russian icon writing; and the "Golden Age of Icons" in the 14th c. Throughout, the representations of persons were and are meant to capture spiritual realities, not earthly ones. They are not meant to be realistic portraits of their flesh, but portraits of their enfleshed spirits, as it were, as seen through the eyes of faith.

As you can see from where the great schools of icon writing arose, two-dimensional highly stylized icons are a more important phenomenon in the East than in the West, where statues, mosaics, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, etc., also had their place, and the treatment of images in the East and West also differ according to custom:

prostrations (inside of Lent), bows (outside of Lent), kisses to the feet or hem of the one depicted, incense, processions, and burning candles before the image are used to show one's veneration for the Divine Reality presented by the image

kisses to the feet or hem of the one depicted, touching the image, burning candles before the image, kneeling, incensing, processions, adornment with flowers, and crownings (esp. of Marian icons) are more the form.


Symbology in Icons

Hands hands are often shown giving a blessing: the last two fingers touching thumb (two fingers raised) symbolizes the two natures of Christ; ring finger touching thumb (three fingers raised) symbolizes the Trinity.

Hands are also shown with with the forefinger extended straight; the middle finger curved slightly; the thumb and the ring finger crossed; and the little finger curved slightly. This gesture forms the letters "IC XC" (Greek letters for "Jesus Christ") -- the first finger making the I, the curved middle finger forming the C, the crossed ring finger and thumb forming the X, and the pinky finger forming the second C.
Eyes large to show faith in God ("the eyes of faith")
Ears large to show we must listen to God
Position usually, divine and saintly figures face forward; others are in profile
Light Light source shown as coming from within the Divine or divinized Person or persons
Color Gold: Divine Light, Christ Himself
White: eternal Light, the Father
Green: Holy Spirit, regeneration
Blue: faith, humility
Red: youth, beauty, war, love
Purple: royalty, priesthood
Bright Yellow: Truth
Pale Yellow: pride, betrayal
Brown: death to the world
Black: evil, death
Time and Space earthly perspective is lost and icons have a flatness to them that disappears in Western Art after the painter Giotto discovered the rules of painting using perspective. Time, too, is distorted to show sequential events simultaneously. Both of these phenomena lend themselves to aiding the viewer in realizing that he is not looking at temporal realities, but spiritual realities
Evangelists wear tunics, carry a book
Bishops wear vestments, carry a book or scroll
Monks wear habits, stand very erect

Reading Icons

Let's take a look at the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (also called "Our Mother of Perpetual Help" and "Virgin of the Passion") to get an idea of how to read icons. But first, a little history, because the story of this icon is so interesting.

No one is sure about the origins of the icon, but it came from Crete and is a "Hodegetria" style icon (see below). A merchant there heard of many miracles surrounding the icon and, wanting it for himself, stole it and took it with him in his travels. He ended up in Rome, and on his deathbed, told a local Roman about how he'd acquired the icon and asked him to take it to a church where it could be enjoyed by many. The Roman's wife, though, had other ideas and kept the icon in her bedroom.

Mary appeared to the Roman many times in visions, asking him to take the icon to a church. When this didn't happen, Mary appeared to the Roman's six-year old daughter and told her the icon should be taken to St. Matthew Church. The Roman family obeyed, and there the icon remained, venerated by many who came to contemplate its message, until 1798 when Napoleon's army invaded Rome and Napoleon (what else?) ordered the destruction of churches. The icon disappeared.

Around 50 years later, a sacristan in a church in France told an altar boy that the painting that had hung in their own church for almost a half-century was very old and used to hang at St. Matthew's church in Rome. It had been saved from destruction and secretly carried to their parish church, and he wanted the boy to remember this so someone would know the story.

More years pass, and the altar boy had become a Redemptorist in Rome. His Order took over an estate that just happened to include the old St. Matthew church, and while researching the history of the place, they learned of the beautiful icon that had disappeared. The former altar boy remembered what the sacristan had told him and relayed the story to his Brothers. The Redemptorists appealed to Pope Pius IX, reminding him that it was Mary's own wish that the icon be hung at St. Matthew's church. The Pope intervened, restoring the icon to its now rightful place, and telling the Redemptorists to make Our Mother of Perpetual Help their mission, spreading knowledge of her and her icon throughout the world. This they have done.

And now on to the icon itself:

Our Lady (Mother) of Perpetual Help

Mary's gaze is aimed directly at you, as though she wants you to meet her eyes and ponder. The Greek letters above --
MR QU -- tell us that she is the Mother of God, and, against a background of gold (divine light), she wears a dark blue robe (faith, humility) with a green lining (Holy Ghost) and a red tunic (beauty).

Baby Jesus, identified by the letters "IC XC," doesn't look at His mother or at us in this icon; instead, He is looking away, having seen something that made Him afraid -- so afraid that He ran to His mother fast enough that He lost one of His little sandals. What does He see? His destiny, symbolized by the angels bearing the instruments of His Passion. The angel to the left, Michael, carries the lance that will pierce His side, an urn filled with gall, and the reed and sponge which will carry it to His lips. The angel to the right, Gabriel, bears a Cross and four nails. His earthly comfort, and ours, is in His mother, and as He clings to her, she, with her gaze, invites us to do the same.


Icon Styles


Below are descriptions and pictures of some of the most famous icon types. You will see the same artistic elements and schemes in icons from different eras and ritual Churches, in different styles, but with recurring themes and standardized types. The icons below can be purchased from Skete Icons.


(Ruler of All, Christ the Teacher)

Christ as Teacher holding a book, two fingers (raised in a blessing) indicating

His two natures 1)Divine 2) Human

(Grebenskaya, Our Lady of the Way, The Leader, The Guide of the Church)

Mary holding Christ and pointing toward Him. The prototype is said to have been written by St. Luke. (The Polish depiction of Our Lady of Czestochowa, the famous "Black Madonna," is a variation of the Hodegetria style icon, as are St. Luke's "Salus Populi Romani" icon kept at St. Mary Major Basilica , the icon of "Our Lady of Perpetual Help," the "Virgin of the Three Hands," and "Our Lady of Kazan" ("Kazanskaya") (see below for some of these in more detail))

(Elouesa, The Tender Mercy, Virgin of Loving Kindness, Tender Touch, Sweet Kissing)

Mary holds her Son, Who touches His face to hers and wraps (at least) one arm around her neck or shoulder (See La Bruna icon below)

(Oumilenie, Virgin of Tenderness, Who Embraces Gently)

Like the Eleousa, but the Theotokos embraces Jesus Who caresses her chin

(Kyriotissa, Queen of Heaven, She Who Reigns in Majesty)

Mary regally enthroned with Baby Jesus on her lap

Virgin Kardiotissa
(Close to the Motherly Heart)

Mary holding Jesus with their faces touching, His arms are flung wide open around her neck


Mary is shown alone, in profile, facing toward her left (toward Christ), with hands held out in supplication

Virgin Orans
(the Orante, the Oranta)

Mary is shown with arms in orante position. A most popular form of this style is the "Lady of the Sign" (Virgin of the Incarnation, Platytera), shown at left, in which Mary is shown with arms in orante position, with Christ enclosed in a circle in her womb. When Christ is shown in Mary's womb like that, she is known as the "Mother of God of the Sign," hearkening back to the words of Isaias 7:14, "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel." Such icons are favorites among those who fight abortion.

Particular Icons You Should Know

We've already seen the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, but there are other particular icons that you should be familiar with:

Salus Populi Romani

St. Luke is said to have written the famous "Salus Populi Romani" ("Protector of the Roman People") Hodegetria-style icon, shown at right, which was brought from the Holy Land to Rome by Helena, Constantine's mother. It is Salus Populi Romani by St. Lukehoused in St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome, a Basilica which was built in response to a miracle: in A.D.. 358., Our Lady appeared to Pope Liberius and a couple and told them to build a church at a place she would mark out with snow on Esquiline Hill. On an August night, she did just that -- a church-sized, church-shaped area of snow fell on the hill. The people staked out the area "Our Lady of the Snows" indicated, the Basilica was built, and Pope Liberius consecrated it. It has been rebuilt over the years, lastly by Pope Paul V (1605-1621). The Feast of the dedication of the (original) Basilica is August 5, and in commemoration of the miraculous snowfall, white rose petals are sprinkled down from the dome during the Mass that day.

In this icon, Mary, dressed in a red tunic and a dark blue mantle with gold trim, holds Jesus in her left arm. Jesus gazes as His mother as He holds a book and raises his hand in blessing. Unlike most Hodegetria type icons, Mary does not point to Christ.


Our Lady With Three Hands 

Another Hodegetria-style icon you should be familiar with is the icon known as "Virgin Tricherousa," or "Our Lady With Three Hands." St. John Damascene (ca. A.D. 676-754/87, Feast Day 27 March), a great fighter against the iconoclasts, was accused of being an enemy of the state in which he lived, and as punishment, the Caliph ordered that one of his hands be chopped off. Afterwards, St. John took the severed hand, prayed in front of an icon of Our Lady (one said to have been written by St. Luke), and then fell asleep, waking to find that his hand was healed. In honor of that healing, he made a hand of silver and added it to the icon. The altered icon has been duplicated ever since. You can see the silver third hand in the lower left of the picture.

This icon is at the Serbian Monastery of Chiliandari, Mt. Athos ("Holy Mountain"), near Ouranoupolis, Greece (in Orthodox hands).


Our Lady of Czestochowa

The icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa -- another icon in the Hodegetria style -- is another important image, and one with an important and miraculous History. One of the "Black Madonnas," she can be recognized by her dark skin tone (partly due to style, partly due to the effects of smoke from candles), the jeweled clothing, and the slash marks on the cheek (hard to see in the image at right, but obvious in person and in good reproductions). This icon is another said to have been written by St. Luke, and allegedly was brought from Jerusalem to Constantinople by St. Helena. It ended up in the hands of the princes of Ruthenia, then was taken to Poland by Prince Ladislaus, who kept it in the chapel of the Castle of Belz. When the Saracacens attacked the castle, one of their arrows scarred the throat of the image. Praying to Our Lady to discover where to place the icon to keep it protected, Prince Ladislaus had a dream in which he was told to leave the image on Jasna Gora (Bright Hill) in Czestochowa, where the icon remains today. He built a monastery and church there and, in 1382, asked Pauline monks to act as guardians of the icon.

In 1430, iconoclast Hussites attacked the monastery and tried to steal the icon -- but their horses wouldn't budge when they attempted to carry it away. In a rage, they broke the icon into three pieces and slashed the cheek of Our Lady's image three times; at the third slash, the swordsman died! These slash wounds cannot be repaired, though many had tried over the years.

In 1655, Swedish soldiers, said to have been 12,000 in number, went up against the monastery but were held off by the 300 religious who had Our Lady to protect them; in gratitude, King John Casmir declared Mary Queen of Poland.

In 1920, the Russians gathered in the area to prepare to attack the Polish people. But the people beseeched Our Lady, and the next day (15 August, the Feast of the Assumption), her image appeared in the skies, sending the Russians fleeing.

The golden crown that adorns the image today was a gift of St. Pius X (but Pope Clement XI crowned the image in 1717. Reproductions of the icon paint in the crown). Many, many miracles are associated with this icon, and it is quite dear to the Polish people.


La Bruna

I also have to mention the "La Bruna" ("The Brown One"), an icon that is of the Eleousa style but shows Mary with a star with one long tail on her right shoulder reflecting her purity. Again Our Lady is wearing a red tunic and blue mantle and veil, which Jesus clings to. Though it doesn't show up in this reproduction, Jesus and Mary are surrounded by large halos, hers with 12 rosettes representing the 12 Tribes and 12 Apostles, His with the Cross. This icon is a 12th c. Carmelite icon, the original of which is in the Basilica of Carmine Maggiore in Naples, Italy.




I Corinthians 1:23-24 "But we preach Christ crucified: unto the Jews indeed a stumblingblock, and unto the Gentiles foolishness: But unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God."

Every Catholic home should have a Cruficix hanging over the bed in each bedroom, and, most importantly, at least one in a common area, such as the Dining Room, Living Room, or Family Room. In addition, Catholics should wear Crucifixes -- not empty Crosses (aside from stylized ones of significance) -- around their necks. Why Crucifixes instead of empty Crosses? Because, as did Paul, we preach Christ crucified, and know that it is His Blood that saves us, not His Resurrection, which is a wonderful fruit of His Sacrifice. We get to the Resurrection through the Cross, and we are called to pick up our own Crosses and carry them, offering up our sufferings in imitation of Him.

Crucifixes may be gotten at any Catholic gift shop and are the perfect gift for a newlywed couple as one can't have too many of them. You'll find Crucifixes to be worn around the neck, some to be hung on walls, some on stands to be placed on tables, etc.

You will see on some Crucifixes a skull and crossbones at the foot of the Cross. Aside from symbolizing victory over death, this skull more specifically represents the skull of Adam, said in Jewish and Christian legend to have been buried at Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified. The Blood of Christ, the New Adam, redeems man, as symbolized by the skull of the First Adam. I Corinthians 15:22, 45: "And as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive...The first man Adam was made into a living soul; the last Adam into a quickening spirit."

You also might see a representation of the titulus crucis -- the plaque marked with "I.N.R.I." which stands for "Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum," the Latin initials for "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." This inscription was written in Latin, Hebrew, and Greek and placed at the top of Jesus' Cross according to Matthew 27:37, Mark 15:26, Luke 23:38 and John 19:19.

Crucifixes should be blessed by a priest and treated with great veneration. Kissing a Crucifix is an indulgenced act.

There are a few Crucifixes that stand out and should be mentioned individually. The first of these is the San Damiano Crucifix.

San Damiano Crucifix

The San Damiano Crucifix was written by an 11th or 12th c. Umbrian artist, and it came to adorn the chapel of San Damiano in Assisi, Italy. It was before this Crucifix that Saint Francis of Assisi was converted and received word from the Lord to repair His Church. The Poor Clares, an Order of nuns founded by Clare of Assisi, a good friend of St. Francis, took the Crucifix with them to San Giorgio in 1257, and it now resides at San Giorgio's Chapel in the Basilica of St Clare of Assisi. Now, look at the Crucifix more closely:

This Crucifix is full of the Gospel events of His Passion. At the top, we see Our Lord ascending into Heaven, toward the hand of His Father.

The Blessed Virgin and John, who was appointed to be her caretaker, stand to Christ's right (our left). To Christ's left (our right) are the Magdalen,  Mary Cleophas (mother of James), and the Centurion whose words we speak at Mass, "Dómine, non sum dignus, ut intres sub tectum meum: sed tantum dic verbo, et sanábitur ánima mea" (Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed). The little boy behind the Centurion is the Centurion's son whom Jesus healed.

Also present are two other Roman soldiers, Longinus, who pierced Jesus' side with a lance, and Stephen, who gave Him vinegar to drink (some say this second figure is that of Pilate).

Beside His right leg is Adam, biting into the apple, and above Adam is the rooster as a symbol of Peter's denial.

At the very bottom, under His feet, are 6 unkown Saints.

The transverse arm of the Cross is actually a tomb -- the empty tomb -- and at either end are Peter and John running toward it, being met by the two groups of two angels who let them know "He is not here."


The Pardon Crucifix

I have to mention this Crucifix because it is so lovely and is relevant to one of my favorite Popes, Pope St. Pius X, who granted these indulgences:

  • Whoever carries on his person the Pardon Crucifix, may thereby gain an indulgence.
  • For devoutly kissing the Crucifix, an indulgence is gained.
  • Whoever says one of the following invocations before this crucifix may gain each time an indulgence: "Our Father who art in heaven, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." "I beg the Blessed Virgin Mary to pray to the Lord our God for me."
  • Whoever, habitually devout to this Crucifix, will fulfill the necessary conditions of Confession and Holy Communion, may gain a Plenary Indulgence on the following feasts: On the feasts of the Five Wounds of our Lord, the Invention of the Holy Cross, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the Immaculate Conception, and the Seven Dolors of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
  • Whoever at the moment of death, fortified with the Sacraments of the Church, or contrite of heart, in the supposition of being unable to receive them, will kiss this Crucifix and ask pardon of God for his sins, and pardon his neighbour, will gain a Plenary Indulgence.

And there is this: Pontifical Rescript of June 1905, to M.M. the Abbes Lemann:

Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Indulgences

To the faithful, who devoutly kiss this Crucifix and gain these precious indulgences, we recommend to have in view the following intentions: To testify love for Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin; gratitude towards our Holy Father, the Pope, to beg for the remission of one's sins; the deliverance of the souls in Purgatory; the return of the nations to the Faith; forgiveness among Christians; reconciliation among members of the Catholic Church. By another Pontifical rescript of November 14 1905. His Holiness Pope Pius X, has declared that the Indulgence attached to the Pardon Crucifix are applicable to the souls in Purgatory.

On the back of the Crucifix, on the transverse arms, are the words, "Father, forgive them." On the long part of the Cross are the words, "Behold this heart which has so loved men." The Sacred Heart is shown where the two arms of the Cross meet.

Caravaca Cross or Crucifix
(a.k.a. "Cara Vaca" and "Cuernavaca")

This Cross takes its name from Caravaca (now known as Caravaca de la Cruz), Spain, a town in the province of Murcia where, in A.D. 1231, a priest was imprisoned by the Moors. Out of curiosity, his captors' King, Abu Zeid, asked him to say Mass, but as the priest began, he realized he didn't have the necessary Crucifix. As his captors grew angry, the Patriarch of Jerusalem's pectoral cross was transported to the priest through an open window, borne by two angels. Seeing this, King Abu Zeid converted to the true religion.

The "Caravaca Cross," then, is the two-armed Lorraine Cross that is used by Archbishops and Patriarchs. Some representations are Crucifixes, such as the one above, and may show the angels that carried the Cross, one on each side. The words "Caravaca" may appear on the second arm of the Cross such that "Cara" is on one side, and "vaca" on the other. This is a very popular Crucifix in Spain and Mexico.

Read also about the St. Benedict Medal for information on the Crucifixes with the St. Benedict Medal embedded -- a most powerful sacramental. See, too, see the page on Christian Symbols for the shapes of other types of Crucifixes (and Crosses)



Palm Branches

Palms are sacramentals of the Church distributed to the faithful on Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter) -- the day that commemorates Christ's entry into Jerusalem. Their purpose is to honor Christ's glory and Kingship, as did the inhabitants of Jerusalem who met Him, strewing palm branches on the street before Him.

Carrying palms in procession goes way back into the Old Testament, where it was not only approved but commanded by God at the very foundation of the Old Testament religion. In the fall of the year, after the harvest, when the people gathered for the Feast of Tabernacles God said in Leviticus 23:40:

And you shall take to you on the first day the fruits of the fairest tree, and branches of palm trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook: And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God.

Again we read of palms in the II Machabees 10:6-8:

And they kept eight days with joy, after the manner of the feast of the tabernacles, remembering that not long before they had kept the feast of the tabernacles when they were in the mountains, and in dens like wild beasts. Therefore they now carried boughs and green branches and palms, for him that had given them good success in cleansing his place. And they ordained by a common statute, and decree, that all the nation of the Jews should keep those days every year.

And in the 7th chapter of the Apocalypse, we see that those who were "sealed" are seen by John carrying palms:

Apocalypse 7:9-10:
After this, I saw a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and in sight of the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands. And they cried with a loud voice, saying: Salvation to our God, who sitteth upon the throne and to the Lamb.

The palms are blessed before the High Mass on Palm Sunday. Vested in red cope and standing at the Epistle side of the Altar, the priest recites a short prayer, and then reads a Palm branchlesson from the book of Exodus which tells of the children of Israel coming to Elim on their way to the Promised Land, where they found a fountain and seventy palm trees. It was at Elim that God sent them manna.

After a few verses from the New Testament, the priest reads the story of Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem the Sunday before His death, and about how the people put palms in the Savior's path and sang hosannas because, ironically, they expected a temporal victory by the One they thought would be the great military leader who would conquer the Romans..

Then we pray, begging God that we may in the end go meet Christ, that we may enter with Him into the eternal Jerusalem. The following preface and prayers ask God to bless the palms, that they may be sanctified and may be a means of grace and divine protection to those who carry them and treasure them with faith.

The palms are distributed to the people at the Communion rail. The priest will press the palm against your lips so you can kiss it, and then his hand. Alternatively, the palms may be handed out by the altar boys. In any case, Scripture and prayers follow, and then a procession of clergy, servers, and people through the church or outside around the church.

Some of these same palm branches are saved and burned the next year to make the ashes for the next Ash Wednesday -- the palms, which symbolize triumph, and the ashes, which sympbolize death and penitence, forming a great symbolic connection between suffering and victory.

The branches given to the faithful are held in the hand at the singing or reading of the Passion and the Gospel during the Mass, but when Mass is finished we take them home and hang them over crucifixes or holy pictures (I don't know how universal this is, but an Italian custom is to break off a piece of the palm and, while praying to St. Barbara for her intercession, burn it for protection against lightning storms). Another custom is to shape the palm into Latin Crosses (see below) 1 before hanging them. A piece should also be placed with one's sick call set.

The next year, when we get new palms, the old palms are burned and their ashes buried.


How to make palm crosses to tuck into picture frames, hang on your walls, or keep on your family altars


  1. Take a palm that is about 2 feet long and 1/2" wide (if it tapers at the top, this is good!).
  2. Hold the palm upright, so the tapered end points toward the ceiling. Then bend the top end down and toward you so that the bend is about 5 or 6 inches from the bottom of the palm.
  3. About a third of the way from the bend you just made, twist the section you've pulled down to the right, forming a right angle.
  4. About an inch or inch and a half away from the "stem" of the cross, bend this arm of the palm back behind the palm so that it is now facing to your left. Make the bend at a good length to form the right arm of the Cross.
  5. Folding that same section at a point that equals the length on the right side, bend it on the left side and bring the end forward over what is now the front of the cross.
  6. From the very center of the Cross, fold that arm up and to the upper right (in a "northeast" direction) so that it can wrap around where the upright post of the Cross and the right arm intersect.
  7. Fold this down and to the left behind the Cross, and then fold it toward the right so that it is parallel and under the transverse arms of the Cross.
  8. Bring it up behind the Cross again, this time folding it up toward the "northwest" direction.
  9. Tuck the tapered end into the transverse section you made in step 7.
  10. Turn the Cross over; this side will be the front. Trim the tapered end if necessary, remembering that the palm is a sacramental and any part you trim away should be kept and respected as a sacramental! Use that piece for burning during storms.

Footnote:St. Brigid's Cross
1 There's another type of Cross that is woven by Catholics -- St. Brigid's Crosses (see picture at right). They are made on St. Brigid's Feast Day (1 February) out of rushes or reeds and hung on the inside of the front door of one's house, especially in Irish Catholic homes. They are left there all year and replaced the next St. Brigid's Day. St. Brigid's Crosses have their origin in the fact that a dying chieftan asked St. Brigid about a Cross she was shaping out of reeds. In explaining her gesture, she told him the story of Christ, and he converted.



Flemish Vanitas painting, Flemish Vanitas Still Lif, by Jan van Kessel I, ca. 1665

Ecclesiasticus 7:40 "In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin."


In the 17th. c., a style of painting known as "vanitas painting" became popular (see above). This style included elements that represented temporal bounty - flowers, fruits, etc., and symbols of riches, such as gold and jewels. These gorgeous gifts from God were then juxtaposed with symbols that showed the reality of death, usually a skull, or an hourglasses that symbolized the passage of time.

The point of this style is the moral of which Ecclesiasticus 1 reminds us, "What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh..." In other words, the things of this world are transient, and Christians must always keep one eye on the world to come.

Recalling this Truth is one of the principles behind the use of ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten Season of penance: to remind us that we are mortal, subject to the rot and decay our Western culture now desperately tries to euphemize away, and that we are radically dependent on -- solely dependent on -- Jesus Christ to overcome this fate.

They are like a yearly reading of the tombstone inscribed with:

Remember friends as you pass by,
as you are now so once was I.
As I am now so you must be.
Prepare for death and follow me.

They are a liturgical "memento mori."

In Genesis 3:19 we hear God tell us "for dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return," but nowadays, when someone dies, they are rushed from deathbed to funeral home to be embalmed and to be worked over by a make-up artist so that that "dusty reality" is hidden from us. Their deaths are spoken of as almost an embarrassment; "he passed," they say, or "he is no longer with us." These comforting but sterile luxuries weren't an option in the past when plagues felled so many people that there weren't enough survivors to bury them, when bodies had to be stored all winter until the ground was soft enough to dig, when most of the children a woman bore died before they were able to grow up. In our culture, with our medicines and "funeral sciences," we are afraid to look at death, and we are a poorer people because of it. No matter how long science can prolong life, no matter how much embalming fluid is pumped into a corpse, Nature will have her way. This is the hideous Truth. And when Nature has her way, we can either rest in the knowledge that the ultimate Victor is Christ, Our Lord, who walked out of His tomb 2,000 years ago and offers resurrection to us, or we can believe that decay is all that is left. This is the meaning of Ash Wednesday.

Ashes are used, too, to express the penitence necessary to come to Christ so that we can experience bodily resurrection at the End of the Age.

Job 42:6
Therefore I reprehend myself, and do penance in dust and ashes.

The Blessing and Disposition of the Ashes

The ashes are made by the burning of palms from last year's Palm Sunday. The blessing of the ashes begins with an antiphon and a verse of a psalm begging God's grace and mercy. Then come four prayers which express what the ashes symbolize:

1. To be a spiritual help for all who confess their sins.

2. To secure pardon of sins for those who receive the ashes.

3. To give us the spirit of contrition.

4. To give us the grace and strength to do penance.

After the priest sprinkles the ashes with holy water and incenses them, he puts some on his own head, and then on the heads of those present, the head being the seat of pride. He puts them on our foreheads in the shape of a Cross to remind us of our hope, and as he does so, he says the words of Genesis 3:

Meménto, homo, quia pulvis es, et in púlverem revertéris (Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return).

We make no response to these words; we simply return to our pews.

Following the disposition of the ashes come two Antiphons and a Response. Then the priest says another prayer for protection in the coming combat.

After we leave the church, we leave the ashes on our foreheads until they wear off naturally from the course of the day's activities. They are a public witness to those things our society does not wish to embrace: the reality of death, and the hope of resurrection in Our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Note: another (informal) use of ashes in the Church is the saving of ashes from the fire built on the Eve of the Feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist (23 June) to mix with water to bless the sick


Blessed Salt



4 Kings 2:19-22 "And the men of the city, said to Eliseus . Behold the situation of this city is very good, as thou, my lord, seest: but the waters are very bad, and the ground barren. And he said: Bring me a new vessel, and put salt into it. And when they had brought it, He went out to the spring of the waters, and cast the salt into it, and said: Thus saith the Lord: I have healed these waters, and there shall be no more in them death or barrenness. And the waters were healed unto this day, according to the word of Eliseus, which he spoke."

Salt, with its preservative properties, had always been seen as precious in the ancient world. Its first recorded sacramental use was by Eliseus, and it is now used sacramentally in two main ways in the Church.

First, in Baptisms: like the baptismal waters, salt is blessed and an exorcism is done over it. Then it is put on the tongue of the catechumen during the Baptismal Rite.

Second, for use in the preparation of Holy Water and for the use of the faithful: regular salt is exorcised and blessed and is used in the preparation of Holy Water and is given to the faithful for their everyday use -- e.g., for use in cooking; for sprinkling around rooms, doorways and yards, to protect against evil, etc.

Because of its exorcism and blessing, it is a powerful sacramental in keeping away demons. To obtain blessed salt, just take ordinary salt to your priest and ask him to bless it.



Virgin Giving the Scapular to St Simon Stock, by Pierre Puget, 17th c.

A scapular is a sacramental that looks like two small pieces of wool cloth connected by string that is worn over the neck, either under or over one's clothing, such that one piece of cloth hangs over the chest, and the second piece of cloth hangs over the back (see picture below). They derive from the scapulars which make up part of monastics' religious habits -- that ankle-length (front and back), shoulder-wide, apron-like part of the habit that basically consists of a long rectangular piece of material with a hole for the head (some of them have hoods and some had ties under the arms). Monastic scapulars came, over time, to be called jugum Christi (the yoke of Christ), and receiving the scapular (becoming "invested") took on solemn meaning. Abbreviated forms of the full monastic scapulars were to be worn even at night.

In addition to regular monastics of the First Order (i.e., friars) and Second Order (cloistered nuns), laity attached themselves to various religious orders, too, in what are called "Third Orders." Some Scapularlay members of Third orders -- "tertiaries" -- are "Third Order Religious" who live in a monastic community and generally take vows; most others are "Third Order Secular" who live in the world and generally make solemn promises. In the beginning, many of these lay people were invested with the full habit; later, they came to wear only the very small scapulars, as seen at left, under their clothing. In addition to these Third Orders, Confraternities of lay-people developed whose members were invested with Scapulars of Religious Orders to which they were attached. It is these scapulars for lay people belonging to a Confraternity that one generally thinks of when one hears the word "scapular."

Some scapulars have privileges and indulgences attached to wearing them, but like any sacramental (holy water, blessed candles, etc.), scapulars are not magic; their efficacy depends on the proper intentions and faith of the wearer; only by following through on the promises one makes when becoming invested can the benefits associated with them be had. They are signs of a commitment to do certain things and of one's being a part of a religious community. They act as reminders, too, of these things they signify and of the Saints who are parts of the religious community in question. They are reminders to behave with holiness.


How it Works and Where to get them

The first thing you need to do is to find out if enrollment in a particular Confraternity is necessary before wearing one with the rightful expectation of spiritual benefit. This varies with the type of scapular, but most scapulars do not require any sort of enrollment that your parish priest can't handle for you.

You can buy scapulars from Catholic Gift Shops, Catholic mail order catalogues, etc. They're very inexpensive, and you can also often find free ones from various places, such as the religious Order with which the desired scapular is associated or from charitable organizations and souls who make them available. Just do a Google Search for "Free Scapulars." Know, though, that free scapulars are often poorly made, are not made of wool, and are not of traditional design. It is best if you can find a traditional source for your scapulars, especially the Brown Scapular.

After you get your scapular, you must have it blessed by a priest. After it's been blessed, you then become "invested" when the priest recites certain prayers (different scapulars have different prayers for investement). Many scapulars do not require investment at all, but simply need to be blessed -- as do all scapulars -- and then used properly per the directions below.

You only need to have your first brown scapular blessed; it it wears out and you need to replace it, the blessing "transfers" to replacements. (The proper way to get rid of worn out scapulars -- or any sacramental -- is to either burn it or bury it.)

Scapular medal sometimes used to replace cloth scapulars
Scapulars can also later be replaced by a religious medal called the "Scapular Medal" (see picture at right), but if this is done, the new medal must be blessed. This medal must "show the image of Our Most Holy Redeemer, Jesus Christ, showing His Sacred Heart, and the obverse that of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary," according to a decree of Pope St. Pius X (see picture at right).

Below are some of the different types of scapulars. The religious Orders they are associated with and the date of the scapular's origin appear in italics under the Scapular's popular name.




Brown Scapular
Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (Carmelites)
A.D. 1251

"The Brown Scapular of our Lady of Mount Carmel," associated with the Carmelite Order, is the most well-known. In A.D. 16 July 1251, Our Lady appeared to St. Simon Stock in Cambridge, England after he prayed for help for his Order. She appeared to him with the scapular and said, "Take, beloved son this scapular of thy order as a badge of my confraternity and for thee and all Carmelites a special sign of grace; whoever dies in this garment, will not suffer everlasting fire. It is the sign of salvation, a safeguard in dangers, a pledge of peace and of the covenant."

Whether this happened exactly in this way or not (St. Simon's original descriptions of the vision are not extant and the wording may not be exact), the Scapular was given to St. Simon Stock, and the devotion spread and was well-known by the 16th c. What can be safely believed because of papal decree is the promise known as the "Sabbatine Privilege." The Sabbatine Privilege is the promise that Our Lady will intercede and pray for those in Purgatory who, in earthly life:


  • wore the Scapular in good faith;
  • were chaste according to their state in life;
  • daily recited the Divine Office or, with the permission of one's Confessor, the Little Office of Our Lady [a shorter form of the Divine Office in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, used by certain religious orders and laity. It is similar to the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary from the Roman Breviary] or the Rosary; and
  • departed earthly life in charity.

You can be enrolled in the Confraternity of our Lady of Mount Carmel by any priest. Just obtain a scapular, take it to him to have it blessed, and express your desire for enrollment.

Warning: Some falsely believe that wearing the Brown Scapular offers some sort of guarantee of salvation because of the legendary words attributed to Our Lady. This is against Church teaching, is superstitious and a grave error. Sacramentals are not magical ways to manipulate God; they are Church-instituted rituals/objects that remind us of what we are supposed to be doing/thinking of, that depend on the faith, hope and love of the user, and which help prepare us to receive God's saving grace. You can get well-made, wool, traditionally-designed Brown Scapulars from this traditional Carmelite Order of nuns. I don't know the cost:

Blue Scapular
Clerics Regular (Theatines)
A.D. 1605

"The Blue Scapular of the Immaculate Conception" originated with the foundress of the Theatine Order of nuns, Venerable Ursula Benicasa. To her, Christ promised favor to that Order and she asked Him to extend those promises to those who associated themselves with the Order through the faithful wearing of the Scapular. The Blue Scapular is worn for the conversion of sinners.

Enrollment in the Theatine Confraternity is necessary for investment with this scapular.

Red Scapular
Priests of the Mission (Lazarists)
A.D. 1846

"The Red Scapular of the Passion" came about when a Sister of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul had a vision of Christ in 1846 in which He promised an increase in the theological virtues (Faith, Hope, and Charity) of those who wore the scapular faithfully and contemplated His Passion. One side of the scapular shows Christ on the Cross, with the words, ""Holy Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ Save us"; the other side shows the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of His mother with the words, "Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, protect us."

Pope Pius IX granted the Priests of the Mission ("Lazarists") the faculty of investing the faithful with this scapular, and the Superior General of the Lazarists may allow other priests this faculty.

Black Scapular
Order of Friar Servants of Mary (Servites)
A.D. 1240

"The Black Scapular of the Seven Dolors of Mary," or "The Our Lady of Sorrows Scapular," has on its front a depiction of Our Lady of Sorrows. Our Lady appeared to seven rich and prominent citizens of Florence who decided to give up their worldly possessions and follow Christ, promising to honor His Mother in her sorrows. Thus began the Servite Order. Mary gave them the Servite habit and said that "these garments shall be to you a perpetual memory of the sufferings of my heart." This is the more common Black Scapular.

The General of the Servite Order may grant the faculty of investment with this scapular to other priests.

Black Scapular
Discalced Clerks of the Most Holy Cross and Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ
ca. A.D. 1720

St. Paul of the Cross, before founding the Congregation of the Passionists, received in apparitions the black habit of the order with the badge on the breast. Later, after the foundation of the congregation, the Passionist Fathers gave the faithful who wished to associate themselves more closely with their order a black scapular in honour of the Passion of Christ. "The Black Scapular of the Passion" has a replica of the emblem worn on the habits of the Passionists. It includes the words "Jesu XPI Passio" and below "sit semper in cordibus nostris."

The Superior General of the Passionists may grant to other priests the faculty to bless and invest someone with this scapular.

White Scapular
Order of the Most Holy Trinity (Trinitarians)
A.D. 1198

"The Scapular of the Most Blessed Trinity" is the badge of the members of the Confraternity of The Most Blessed Trinity. Its front depicts a red and blue Cross, and it first came about in 1198 when a Spanish priest, John of Matha, had a vision of an angel wearing a white robe adorned with a Cross whose vertical line was red and whose cross-beam was blue (this Cross design came to be on the habit of the Trinitarian Order). This Scapular was first used for the purposes of of increasing action to "ransom the captives" -- the Christians taken prisoner by Muslims.

The General of the Trinitarians may grant the faculty of investment with this scapular to other priests.

Green Scapular
Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul (Paulists)
A.D. 1840

In 1840, Mary appeared to Sister Justine Bisqueyburu (a Seminary Sister of the Daughters of Charity) in Paris, France and commended the Green Scapular to her. It's known as "the Scapular of Conversion," and its promises are the strengthening of faith, protection against Satan, a happy death for Catholics, and, most of all, for conversion for those outside the Church. It's to be worn or carried by the faithful, or given to an unbeliever for their conversion. The following prayer is to be said daily by the wearer:

Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us now and at the hour of our death

Latin version:

Cor immaculatum Mariae, ora pro nobis nunc et in hora mortis nostrae

If the scapular is given to an unbeliever for their conversion, the person giving the scapular prays the prayer for them if the unbeliever does not want to pray the prayer himself. If the unbeliever does not want the scapular, it may be hidden in their vicinity and the prayers said for him. Enrollment in a Confraternity is not necessary for this scapular.

Scapular of St. Joseph
A.D. 1880

A gold and violet-colored scapular with a white cord, the front shows St. Joseph holding the child Jesus in one arm and a staff of lillies on the other. Underneath are the words, "St. Joseph, patron of the Church, pray for us." On the back of the scapular are the papal crown under a dove as the symbol of the Holy Ghost. Underneath those are the Cross, the keys of Peter, and the inscription: "Spiritus Domini ductor eius" (The Spirit of the Lord is his Guide).

The scapular is to remind us of St. Joseph's virtues (humility, modesty, purity); to remind us to pray to St. Joseph, asking him to pray for the Church; and to assist the dying since St. Joseph is the patron of a happy death.

In addition to the above benefits, there is a plenary indulgence for those who confess, receive Holy Communion and pray for the intentions of the Holy Father on the following feast days: 25 December the day of investment of the scapular), 1 January, 6 January, 2 February, 19 March, 25 March, Easter, Feast of the Ascension, 15 August, 8 September, 8 December, 3rd Sunday after Easter and at the time of death. It is recommended also to say 5 Our Fathers, 5 Hail Marys and 5 Glorias before the Blessed Sacrament at these times.

Five-Fold Scapular

The Five-Fold Scapular is made of 5 of the following Scapulars above: first, the "The Red Scapular of the Passion," then the "The Scapular of the Most Blessed Trinity," the "The Brown Scapular of our Lady of Mount Carmel," the "The Black Scapular of the Seven Dolors of Mary," and the The Blue Scapular of the Immaculate Conception." Any priest can invest you with this scapular.

St. Joseph's Cinctures (Cords)



Luke 12:34-35 "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Let your loins be girt and lamps burning in your hands."

The cincture, like the one priests wear at Mass, is a sign of chastity, and has been since the Church's beginning -- and before. Old Testament priests wore cinctures, consecrated Virgins and religious wear cinctures, and the wearing of cinctures in honor of a particular Saint is ancient, first spoken of in the life of St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, and carried on by St. Dominic, who wore a cincture in honor of St. Francis. Certain Confraternities and Archconfraternities (groups of faithful devoted to a religious cause) also wear cinctures as signs of their affiliation and chastity.

The Cincture, or Cord, of St. Joseph dates back to 1657, when an Augustinian nun in Antwerp, Belgium enjoyed a miraculous cure from a long and serious illness after beginning to wear a cincture in honor of St. Joseph. The devotion of wearing this cincture spread, and soon became associated with the Archconfraternity of St. Joseph, whose headquarters were (?) at the Church of San Rocco in Rome. The American "branch" of this Archconfraternity, by decree of Pope Leo XIII in 1892, is at St. Joseph's Church in De Pere, Wisconsin, which is now staffed by the Norbertines. In order to gain the indulgences attached to the wearing of St. Joseph's Cord, one must be attached to this Archconfraternity of St. Joseph.

Otherwise, and as is more common, one may wear the Cord simply in honor of St. Joseph and for the following graces:


  • St. Joseph's special protection
  • The grace of chastity
  • Final perseverance
  • St. Joseph's particular assistance at the hour of death

Young people, especially, would benefit from St. Joseph's Cincture! We need to be reminded of the importance of chastity, especially now, when sexual decadence is all around us.

The Cord itself is simply a white cord of thread or cotton, knotted in 7 places -- one knot for each of the 7 Sorrows of St. Joseph and their related Joys, they being:


  • The doubt of Saint Joseph (Matthew 1:19) and the Message of the Angel (Matthew 1:20)
  • The poverty of Jesus' birth (Luke 2:7) and the Birth itself (Luke 2:7)
  • The Circumcision (Luke 2:21) and the Holy Name of Jesus (Matthew 1:25)
  • The prophecy of Simeon that many would be lost (Luke 2:34) and his prophecy that many would rise (Luke 2:34)
  • The flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:14) and the Overthrow of idols (Isaias 19:1
  • The return from Egypt (Matthew 2:22) and Life with Mary and Jesus (Luke 2:39)
  • The loss of the Child Jesus (Luke 2:45) and Finding Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:46)

If your St. Joseph's Cord comes with only two knots, one at each end, then you should tie the other 5 into it. When you get your Cord, it must be blessed by a priest (see below), and then worn around the waist. One who wears the St. Joseph's Cord is to daily say a Gloria on each of the 7 knots, in honor of and while meditating on each of the 7 Sorrows of St. Joseph, and a prayer to St. Joseph for purity. These prayers are:


Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Prayer to St. Joseph for Purity

Guardian of virgins, and holy father Joseph, to whose faithful custody Christ Jesus, Innocence itself, and Mary, Virgin of virgins, were committed; I pray and beseech thee, by these dear pledges, Jesus and Mary, that, being preserved from all uncleanness, I may with spotless mind, pure heart, and chaste body, ever serve Jesus and Mary most chastely all the days of my life. Amen.

Optional: Devotion to the 7 Sorrows and Joys of St. Joseph

Optionally, to increase one's devotion to the Blessed Spouse, one may meditate on the Seven Sorrows and Joys of St. Joseph with the following prayers:

O chaste Spouse of Mary most holy, glorious St. Joseph, great was the trouble and anguish of thy heart when thou wert minded to put away privately thine inviolate Spouse, yet thy joy was unspeakable when the surpassing mystery of the Incarnation was made known to thee by the Angel! By this sorrow and this joy, we beseech thee to comfort our souls, both now and in the sorrows of our final hour, with the joy of a good life and a holy death after the pattern of thine own, in the arms of Jesus and Mary. (Say one Our Father, one Hail Mary, and one Glory Be)

O most blessed Patriarch, glorious St. Joseph, who was chosen to be the foster father of the Word made flesh, thy sorrow at seeing the Child Jesus born in such poverty was suddenly changed into heavenly exultation when thou didst hear the angelic hymn and beheld the glories of that resplendent night. By this sorrow and this joy, we implore thee to obtain for us the grace to pass over from life's pathway to hear the angelic songs of praise, and to rejoice in the shining splendor of celestial glory. (Say one Our Father, one Hail Mary, and one Glory Be)

O glorious St. Joseph, thou faithfully obeyed the law of God, and thy heart was pierced at the sight of the Precious Blood that was shed by the Infant Savior during His Circumcision, but the Name of Jesus gave thee new life and filled thee with quiet joy. By this sorrow and this joy, obtain for us the grace to be freed from all sin during life, and to die rejoicing, with the Holy Name of Jesus in our hearts and on our lips. (Say one Our Father, one Hail Mary, and one Glory Be)

O most faithful Saint who shared the mysteries of our Redemption, glorious St. Joseph, the prophecy of Simeon regarding the sufferings of Jesus and Mary caused thee to shudder with mortal dread, but at the same time filled thee with a blessed joy for the salvation and glorious which, he foretold, would be attained by countless souls. By this sorrow and this joy, obtain for us that we may be among the number of those, who through merits of Jesus and the intercession of Mary the Virgin Mother, are predestined to a glorious resurrection. (Say one Our Father, one Hail Mary, and one Glory Be)

O most watchful Guardian of the Incarnate Son of God, glorious St. Joseph, what toil was thine in supporting and waiting upon the Son of the most high God, especially in the flight into Egypt! Yet at the same time, how thou didst rejoice to have always near you God Himself, and to see the idols of the Egyptians fall prostrate to the ground before Him. By this sorrow and this joy, obtain for us the grace of keeping ourselves in safety from the infernal tyrant, especially by flight from dangerous occasions; may every idol of earthly affection fall from our hearts; may we be wholly employed in serving Jesus and Mary, and for them alone may we live and happily die. (Say one Our Father, one Hail Mary, and one Glory Be)

O glorious St. Joseph, an angel on earth, thou didst marvel to see the King of Heaven obedient to thy commands, but thy consolation in bringing Jesus out of the land of Egypt was troubled by the fear of Archelaus; nevertheless, being assured by the Angel, thou dwelt in gladness at Nazareth with Jesus and Mary. By this sorrow and this joy, obtain for us that our hearts may be delivered from harmful fears, so that we may rejoice in peace of conscience and may live in safety with Jesus and Mary and may, like thee, die in theri company. (Say one Our Father, one Hail Mary, and one Glory Be)

O glorious St. Joseph, pattern of all holiness, when thou didst lose, through no fault of thine own, the Child Jesus, thou sought Him sorrowing for the space of three days, until with great joy, thou didst find Him again in the Temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors. By this sorrow and this joy, we supplicate thee, with our hearts upon our lips, to keep us from ever having the misfortune to lose Jesus through mortal sin; but if this supreme misfortune should befall us, grant that we may seek Him with unceasing sorrow until we find Him again, ready to show us His great mercy, especially at the hour of death; so that we may pass over to enjoy His presence in Heaven; and there in company with thee, may we sing the praises of His Divine mercy forever. (Say one Our Father, one Hail Mary, and one Glory Be)

Antiphon: And Jesus Himself was beginning about the age of thirty, being (as it was supposed) the Son of Joseph.

V: Pray for us, O holy Joseph,

R: That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Let Us Pray.

O God, Who in Thine ineffable Providence didst vouchsafe to choose Blessed Joseph to be the spouse of Thy most holy Mother, grant we beseech Thee, that he whom we venerate as our protector on earth may be our intercessor in Heaven. Who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.


Priest's Blessing of a Cincture

The priest, vested in surplice and white stole, says:

V: Our help is in the name of the Lord.
R: Who made heaven and earth.
V: The Lord be with you.
R: May He also be with you.
V: Let us pray.
  Lord Jesus Christ, who inculcated the counsel and love of virginity, and gave the precept of chastity, we appeal to Thy kindness, asking that Thou bless and hallow this cincture as a token of purity. Let all who gird themselves with it as a safeguard of chastity be enabled, by the prayers of Saint Joseph, spouse of Thy holy Mother, to practice that continence which is so pleasing to Thee, and to live in obedience to Thy commandments. May they also obtain pardon of their sins, health in mind and body, and flnally attain everlasting life. We ask this of Thee who lives and reigns with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, forever and ever.
R: Amen.
V: Let us pray.
  Almighty and everlasting God, grant, we pray, that those who revere the inviolate virginity of the most pure Virgin Mary and of Saint Joseph, her spouse, may by their prayers be pure in mind and body; through Christ our Lord.
R: Amen
  Let us pray.
  Almighty and everlasting God, who committed the boy Jesus and the most pure Mary, ever a Virgin, to the care of the chaste man Saint Joseph, we humbly entreat Thee that those who are girded with this cincture in honour of Saint Joseph and under his patronage may, by Thy help and his prayers, persevere in holy chastity for all time; through Christ our Lord.
R: Amen.
  Let us pray.
  God, the lover and restorer of innocence, we pray that Thy faithful who are to wear this cincture may, by the prayers of Saint Joseph, spouse of Thy holy Mother, have their loins girded and hold burning lamps in their hands, and thus be likened to men who wait for their Lord when He shall return for a wedding, that when He comes and knocks they may open to Him, and be found worthy of being taken into everlasting joys; through Thee who lives and reigns forever and ever.
R: Amen

Then the priest puts incense into the censer, sprinkles the cincture with holy water, and says:

  Sprinkle me with hyssop, Lord, and I shall be clean of sin. Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

After this he incenses the cincture, and continues:

V: Save Thy servants.
R: Who trust in Thee, my God.
V: Lord, send them aid from Thy holy place.
R: And watch over them from Sion.
V: Lord, heed my prayer.
R: And let my cry be heard by Thee.
V: The Lord be with you.
R: May He also be with you.
  Let us pray.
  O God of mercy, God of goodness, Thou are pleased with all good things, and without whom no good work is begun, no good work is finished; kindly hear our prayers, and defend Thy faithful, who are to wear this blessed cincture in honour of Saint Joseph and under his protection, from the snares of this world and all its lusts. Help them to persist in their holy resolution and to obtain pardon of their sins, and thus merit to be numbered amongst Thy elect; through Christ our Lord.
R: Amen.



Jubilee Medal of St. Benedict

St. Benedict, detail of Fra Angelico's Crucifixion


The medal of St. Benedict is a very powerful sacramental with exorcizing properties; the exorcism is written right on it.

First a little history: St. Benedict of Nursia, Italy (A.D. 480-543), the twin brother of St. Scholastica, is considered to be the Father of Western monasticism, and his "Rule of St. Benedict" came to be the basis of organization for many religious orders (his own Order has its cradle at Monte Cassino, Italy, about 80 miles South of Rome).

At any rate, in order to understand the symbology of the Medal, you must know of this event in St. Benedict's life: he'd been living as a hermit in a cave for three years, famous for his holiness, when a religious community came to him after the death of their abbot and asked Benedict to take over. Some of the "monks" didn't like this plan and attempted to kill him with poisoned bread and wine. Just as St. John the Divine was miraculously saved from being poisoned, when St. Benedict made the sign of the Cross over these things, the cup holding the wine shattered, and a raven carried off the bread.

Now on to the Medal:

From the Catholic Encyclopedia:

It is doubtful when the Medal of St. Benedict originated. During a trial for witchcraft at Natternberg near the Abbey of Metten in Bavaria in the year 1647, the accused women testified that they had no power over Metten, which was under the protection of the cross. Upon investigation, a number of painted crosses, surrounded by the letters which are now found on Benedictine medals, were found on the walls of the abbey, but their meaning had been forgotten. Finally, in an old manuscript, written in 1415, was found a picture representing St. Benedict holding in one hand a staff which ends in a cross, and a scroll in the other. On the staff and scroll were written in full the words of which the mysterious letters were the initials. Medals bearing the image of St. Benedict, a cross, and these letters began now to be struck in Germany, and soon spread over Europe. They were first approved by Benedict XIV in his briefs of 23 December, 1741, and 12 March, 1742.

The Jubilee Medal below was first struck in 1880 to commemorate the 14th centennary of St. Benedict's birth.

The Front of the Medal

We see St. Benedict holding his Rule; next to him, on a pedestal, is the cup that once held poison, shattered after he made the Sign of the Cross over it. The other pedestal is topped by the raven, who is about to carry away the poisoned bread. In very small print above these pedestals are the words: Crux s. patris Benedicti (The Cross of our Holy Father Benedict).

Underneath St. Benedict are the words: ex SM Casino MDCCCLXXX (from holy Monte Cassino, 1880).

Surrounding the entire face of the medal are the words: Eius in obitu nostro praesentia muniamur (May we at our death be fortified by his presence.)



Back of the Medal


In the arms of the Cross are the initials C S S M L - N D S M D, which stand for the words: Crux sacra sit mihi lux! Nunquam draco sit mihi dux! (The Holy Cross be my light; Let not the dragon be my guide.).

In the corners of the Cross are C S P D, which stand for the same words found on the front over the pedestals: Crux s. patris Benedicti (The Cross of our Holy Father Benedict).

Above the Cross is the word "Pax" (Peace), the Benedictine motto.

Surrounding the entire back of the medal are the initials to the words of the exorcism: V R S N S M V - S M Q L I V B, which stand for: Vade retro Satana! Nunquam suade mihi vana! Sunt mala quae libas. Ipse venena bibas! (Begone, Satan, do not suggest to me thy vanities — evil are the things thou profferest, drink thou thy own poison.)


Wearing the Medal

First, note that the above information pertains to the Jubilee Medal of St. Benedict only. There are, though, other St. Benedict Medals that are almost exactly like the above, but lack "Eius in obitu nostro praesentia muniamur (May we at our death be fortified by his presence.)" and a few other details. Either type, though, is indulgenced.

The medal is sometimes combined with a Crucifix -- a regular Crucifix, often inlaid and ornate, with the St. Benedict Medal behind Christ's Head (examples below from Catholic Shopper). This Crucifix is known as "The Cross of a Happy Death" not only because of the exorcizing properties of the Medal and the image of Christ's Body, but because of St. Benedict's particular patronage based on his death. Pope St. Gregory the Great (A.D. ca. 540-604) describes his passing in his Dialogue:

Six days before he left this world he gave orders to have his sepulchre opened, and forthwith falling into an ague, he began with burning heat to wax faint; and when as the sickness daily increased, upon the sixth day he commanded his monks to carry him into the oratory, where he did arm himself receiving the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ; and having his weak body holden up betwixt the hands of his disciples, he stood with his own hands lifted up to heaven; and as he was in that manner praying, he gave up the ghost.

A plenary indulgence is granted under the usual conditions to one who, at the hour of his death, kisses, touches, or otherwise reverences the Crucifix, and commends his soul to God.


When you get your St. Benedict Medal (on a Crucifix or not), take it to a priest to be blessed using the words of the Roman Ritual. Any priest may do this.

Most people wear the Medal around their necks; some bury it in the foundations of buildings in order to bless them, hang them in their homes, or keep them in their car. When used in specific circumstances for a specific effect, such as when placed against a sick part of the body for healing, one should pray 6 Glorias, 6 Hail Mary's, and 6 Our Father's.


The Miraculous Medal

  On the night of 18 July, 1830, a "child" awakened Sr. Catherine Labouré  (seen above) in her Sisters of Charity convent at 140 Rue du Bac, Paris, telling her to go to the convent's chapel where Mary awaited her. There Mary told her:

God wishes to charge you with a mission. You will be contradicted, but do not fear; you will have the grace. Tell your spiritual director all that passes within you. Times are evil in France and in the world. Come to the foot of the altar. Graces will be shed on all, great and little, especially upon those who seek them. Another community of sisters will join the Rue du Bac community. The community will become large; you will have the protection of God and Saint Vincent; I will always have my eyes upon you.

(Saint Elizabeth Seton sisters of Emmitsburg, MD later joined the community).

Later that year, on 27 November, Catherine saw another vision of Mary. She describes her like this:

Her height was medium and her countenance, indescribably beautiful. She was dressed in a robe the color of the dawn, high-necked, with plain sleeves. Her head was covered with a white veil, which floated over Her shoulders down to her feet. Her feet rested upon a globe, or rather one half of a globe, for that was all that could be seen. Her hands which were on a level with her waist, held in an easy manner another globe, a figure of the world. Her eyes were raised to Heaven, and her countenance beamed with light as She offered the globe to Our Lord.

Mary told her that the globe represented the whole world, especially France, a country whose faithful had recently suffered horrible persecutions in the Revolution's Terrors and was still going through "Enlightenment" perfidy.

The vision changed to Mary, still standing on a globe, rays of light streaming from her fingers, enframed in an oval frame inscribed with the words, "O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee." The whole vision "turned" showing the back of the oval inscribed with the letter "M" entwined with a Cross, and the hearts of Jesus and Mary, the former surrounded with thorns, the latter pierced with a sword. 12 stars circled this oval frame, symbolizing the 12 Tribes of Israel and the 12 Apostles, and showing Mary as the Mother of Israel, per the Apocalypse (ch. 12). Mary told her to strike a medal in this form, and that all who wore it after having it blessed would receive graces.

Front of the Miraculous MedalBack of the Miraculous Medal

Sr. Catherine's spiritual director told Catherine's story to the Bishop of Paris, who not only allowed the medal to be struck, but received some of them himself.  One of these he had with him when ministering to Napoleon's dying, heretical chaplain. The dying man had obstinately refused to reconcile with the Church, but as the Bishop was leaving after trying one last time to get him to see the error of his ways, the man suddenly broke down and repented. The Bishop attributed this to the Virgin's intercessions through the medal.

Another miraculous conversion involved that of a wealthy Jewish banker-lawyer named Alphonse Ratisbonne. He was actually dared to wear one of the medals and to pray the Memorare. This he did, and as he visited a church to arrange a funeral for a friend, he had a vision of Our Lady as she appears on the Medal. He instantly converted, and became a priest.

The Medal of the Immaculate Conception, now known as the Miraculous Medal, has become one of the most commonly worn sacramentals in the Roman Church.

St. Catherine Labouré's body remains incorrupt to this day and can be seen at her convent at Rue du Bac.

Note: St. Maximillian Kolbe (+ 1941) adopted the miraculous medal as the badge of the "Pious Union of the Militia of the Immaculate Conception" in 1917, which he founded in Rome while still a young religious of the Conventual Friars Minor


Relics and
the Incorruptibles

Medieval Reliquary

4 Kings 13:20-21 "And Eliseus died, and they buried him. And the rovers from Moab came into the land the same year. And some that were burying a man, saw the rovers, and cast the body into the sepulchre of Eliseus. And when it had touched the bones of Eliseus, the man came to life and stood upon his feet."

Matthew 9:20-22 "And behold a woman who was troubled with an issue of blood twelve years, came behind him, and touched the hem of his garment. For she said within herself: If I shall touch only his garment, I shall be healed. But Jesus turning and seeing her, said: Be of good heart, daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole. And the woman was made whole from that hour."

Acts 19:11-12 "And God wrought by the hand of Paul more than common miracles. So that even there were brought from his body to the sick, handkerchiefs and aprons: and the diseases departed from them: and the wicked spirits went out of them."

It's funny to me how a culture that is filled with autograph hounds and those who clamor to be around those glittered with "star dust" can consider the Catholic veneration of relics as a joke. A lovely dish is just a lovely dish, but one owned by your great-grandmother is a treasure. Some stranger's pocketwatch is just a timepiece, but one given to you by your grandfather is something you'd literally mourn losing. We pay $20,000 for a $200 jacket worn by Jacqueline Kennedy, faint at Beatles concerts, engage in riotous behavior to get our hands on one of Elvis's scarves, but when a relic of St. Catherine is mentioned, people snicker.

As you can see, however, from the verses above, veneration of relics is strictly scriptural, and the earliest Christians saw things in the same way as the ancient Israelites and those in the New Testament accounts. St. Augustine wrote in City of God:

If a father's coat or ring, or anything else of that kind, is so much more cherished by his children, as love for one's parents is greater, in no way are the bodies themselves to be despised, which are much more intimately and closely united to us than any garment; for they belong to man's very nature,

St. Jerome clarified Catholic belief in his Ad Riparium:

We do not adore, I will not say the relics of the martyrs, but either the sun or the moon or even the angels -- that is to say, with the worship of "latria"...But we honor the martyrs' relics, so that thereby we give honor to Him Whose [witness] they are: we honor the servants, that the honor shown to them may reflect on their Master... Consequently, by honoring the martyrs' relics we do not fall into the error of the Gentiles, who gave the worship of "latria" to dead men.

When considering relics, it is to be remembered that the body and soul are forever one, even when they seem to be separated by death. The body of the saved will be resurrected and glorified (the bodies of the damned will also be resurrected, for that matter). Forever is there a connection between the remains and the soul that has departed from them -- and the great souls whose remains are left to us have a power described well by St. John of Damascus (a.k.a. "John Damascene"), ca. A.D. 676 - 754/87, in his "Exposition of the Orthodox Faith":

These [the bodies of the Saints] are made treasuries and pure habitations of God: For I will dwell in them, said God, and walk in them, and I will be their God. The divine Scripture likewise saith that the souls of the just are in God's hand and death cannot lay hold of them. For death is rather the sleep of the saints than their death. For they travailed in this life and shall to the end, and Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints. What then, is more precious than to be in the hand of God? For God is Life and Light, and those who are in God's hand are in life and light.

Further, that God dwelt even in their bodies in spiritual wise, the Apostle tells us, saying, Know ye not that your bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit dwelling in you?, and The Lord is that Spirit, and If any one destroy the temple of God, him will God destroy. Surely, then, we must ascribe honour to the living temples of God, the living tabernacles of God. These while they lived stood with confidence before God.

The Master Christ made the remains of the saints to be fountains of salvation to us, pouring forth manifold blessings and abounding in oil of sweet fragrance: and let no one disbelieve this. For if water burst in the desert from the steep and solid rock at God's will and from the jaw-bone of an ass to quench Samson's thirst, is it incredible that fragrant oil [see below] should burst forth from the martyrs' remains? By no means, at least to those who know the power of God and the honour which He accords His saints.

In the law every one who toucheth a dead body was considered impure, but these are not dead. For from the time when He that is Himself life and the Author of life was reckoned among the dead, we do not call those dead who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection and in faith on Him. For how could a dead body work miracles? How, therefore, are demons driven off by them, diseases dispelled, sick persons made well, the blind restored to sight, lepers purified, temptations and troubles overcome, and how does every good gift from the Father of lights come down through them to those who pray with sure faith?


Classes of Relics

1st Class Relic:

a part of the Saint (bone, hair, etc.) and the instruments of Christ's passion

2nd Class Relic:

something owned by the Saint or instruments of torture used against a martyr

3rd Class Relic:

something that has been touched to a 1st or 2nd Class Relic. You can make your own 3rd Class relics by touching an object to a 1st or 2nd Class Relic, including the tomb of a Saint.

Relics in churches or chapels are usually kept in one of two places: in a cavity ("sepulchre") inside the Altar or in a "reliquary." Reliquaries have taken on a variety of shapes -- boxes, Noah's Arks, caskets, the shape of an arm, leg, head, etc.. -- and some are exquisite specimens of gold and silversmithing.

The Treatment of relics

Canon Law 1190
§1 It is absolutely wrong to sell sacred relics.
§2 Distinguished relics, and others which are held in great veneration by the people, may not validly be in any way alienated nor transferred on a permanent basis, without the permission of the Apostolic See.

While selling relics ("simony") is wrong, it is permissible to buy them if they will be marketed anyway and buying them would save them from desecration. This must be done only if the good that comes from buying the relic outweighs other uses the money spent could be used for -- and this should never be done at auction because bidding would only drive up the price, forcing others who simply want to rescue relics to pay more. This could also increase the likelihood of a market developing in the sale of relics.

Relics may be legitimately obtained from Church sources, i.e., the Vicariate in Rome, the religious Order of the Saint involved, the shrine of the Saint involved, etc. When this is done, a donation is usually expected to cover the cost of the metal container (theca) that contains the relic, but in any case, a profit cannot legitimately be made from the sale of relics by anyone.

Particular Relics

I thought I'd list the locations of some of the major first class relics here so that you'll know where to find them if you're blessed to make a pilgrimage to these locations. The sites below house the greatest part of the given relic, but tinier pieces may be found throughout the world, especially in the Altars of Catholic churches.

Note that some of the Saints are marked as "incorrupt"; this refers to the phenomenon whereby some Saints' bodies do not corrupt after death. An example is St. Bernadette Soubirous, who saw Our Lady at Lourdes and who now lies in a glass coffin at her convent in Nevers, France. Though she died in A.D. 1879, she is as lovely as she ever was (first picture at right. For a larger view, click on it; the larger picture will open in a new browser window).

Other examples are those of Blessed Imelda Lambertini, who died in ecstasy during her First Communion in A.D. 1333 at age 11; of St. Catherine Labouré, who had the vision of Our Lady which led to the minting of the Miraculous Medal and who died in A.D. 1876; of St. Maria Mazzarello, the first Salesian Sister, who died in A.D. 1881; and of St. John Vianney, Curé d'Ars, who died in A.D. 1859 (see pictures at right). There are many more.

This phenomenon of incorruptibility is often accompanied by a sweet fragrance, known as the "odor of sanctity," which has been described as being unlike any known perfume. Another related phehomenon is the flow of a healing liquid, called "oil of saints," which exudes from the Saint's body or tomb. In the case of some Saints who exude this "oil," the flow of liquid is periodic and not constant (the famous flow of "oil" from the relics of St. Walburga, who is not incorrupt, is periodic like this).

No one knows why some Saints are preserved from corruption while others aren't, and incorruptibility is never seen, in itself and by itself, as a proof of holiness. It is a good indicator of such when the deceased was known for his life of faith and virtue -- but it's a phenomenon that can be mimicked by science, by the effects of natural conditions, and by the demonic.

St. Bernadette Soubirous, d. 1879

Blessed Imelda
Blessed Imelda Lambertini, d. 1333

St. Catherine Laboure
St. Catherine Labouré, d. 1876

St. Maria Mazzarello
St. Maria Mazzarello, d. 1881
St. John Vianney
St. John Vianney, d. 1859

Where you can see some First Class Relics


St. Longinus' Lance (lance of the Roman soldier who pierced Christ's side)
Where: Hofburg Treasure House, Vienna, Austria. The shaft of the lance is at St. Peter's Basilica, Rome.

Relic: St. Elizabeth of Hungary
Where: Convent of St. Elizabeth, Vienna, Austria. Preserved here is St. Elizabeth's skull, crowned with the crown she wore in life.


St. Dymphna
Where: Church of St. Dymphna, Gheel (province of Antwerp), Belgium


Kateri Tekakwitha (awaiting canonization)
Where: Saint Francis-Xavier Mission Church, Kahnawake, Quebec, Canada

Relic: St. Isaac Jogues, St. Jean de Brébeuf, and Companions
Where: The Martyrs' Shrine, Highway 12, Midland, Ontario, Canada

Relic: St. Anne
Where: Church of Ste. Anne de Beaupré, Ste. Anne de Beaupré, Montmorency county, Quebec, Canada (the majority of St. Anne's relics are in Apt, Bouches-du-Rhone, Provence, France).

Czech Republic

St. Wenceslaus, St. Vitus
Where: Cathedral of St. Vitus, Prague, Czech Republic

Relic: St. Ludmilla
Where: St. George's Basilica, Prague, Czech Republic

Though not a shrine in honor of canonized Saints, also of note in the Czech Republic is "Sedlec Ossuary" ("Kostnice") of the Cistercian All Saints chapel in Sedlec, a suburb on the outskirts of the town of Kutna Hora, about 45 miles East of Prague. In A.D. 1278, the abbot there went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and brought back some soil, which he poured over the cemetery ground. Christians, then, wanted to be buried in that soil when they died, but after a time the graveyard became too crowded, especially in A.D. 1318, when 30,000 people were buried after dying from the Plague. An ossuary was built so that the older bones could be dug up and new bodies buried. A woodcarver was later hired to decorate the chapel, and he used the bones decoratively. The ossuary came to be adorned -- literally -- with the bones of around 40,000 Christians.


Mother Mariana de Jesus Torres (incorrupt), and the miraculous image of Our Lady of Good Success
Where: Mother Mariana lies in a glass coffin at the cloistered Convent of the Immaculate Conception in Quito, Ecuador. The miraculous statue can be seen by the public at these times: during the novena anticipating the Feast of the Purification, from around January 24 to February 2; during the month of May; during the month of October.


St. Mark, Evangelist
Where: St. Mark Church in Alexandria, Egypt. (Cenotaph in Church of San Marco Venice, Italy where his relics had been taken during the Crusades.)


Relic: The Venerable Bede
Where: Galilee Chapel, England

Relic: St. Edward the Confessor (incorrupt)
Where: Westminster Abbey, London, England

Relic: St. John Southworth
Where: Westminster Cathedral (Precious Blood Cathedral), London, England. St John was hanged, drawn, and quartered during the Protestant "Reformation" for celebrating the Traditional Mass. The quarters of his body and his head were recovered after the execution, reassembled and sent to the Catholic Seminary at Douai, where it was buried during the Napoleonic purges in France. The relic was re-discovered in the last century during construction work to build a new road, and is now contained within a silver effigy, dressed in red Mass Vestments and contained within a glass reliquary in the Chapel of Saint George and the English Martyrs.

Relic: St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher
Where: Church of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London (St. Thomas More's head, after it was removed, was boiled and displayed, after which it was to be thrown into the Thames River. His daughter rescued it by bribing the guard and allegedly buried it in her husband's family vault).


Relic: St. Francis de Sales
Where: Church of the first Monastery of the Visitation, Annecy, France (his incorrupt heart is preserved at the Monastery of the Visitation, Treviso, Italy).

Relic: St. John Vianney (incorrupt)
Where: Basilica at Ars, France

Relic: St. Simon Stock
Where: Carmelite monastery, Bordeaux, France (his skull is preserved at Aylesford, Kent, England).

Relic: St. Thérèse of Lisieux
Where: Chapel of the Convent of Carmel, Lisieux, France

Relic: St. Bernadatte (incorrupt)
Where: Convent of St. Gildard in Nevers, France

Relic: St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (unsure as to whether or not she is incorrupt; I've read that her relics are not incorrupt, but are kept in a figurine of her which makes her appear incorrupt)
Where: Shrine of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, Paray-le-Monial, France

Relic: St. Genevieve
Where: Saint Etienne-Du-Mont, Paris, France

Relic: Crown of Thorns and a piece of the True Cross
Where: Kept, starting with King St. Louis IX, at Ste. Chapelle, Paris, France (on the Ile de la Cité, near Notre Dame) -- a chapel the sainted King built just for these relics. Removed during the French Revolution and placed in the Bibliotheque Nationale. They are now at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris (but visit Ste. Chapelle anyway! It is stunning...).

Relic: St. Catherine Labouré (incorrupt)
Where: Chapel of the Sisters of Charity Convent, 140 Rue du Bac, Paris, France

Relic: St. Vincent de Paul (incorrupt)
Where: Church of St. Vincent de Paul, Rue de Sevres, Paris, France (his heart is at the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal)

Relic: St. Fiacre
Where: Cathedrale de Meaux, Seine et Marne, France

Relic: St. Thomas Aquinas
Where: Basilica of St. Sernin, Toulouse, France

Relic: St. Vincent Ferrer
Where: Cathedral of Vannes, Vannes, France


Relic: The Three Magi
Where: Discovered in Persia, brought to Constantinople by St. Helena, transferred to Milan in the fifth century and then to the Cathedral of Cologne, Germany in A.D. 1163, where they've been ever since.

Relic: St. Ursula
Where: Ursalaplatz (Church of St. Ursula), Cologne, Germany

Relic: St. Albert the Great
Where: Komdienstraße (Church of Saint Andreas), Cologne, Germany

Relic: St. Hildegaard von Bingen
Where: Parish church of Eibergen, Eibergen, Germany (originally buried at the graveyard of the convent of Disibodenberg. Translated to present location in A.D. 1642).

Relic: St. Walburga
Where: Church of St. Walburga, Eichstätt, Bavaria, Germany. Her relics exude a healing "oil of Saints" between 12 October and 25 February, her Feast in the Benedictine Breviary.

Relic: St. Boniface
Where: Cathedral of Fulda, Fulda, Germany

Relic: St. Mundita
Where: Peterskirche (St. Peter's Church), Rindermarkt 1 (near the Rathaus), Munich, Germany. I have no idea who this Saint it, but her skeleton is gilded, bejeweled, and kept in a glass case. Fitted with glass eyes, she seems to stare at you from the beyond...


Relic: St. Francis Xavier
Where: Basilica Bom Jesus, Goa, India


Relic: St. Andrew, Apostle
Where: Cathedral of Amalfi, Italy

Relic: St. Bernardine of Siena
Where: Basilica di S.Bernardino, Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy

Relic: St. Francis of Assisi
Where: Lower Church of the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Assisi, Umbria, Italy

Relic: St. Clare of Assisi, St. Agnes of Assis, and their mother, Blessed Ortolana
Where: Basilica of Santa Chiara, Assisi, Umbria, Italy

Relic: St. Nicholas of Myra
Where: Translated from Myra to the Church of St. Stephen in Bari, Apulia, Italy in A.D. 1087 to save them from Muslim desecration.

Relic: St. Dominic
Where: Church of St. Dominic, Bologna, Italy

Relic: Blessed Imelda Lambertini (incorrupt)
Where: San Sigismondo Church near the University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy

Relic: St. Rita of Cascia (incorrupt)
Where: Basilica of St Rita in Cascia, Italy

Relic: St. Gerard Majella
Where: Caposele, Italy

Relic: Eucharist whose accidents had turned also to Flesh in A.D. 700
Where: Church of Lagontial, Lanciano, Italy

Relic: St. Ambrose
Where: Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio, Milan, Italy (crypt open on his Feast Day)

Relic: St. Charles Borromeo
Where: Cathedral of Milan, Italy

Relic: St. Veronica's Veil (?)
Where: Carthusian Monastery, Monoppello, Italy. If this is the true Veil of Vernoica, the history goes like this: the veil had been kept at St. Peter's Basilica, Rome, Italy (there is a niche for it near the statue of St. Veronica there), but was removed from there when St. Peter's was being rebuilt, and taken to this monastery in A.D. 1608. There is either a copy of the veil at the Vatican today in the aforementioned niche, or the one at the Vatican is the original (all other copies of the Veil were prohibited by Pope Paul V in 1616).

Relic: St. Januarius (Genarro)
Where: Cathedral of Naples, Naples, Campania, Italy. A vial of St. Genarro's dried blood liquefies and "boils" when brought near his head 18 times a year.

Relic: St. Benedict and St. Scholastica
Where: Abbey of Monte Cassino, on a hill overlooking Monte Cassino, Italy

Relic: St. Maria Goretti
Where: Our Lady of Grace, Nettuno, Italy

Relic: St. Anthony of Padua
Where: Basilica of St. Anthony, Padua, Italy. When St. Anthony's coffin was opened 30 years after his disposition, most of his body was found to have returned to dust but for his tongue, which remained fresh as a sign of his gift of preaching. It is this that is kept at the Basilica.

Relic: St. Augustine
Where: San Pietro in Ciel D'Oro, in Pavia, Italy

Relic: St. Barbara
Where: Cathedral of Rieti, Italy

Relic: Titulus Crucis, a Crucifixion nail, relic of the True Cross, two thorns from the Crown of Thorns, the greater part of the sponge used to give Christ vinegar, a piece of the good thief's cross
Where: Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Holy Cross in Jerusalem) 12 Piazza di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome, Italy. The church, whose floor was packed with soil from the Holy Land, was consecrated about A.D. 325, in an older building that was rebuilt to house the Passion Relics brought to Rome by St. Helena, Constantine's mother. The "Titulus Crucis" is the sign that hung over Christ's Head, naming Him as "King of the Jews."

Relic: St. Agnes
Where: Sant' Agnese fuori le mura (St Agnes Outside the Walls), 364 Via Nomentana, Rome, Italy. The church is built over St. Agnes's tomb. Her head is preserved at the Sancta Sanctorum in the area.

Relic: Many Popes, including: St. Peter; St. Leo the Great; St. Gregory the Great; St. Pius X (incorrupt). Many Saints, including St. Gregory Nazianzen.
Where: San Pietro in Vaticano (St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City, Italy)

Relic: St. Jerome and St. Pius V (incorrupt)
Where: Santa Maria Maggiora (St. Mary Major) 42 Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, Italy

Relic: St. Bartholomew, Apostle (?)
Where: St. Bartholomew-in-the-Island, Rome, Italy

Relic: St. Lawrence and St. Stephen
Where: San Lorenzo fuori le Mura (St Lawrence outside the Walls, a.k.a. San Lorenzo in Campo Verano) 3 Piazzale del Verano, Rome, Italy. The church is built over the tomb of St. Lawrence. St. Stephen was brought from Constantinople by Pope Pelagius II

Relic: St. Paul
Where: Some of St. Paul's relics are kept at the Basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls (San Paolo Fuori Le Mura). At the Church of the Decapitation (Church of San Paolo Alle Tre Fontane), built over the site he was beheaded, you can see the marble column to which St. Paul was bound, the table on which he died, and three springs that sprang up at the spot where he was killed (the springs are now operated mechanically).

Relic: SS. Cosmas and Damian
Where: Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian, Rome, Italy

Relic: St. Cecilia
Where: Basilica of St. Cecilia, Rome, Italy

Relic: St. Sebastian
Where: Church of St. Sebastian, Rome, Italy. (St. Sebastian's head is at Church of the Four Crowned Martyrs -- "Santi Quattro Incoronati)

Relic: St. Monica
Where: Church of St. Augustine in Campo Marzio, Rome, Italy

Relic: St. Ignatius of Loyola  and St. Robert Bellarmine
Where: Church of the Gesu, Rome, Italy

Relic: St. Catherine of Siena and Fra Angelico
Where: Altar at the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome, Italy (St. Catherine's head is in the Church of San Domenico, Siena, Italy)

Relic: St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio)
Where: Padre Pio Shrine, San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy

Relic: St. John Bosco (incorrupt), St. Dominic Savio, St. Maria Mazzarello (incorrupt)
Where: Basilica di Maria Ausiliatrice (Mary Help of Christians), Turin, Piedmont, Italy. In Valsalice, Piedomont, you can see the room where St. John Bosco died, kept exactly as it was when he went to his Heavenly reward.

Relic: The Holy Shroud
Where: Royal Chapel of the Holy Shroud, Cathedral of San Giovanni, Turin, Piedmont, Italy (since A.D. 1578)

Relic: St. Lucy
Where: Church of San Geremia Venice, Italy. Her remains, moved from Syracuse to Constantinople, were translated from Constantinople to Venice in A.D. 1204.

Northern Ireland

Relic: SS. Patrick, Brigid, and Columba (a.k.a. "Columcille")
Where: Cathedral of Down, Downpatrick, Northern Ireland


Relic: St. Martin de Porres
Where: Convent of the Holy Rosary, Lima, Peru


Relic: Venerable Mary of Agreda (incorrupt)
Convent of the Conception, Agreda, Spain

St. Teresa of Avila (incorrupt)
Where: Convent of St. Teresa, Avila, Spain (St. Teresa's heart is in the Carmelite Convent in Alba de Tormes, Spain)

St. James the Greater
Where: Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Compostela, Spain

Relic: St. John of God
Where: Iglesia de San Juan de Dios, Granada, Spain. At the Museo de S. Juan de Dios. Calle Convalescencía, you can see the room in which he died, along with some of his belongings.

Relic: Sudarium of Oviedo (the second linen used to cover Jesus' Face at His entombment)
Where: Cathedral of Oviedo, Oviedo, Spain

Relic: St. John of the Cross
Where: Segovia, Spain


Relic: St. Birgitta
Where: Vadstena Cloister, Vadstena, Ostergotlands Lan, Sweden

United States

Relic: Practically every Saint who's ever lived
Where: At St. Mary's Academy, there's a Relic Chapel that contains an incredible amount of first class relics (though no major tombs or shrines). The address is: St. Mary's Academy & College, 200 E. Mission Street, St. Marys, KS 66536

Relic: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
Where: Seton Shrine Chapel, Emmitsburg, Frederick County, Maryland

Relic: St. Frances Cabrini
Where: St. Frances Cabrini Shrine, 701 Fort Washington Avenue, New York City, New York

Relic: Practically every Saint who's ever lived
Where: Another Relic Chapel like that of St. Mary's Academy in Kansas (no major tombs or shrines) is the Maria Stein Center. The address is: 2291 St. Johns Road, Maria Stein, Ohio 45860, (419) 925-4532

Relic: St. John Neumann
Where: National Shrine of Saint John Neumann, 1019 North Fifth Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19123

Relic: Practically every Saint who's ever lived
Where: Another Relic Chapel -- the largest in the United States -- is St. Anthony's Chapel in the Most Holy Name of Jesus parish. The address is: 1700 Harpster St., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Troy Hill).



Agnus Dei


  An Agnus Dei (the name means, of course, "lamb of God," and is pronounced "ah-nyoos day-ee") is a round or oval wax disk impressed, most often, with the figure of a lamb, but sometimes with a flag, figure of a Saint, or the papal arms, etc. They were blessed and distributed by Popes in the first year of their pontificates, and then every 7 years thereafter, on Holy Saturday. After the "Agnus Dei" at the Mass that day, the Pope would place a packet of them into the mitres of the Bishops present, who would then distribute them themselves.

They are very ancient, being first mentioned ca. A.D. 820 -- possibly earlier if the mention of blessing wax in by Pope Zosimus in the Liber Pontificales in A.D. 418 refer to Agnus Dei -- and it is believed that the first ones were made of leftover wax from the Paschal candle mixed with chrism. More recently, they'd be dipped in water mixed with chrism after being formed, and then sewn into small pouches of various shapes to keep them clean and safe.

The symbolism of the Agnus Dei is the same as that of the Paschal Candle; the wax is the pure flesh of Christ, and their protective qualities are like those of other blessed objects, with the Pope's blessing mentioning specifically protection in combat, and protection against tempests, lightning, fire and water; malice of demons and of every adversity; pentilence, sickness, and a sudden and unprovided death.

Popes, unfortunately, no longer bless and distribute Agnus Dei.  At any rate, any Agnus Dei you come across (that is genuine) will date to before 1964, the year "modern man" apparently came into being. You should keep it very safe.

Holy Cards


They're a distinctive part of the Catholic "visual culture" -- inexpensive images that we use as bookmarks and keepsakes, tuck into picture frames, slip inside Christmas and greeting cards, keep in our wallets, give to our Godchildren and those we sponsor into the Church for their special occasions... We keep ones with relevant prayers and images on them to hand out to friends who are going through a hard time, and order special funeral cards ("memorial cards") inscribed with the name and dates of birth and death of the dead person. Nowadays, one can buy customized holy cards inscribed with personal names and dates as keepsakes for Baptisms, First Communions, Confirmations, etc. In Catholic culture, holy cards are ubiquitous and have been for a long time.

The earliest holy card -- a wood block print of St. Christopher -- dates to 1423. In that century, hand-cut and die-cut paper lace holy cards became extremely popular and were known as dévotesdentelles in France, and as Andachtsbilden in Germany.

Modern holy cards developed when a German, Aloys Senefelder (1771-1834), developed lithography, an inexpensive way of multiplying graphics. In the 1840s, French companies in Paris in the area of the Church of St. Sulpice began mass-producing holy cards with designs characterized by soft and feminine-looking images, a style that became known as "St. Sulpice Art" ("l'art St. Sulpice"). While many of these cards were sold in America, other companies, such as Carl Benziger and Sons (later the Benziger Brothers), a Swiss company in operation since 1792, opened branches in America. Nowadays, the best and most commonly-seen holy cards are produced by the Bonella Brothers company, based in Milan, Italy.

You can buy paper cards, laminated cards (they last much longer), cards imprinted with traditional art and icons, and tacky modern-looking cards. They generally cost between 30¢ and $2.00 and can be bought at most Catholic bookstores and giftshops.

St. Anthony's Brief
St. Anthony of Padua with the Christ Child, by Antonio de Pereda


In the 13th century, a Portugese woman who'd been demonically oppressed resolved to do the unthinkable by taking her own life by drowning herself in the Tagus River. On her way to the river, she passed a shrine erected in honor of the great orator and miracle-worker, St. Anthony of Padua. She stopped to pray, one last time. As she prayed, she saw St. Anthony standing before her, saying, "'Arise woman, and take this paper, which will free you from the molestations of the Evil One." Then he gave her a parchment inscribed with what is now known as the "Brief (i.e., "Letter") of St. Anthony,"  and she was now free from demonic oppression and the desire to do away with herself.

News of this miracle spread, even to the King who asked the woman for the Brief. He placed it with the Crown Jewels of Portugal, which was fine for the King, but bad for the woman. After the Brief was no longer with her, she began to weaken and lapse, so the King made a copy for her that restored her to her healed state. Other copies of the Brief were spread to help the faithful fight the Evil One and remind them that Christ has conquered.

The Brief consists of a depiction of a Cross, and words which, forming a rhyme in the Latin, hearken back to Apocalypse 5:5, "And one of the ancients said to me: Weep not: behold the lion of the tribe of Juda, the root of David, hath prevailed to open the book and to loose the seven seals thereof." The words of St. Anthony's Brief are:

English version:
Behold the Cross of the Lord!
Flee ye adversaries!
The Lion of the Tribe of Juda,
The Root of David has conquered, alleluia!

The exorcizing proclamation is carried on the person or placed in homes. It is also used in more specific situations, such as that encountered by the French seamen who found their ship tossed by an angry sea during a storm off Brittany's coast in 1708. One of the men wrote the words of St. Anthony's Brief, and threw it into the sea with a prayer to the Saint. Immediately, the seas calmed and the sailors were saved.

The words of this Brief are good ones to use when feeling tempted by evil, oppressed by demons, and in general spiritual warfare.

Disposing of Old, Worn-out Material Sacramentals


  When a material sacramental becomes so worn that it can no longer be used as a sacramental, a Catholic won't casually toss it into the trash. To prevent desecration, the sacramental should be returned to the earthly elements. Holy water, for example, should be poured into a hole dug in the earth, in a spot noone would walk over. Combustible sacramentals, such as scapulars and holy books, should be burned and then buried. Larger sacramentals that don't burn should be altered so that their form no longer appears to be a sacramental (ex., a statue should be broken up into small pieces) and then buried. Objects made of metals can be melted down and used for another purpose.

In the Sacristy (also called "Vestry") of a church -- the room where vestments, vessels and oils are stored, there is a special sink called a "sacrarium" (also "piscina") which is used for cleaning sacred vessels and getting rid of Holy Water, etc. This sink's drainage pipe doesn't lead to the sewer as do those of most sinks; instead, it goes directly to the earth so that liquid sacramentals, such as Holy Water and oils, and even the tiniest morsels of the Blessed Sacrament or drops of the Precious Blood which might be found on Patens or Chalices will be disposed of correctly and with reverence.

Items lose their blessing or consecration if they are desecrated, or are substantially broken such that they can no longer be used for their sacred purpose, or if they are publicly sold (if an item is sold by one individual to another for only the price of the material itself -- i.e., if no profit is made, the blessing remains. E.g., if you were to give somone, say, a blessed rosary or sell it to him at cost, he would not have to have it re-blessed; if you sell a blessed rosary to someone for profit, he would need to take it to a priest.)

Note that on 23 June -- the Eve of the Feast of St. John the Baptist -- it is custom to build large bonfires in which no longer useful material sacramentals are burned

NOTE: Text and Imagery is courtesy of APOLOGIA. Community of Hope would like to thank APOLOGIA for doing the bulk of the work. We do not endorse all of APOLOGIA views, but do understand and respect their stance. None the less, we are deeply grateful for their input.


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