Photo by John Stephen Dwyer (Wikimedia) Photo by John Stephen Dwyer (Wikimedia)

When a great uncle of mine passed away years ago, his closest family members went through his belongings, as per his wishes, and took mementos. A box was left over, I was told, of “religious items,” and I was asked if I’d like to have the box. As one of the few practicing Catholics in our extended family, I gratefully accepted the box.

I was delighted to find three Latin/English Missals from the 1940's and 50's, religious statues, rosaries, holy cards, a scapular and other Catholic sacramentals.

When my mother died eight years ago, my siblings and I went through her jewelry box. I was surprised to find a beautiful cameo miraculous medal and a card enrolling my mother (then a young teenager) in the “Miraculous Medal Society.” I now wear my mother’s miraculous medal.

My father, who died when I was a teenager, frequently recited the rosary. One image I recall from his wake is of my father, peaceful in death, his hands clutching his rosary.

Rosaries, scapulars, religious images, medals, holy water are all sacramentals, or visual reminders of our Catholic faith.

Catholic sacramentals have somehow lost popularity. While many Catholics still wear medals, the displaying of religious statues, icons and other sacramentals in Catholic homes is not as common anymore. Strictly speaking, it is not obligatory to use sacramentals. However, since they are reminders, they do help us in our journey towards heaven.

Our Catholic ancestors did not shy away from the faith. With few exceptions, they went to Mass every Sunday (with their Latin/English missal) and attended Mass often during the week, they abstained from meat on Fridays, recited the rosary, wore medals, proudly displayed crucifixes in their homes and religious statues in their gardens. Most had holy water fonts in their homes. They proudly proclaimed their faith and were not ashamed.

Recently, my scapular was hanging out in front of my shirt. A fellow parishioner asked me what it was. “It’s a scapular, a sacramental,” I replied. This fellow parishioner was around the same age and yet had never seen a scapular “up close” and didn’t know what a "sacramental" was.

When my parents attended grade school and high school in the 1940's, catechism was memorized and learned from an early age. Young Catholics knew and understood when sin was sin; there was no watering down of the faith. There was no "subjective truth." Pre-marital sex and contraception were sins and even if they fell into temptation and took part in these acts, they knew it was sinful and headed to confession immediately.

Now? Well, it's a different story. Although some Catholics do know the teachings of the faith, many do not. In fact, I’ve spoken to Catholics who are under the mistaken impression that the Catholic faith is a democracy or opinion-based church. I’ve talked to Catholics who had no idea Sunday Mass was an obligation and missing it was a sin. I’ve spoken to Catholics who had no idea that living together before married was a sin or that birth control was a sin.

Sacramentals remind us of our faith. They remind us that our life here on earth is temporary and that heaven is our goal.

We have a lot to learn from our ancestors. Our Mass going, rosary reciting, scapular and medal-wearing ancestors understood the importance of sacramentals and the importance of knowing–-and practicing–-their faith.

To find out more information on the importance of sacramentals, check out this helpful link:

Copyright 2015 Ellen Gable Hrkach