There are people today, highly-educated people, who believe that certain rocks have mysterious healing powers. Then there are some people who believe they have the power to "channel" the voices of people long dead. I once knew a Christian psychologist who believed he was the reincarnation of a 16th-century French Huguenot martyred by the Catholic Church.
A lot of strange beliefs exist out there. The people who hold those beliefs often see themselves as challenging the limits of rationalistic science. They may maintain that the world is fundamentally mysterious in its physical makeup and that it is the development of spiritual powers which holds the key to the betterment of humanity.
It is important to note that while these beliefs have a religious flavor to them, they are often fundamentally at odds with Christianity. They pave the way, not to a personal sharing in Christ's self-offering on the cross, but to the occult, to the striving to acquire more and more "spiritual power" for oneself.
It is also worth noting that New Age and related beliefs have exploded in the last 30 years, the same period that the Catholic Church has more or less abandoned many of its traditional devotions. Devotions and practices such as the Stations of the Cross, Benediction, the rosary, the use of holy water, and the wearing of scapulars and religious medals were once staples in the practice of devout Catholics. Sometimes, however, these practices were seen as more important than the sacraments or as themselves containing magical powers.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) put things in perspective by teaching that the Eucharist is the source and summit of all Christian living. All other devotions and religious practices need to be seen in the perspective of and as subservient to the Eucharist if they are to be truly Catholic.
This is a crucial teaching. But sometimes its effect was not to put devotions in the right light, but rather to eliminate them. This was unfortunate and two quite different types of occurrences have followed in its wake.
One occurrence is that after all healthy devotions have been eliminated, people have gone ahead and created their own "devotions." Some of these "devotions" may be avowedly Christian in nature -- the torrent of alleged apparitions of recent years might well be noted here. Others have been quite non-Christian, even dabbling in the occult.
A second occurrence following the elimination of devotions was that some Catholics, instead of focusing more on the Eucharist, fell away from the sacraments too. If the Eucharist is to be the summit of a mountain of Christian practice then you had better not take away all the granite which lies underneath that summit. If you do, the summit will soon disappear too.
The church clearly distinguishes Sacraments from sacramentals. Sacraments were instituted by Christ and give grace by virtue of the act of being validly performed by the proper minister. Sacramentals were instituted by the church. They do not give grace automatically, but they do prepare and dispose the recipient to receive God's grace.
Sacramentals come in all shapes and sizes. They are any sacred object or practice approved by the church which aims at building the life of faith in the person using the sacramental. Going on a pilgrimage is a sacramental; so is a home which has been blessed.
In a sense, you can make up your own sacramentals. But if you do, you are walking on thin ice. You can invest any object or action with religious meaning, but it should be religious meaning which is consistent with Christianity. That's why the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "Pastoral discernment is needed to sustain and support popular piety and, if necessary, to purify and correct the religious sense which underlies these devotions" (no. 1676).
Popular devotions need to be reinvigorated in the church. The mighty edifice which lies beneath the summit of the mountain needs to be reconstructed. The summit won't be much without it. The summit, however, needs to be held up with granite, not garbage. We need to provide the holy, Christ-like alternative to the New Age bric-a-brac so widespread today.
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