As Catholics, we are accustomed to having religious objects “blessed,” which signifies the permanent sanctification and dedication of an object for some sacred purpose. I think every weekend someone asks me as well as the other priests to bless a rosary, a statue, or some other religious object. Once a religious object is blessed and dedicated for divine worship or veneration, it must be treated with reverence and must not be used in either an improper or profane way (cf. Code of Canon Law, #1171).
What happens when the rosary or statue breaks and is irreparable? Or, when the palm dries out, and the following Palm Sunday provides us with new palm? The basic rule for the disposition of these items is to burn or to bury them.
During the 1800s, both the Sacred Congregation for the Rites and the Holy Office (now known respectively as the Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, and the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) issued various determinations concerning this issue. Here are a few examples: A chalice which becomes “unserviceable” is not to be sold, but must be used for some other sacred purpose, or melted. Vestments, altar cloths, and linens must be destroyed. Polluted or excess holy water must be poured into the ground. Palms are to be burned, and the ashes then used for distribution on Ash Wednesday or returned to the ground. A broken rosary or religious statue normally would be buried. In all, the underlying idea is that what has been dedicated to God should be returned to God, in a sense, the same way a person’s dead body is committed to the earth. Never should one just “throw out” what has been dedicated to God.
Therefore, the normal “rule of thumb” is that anything that has been blessed should be burned (and then the ashes buried) or simply buried. I remember as a child, several times when my father dug the hole to plant a new shrub, my Mom would first add the broken rosaries, which made me think of the new shrub as something holy. My job as a child was always to burn the old palm. Even as a pastor, I have a whole box of old palm, worn linens, and other things, that I save and burn periodically.
Living in a society where things have become so disposable, we must differentiate from trash those religious objects that have been blessed and dedicated to God for sacred use. My heart breaks every time I enter an antique store or look on EBay or another website and find a chalice, a reliquary (sometimes still containing a relic), vestments, and other sacred objects that were once used for the holy Mass. I have to wonder: “What was someone thinking to just dispose of these items in this way? What will happen to them and how will they be used? Will they even be used for a profane or Satanic purpose?” The owners should have tried to find these religious objects a new home in a mission church or disposed of them in the proper way.
Please be sure to always cherish blessed religious objects at home, venerate them with piety, and when necessary, dispose of them properly.
By Father William P. Saunders