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Father Richard Kunst: We must not treat sacred things as good luck charms

I hope he does not mind my saying this in a column, but Bishop Felton likes to call his priests. It is a pretty common occurrence for our current bishop to randomly call us priests just to check in and see how we are doing. The last time he randomly called me, as I write this in January, was Thanksgiving morning, and he did so just to offer thanksgiving to God for my priesthood, which I was grateful for.

Father Richard Kunst

This is not necessarily a common trait of bishops, and I have heard from more than one of my brother priests that it is a bit unnerving, the reason being that traditionally when a priest gets a call from his bishop it can indeed be a bad thing. In fact, I daresay that one of the more stressful thing for any priest is to get a call from the bishop to see him in his office, because bishops will rarely tell the priest over the phone why he wants the meeting. Of course, not every time a priest gets called to the bishop’s office is it a bad thing, but even small infractions by a priest can have major consequences.

Now, suppose I got the dreaded call to go meet the bishop in his office, and I decided to bring a consecrated host in a pyx and put it in my pocket for comfort. Would that be a proper use of the Eucharist? The answer, of course, is a resounding no! That would be an abuse of the sacrament, trivializing it to be nothing more than a holy good luck charm. The Eucharist is the source and summit of who we are as Catholics, so it is to be honored with the same reverence with which we honor God the Second Person of the Trinity, because that is who it is.

There is a near equivalent to this scenario in the Old Testament book of First Samuel, when Israel was at war with the Philistines, when after a defeat in battle someone came up with a harebrained idea: “When the troops returned to the camp, the elders of Israel said, ‘Why has the Lord permitted us to be defeated today by the Philistines? Let us fetch the ark of the Lord from Shiloh that it may go into battle among us and save us from the grasp of our enemies’” (4:3). Understand that the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord was the single most sacred thing to the Jewish people. It was also known as the Holy of Holies and believed to be the very footstool of God, where he resided with his people.

Whichever elder came up with this idea was certainly misunderstanding of the proper use of the ark of the Lord, just as I would be if I brought the Eucharist to a meeting with the bishop that I might be worried about. Sacred things are never good luck charms, and certainly neither is God the Son, who is present in the Eucharist. These facts are most obvious.

But in saying this, it is not necessarily obvious with other sacred items. Our Catholic religion is rich with symbols and things; we are the religion of “smells and bells,” and I love that about being Catholic. Our tradition is filled with something we call sacramentals — things like rosaries, scapulars, medals, holy water, holy cards, prayer books, chaplets, candles, and on and on. These tangible objects are a part of the daily devotional life of Catholics and are great aids to our prayer life when viewed and used correctly.

It can be easy to get attached to a particular sacramental, especially if you have owned if for a long time or if you got it from a deceased relative. I have a rosary my grandmother gave me when I was probably around five years old, and she got it from my dad as a gift when he was very young, so it has great sentimental meaning for me, but I should never give undue attention to that particular rosary because of that sentiment. Rosaries and all sacramental serve only one purpose: to help us in prayer. Other than that they are of little value. I cannot exactly remember which saint said it, but they warned that if you get too attached to a rosary or any other sacramental, break it and bury it, because it is defeating its purpose. In other words, it is the prayer that accompanies the sacramental that is important.

Sacramentals are only as good as the disposition of the person using them. If my mind is wandering the whole time I am using one, then I might as well be reciting nursery rhymes, as there is a vast difference between saying prayers and praying!

Obviously it would be a much worse thing if we were to use the Eucharist as a “good luck charm,” but it is still important not to view the sacramentals you may own as good luck charms. We as Catholics have a rich tradition of having these holy objects to help us get to heaven. We should never look at them or use them in a way that would be more akin to superstition than prayer.

Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. James and St. Elizabeth in Duluth. Reach him at [email protected]