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Wear Your Faith on Your Sleeve

“Dude, come on. Put it on!” said my best friend Tom doing his best to convince my thirteen year-old self to drape an impractical length of brown cord and cloth around my neck. Tom’s final attempt to pique my interest in wearing a scapular was to say, “Come on! You won’t go to hell if you wear it!” Now that was a deal, skeptic or not, that I could get behind. I slipped the scapular on, and I took my first step into the wild world of Catholic sacramentals.

When it comes to sacramentals, most Catholics seem to fall into one of two camps: those who think you are just misspelling “sacrament” (which you’re not!) and those draped with rosaries, medals, and scapulars of every shape and color. The truth is sacramentals, when properly approached, are a beautiful and varied means of obtaining grace, teaching the faith, and promoting a Catholic identity both personally and for the youth in your ministry.

Sacramentals occupy a unique place in Catholic life. To clarify again they are not sacraments – the Catechism distinguishes that unlike the sacraments, sacramentals are not necessary for salvation, were not instituted by Christ, and do not cause grace of themselves. Sacramentals occupy a spiritual middle ground and are meant to orientate people to grace. These gifts prepare one “to receive grace and dispose [one] to cooperate with it,” through the particular blessing given them by the prayer of the Church (CCC 1670).

Pope Saint John Paul II fleshed out this sense of the sacramentals in a letter to the Carmelite Order on the 750th Anniversary of the Conferral of the Scapular. There, he compared the scapular to a “habit,” or a “permanent orientation of one’s own Christian conduct, woven of prayer and interior life.” The sacramentals, in other words, are a means to seamlessly interweave the divine and the secular. They can bring together the spiritual and the tangible into one, vivid, dynamic Catholic life.

If the sacraments make visible the spiritual realities of the faith, I like to think of the sacramentals as “making tangible” those same realities. Drawing upon the scapular once again, this sacramental can be an extraordinary tool for teaching your youth and bringing them into the rich history of the faith. There are many teaching avenues the scapular offers such as teachings on the religious life, an introduction to Marian devotion, and the heritage and stories of the saints – St. Simon Stock, St. Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of Lisieux, Venerable Solanus Casey, or the late and great Pope Saint John Paul II. Then there are the many miracle stories connected to the scapular (and other sacramentals) that you can use to discuss the providence of God or aspects of spiritual warfare. All of a sudden the youth are connected to this great heritage of the faith, all from wearing a simple piece of brown cloth.

The sacramentals provide an opportunity for youth to find a distinctive Catholic identity. One could also consider a sacramental as a type of spiritual uniform, aligning one to a certain saint or aspect of devotion. We also see this in the world, where so many people align themselves with a team, club, or organization by their actions or vesture. The sacramentals also imitate this aspect of human existence. Thus, wearing a Miraculous Medal not only displays a particular devotion to Mary or the virtue of purity but also opens one to receive graces one would not receive otherwise. This can be compared to sports apparel. In my neck of the Pacific Northwest, wearing a Seahawks jersey, would open me to far greater “good graces” than wearing Denver sports gear.

Sacramentals offer the youth a visible sign that they can use to witness in their daily life, both to their peers and others. Wearing a crucifix, a scapular, or a Miraculous Medal are all tangible ways for youth to represent the promises of the faith to others, and more importantly, themselves. In a deeper way than a Catholic t-shirt or bumper sticker, which might exhibit one’s faith generally, a sacramental testifies that one believes in God’s promises to giving one a particular gift of His grace. Nothing made me swell more with pride than hearing one of my middle school youth tell me how he had explained the scapular and its promises to some of his curious friends in the locker-room. Finally, not only does this personal Catholic identity allow your youth to witness to those around them, but it also helps them set themselves apart, physically and in their own minds from other faiths. Due to a lack of formation, many of the youth in my small town have a tendency to think that all faiths are basically the same. Sacramentals can provide a way for anyone to teach about Catholic identity as well as preserve, protect, and promote this precious identity.

We cannot underestimate the power of the graces that come with these seemingly simple beads or medals. Prayer with sacramentals can greatly affect any ministry. In a world and culture that is quick to ask for results and slow to understand the spiritual, sacramentals can hold the key to effective ministry.

The grace-filled results of introducing sacramentals can be both sudden and dramatic. A year ago, I heard this story from a group of religious who had ministered to drug dealers in Argentina. While walking the streets one day, these religious had invited an urban gang to attend a week-long series of spiritual talks, in exchange for which they could use the church basketball court. At the conclusion of the series, all the members were offered a scapular. Three days later, a car stopped two of the religious, again walking the streets, and drove them to a nearby hospital where they found the gang’s leader was in a coma. The doctor reported that the young man had been brought in with a heroin overdose and was now dying. He should not have been able to speak or come out of the coma, but miraculously had done both, and had asked for the religious before lapsing back into his comatose state. As the doctor finished speaking, the gang leader sat up again, to their astonishment, and said to the religious, “No soy bautizado. Bautizame! (I am not baptized. Baptize me)!” The religious baptized the young man who then immediately fell unconscious and died soon after. He was wearing the scapular.

Now, one could obviously debate the real reason for this young man’s fortunate conversion, but if a sacramental could bring about such a miracle of grace for him, what might they do for the youth we minister to? In my experience, I have found that introducing sacramentals into youth ministry invariably brings about an increase of faith in those who receive them. I believe that this is not just because sacramentals help one to receive grace, but also because they serve as profound teaching tools for the spiritual life.

In the end, the sacramentals, in all their staggering variety, serve to make our beautiful faith tangible. They unite for a moment, heaven and earth, grace and nature, in the eyes, hands, and hearts of your middle school youth. I believe that the sacramentals can be unbelievably enriching for youth and open them up to opportunities for life-changing conversion. After all, that is their purpose! Thanks to the graces provided by that scapular my friend Tom slipped around my neck thirteen years ago, I had a conversion, which kept me in the faith through high school, college, and beyond. I pray that you take the opportunity to let the sacramentals do the same for your youth.

 

To help your middle schoolers understand sacramentals better, Edge just put out this great night called Represent. Check it out!

About the Author

Thomas Megargle

Thomas Megargle works as a high school and middle school youth minister in the sundrenched valleys of central Washington. He has the great privilege of having just married the woman of his dreams and walking with her on the path to holiness. When he is not ministering to youth, Thomas loves rock-climbing and hiking with his wife, studying theology, and spending time with his now very-extended family of fifteen brothers-and-sisters in law.