In the first category, we find prayers and blessings. A blessing or prayer cannot wear out; we have no need to dispose of something like an old Sign of the Cross. If a blessing or prayer becomes obsolete, it just gradually stops being used.
However, what happens to sacramentals in the second category? What do you do with objects like a chipped or cracked and paint-pealing statue, or — more in keeping with the question — an old, damaged Bible?
Canon law offers little guidance. It simply states, “Sacred objects, set aside for divine worship by dedication or blessing, are to be treated with reverence. They are not to be made over to secular or inappropriate use, even though they may belong to private persons” (can. 1171). (This canon is commonly applied to church buildings.)
By custom, when a sacramental object is destroyed — technically returned to its basic elements, such as earth, water or air — and is no longer recognizable as a statue or a book or holy water, it can be disposed of as you would any other groups of basic elements. Leftover ashes from Ash Wednesday can be poured down the sacrarium (the special sink in the sacristy) and old candles can be burned.
Burning and/or burying have been the preferred methods of disposal for old Bibles. An Irish tradition was to collect old sacramentals — including books — during the year to place in a bonfire lighted on June 23, the vigil of the birth of St. John the Baptist. The ashes were then buried.
Those of the Jewish faith are very careful with their sacred texts — not only the Torah scrolls, but also the tifillin, which is worn on the body and contains written parts of the Torah, or even anything on which a Bible verse is written. Any of these objects, when they wear out, must be disposed of reverently, often by burial in a Jewish cemetery. This shows us the Jewish faith’s extreme respect for the sacredness of God’s word.
While Catholics respect sacramentals, we do so realizing that they derive their distinction from the sacraments and the grace of God and not as objects themselves. Consequently, they are often treated differently.
For example, The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that “some sacramentals derive no special efficacy from the prayer of the church; such are those which are employed in worship. … This is the case with the blessing of vessels meant to contain the holy oils. … On the other hand, some sacramentals, among them one of those most frequently used, holy water, are the object of a benediction which details their particular effects.”
So a vessel holding the holy chrism would not be treated in the same way as the chrism itself.
It should be noted that pious tradition holds that some sacramentals, such as holy water, have the power to remit venial sin. But it should be remembered that this is more a derivative power than a direct power belonging to the sacramental. Its “power” comes from the power of the church’s prayer — by which the sacramental has been blessed — and from the devotion and faith of the person using it in conjunction with that ongoing prayer of the church.
All this helps to explain why it would be best not to just throw a worn-out sacramental into a recycling bin. That would not properly remember that it had once be used as an object of sacred significance and might even, for most of us, feel like an act of desecration (de-sacredness).
Better to remember what The Sacristy Manual, used in each parish, states about traditional methods of disposal of sacramentals: The longtime tradition of burning and burial “respected the sacred role once played by the items, and prevented them from being used for trivial purposes. Other methods are open to us, but whatever method is used, it must be respectful, sensitive and discreet” (p. 168).
Such methods should serve to make the original form of an old Bible — Catholic or Gideon — unrecognizable. It is technically called “transfinalization,” or changing the object’s purpose. Once completed, the remaining pieces — such as ashes — can be disposed of. As long as this destruction is done with care and good intent, there is no irreverence.
Sources: The Sacristy Manual; The Catholic Encyclopedia; 1983 Code of Canon Law; Fr. John Doerfler, chancellor for the Green Bay Diocese; The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism; the New Dictionary of Theology; The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia; The Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary; Modern Catholic Dictionary; fisheaters.org; OSV.com; the Association of Chabad Rabbis of Illinois at chabad.org