Externals of the Catholic Church – Holy Water

Holy water basin and sprinklerIt is interesting to note how often our Church has availed herself of practices which were in common use among pagans, and which owed their origin to their appropriateness for expressing something spiritual by material means. The Church and her clergy are “all things to all men, that they may gain all for Christ,” and she has often found that it was well to take what was praiseworthy in other forms of worship and adapt it to her own purposes, for the sanctification of her children. Thus it is true, in a certain sense, that some Catholic rites and ceremonies are a reproduction of those of pagan creeds; but they are the taking of what was best from paganism, the keeping of symbolical practices which express the religious instinct that is common to all races and times.

Holy water, as our catechisms taught us, is “water blessed by the priest with solemn prayer, to beg God’s blessing on those who use it, and protection from the powers of darkness.”

A Symbol of Interior Cleansing

Water is the natural element for cleansing, and hence its use was common in almost every ancient faith, to denote interior purification. Among the Greeks and Romans the sprinkling of water, or “lustration,” was an important feature of religious ceremonies. Cities were purified by its use, in solemn processions. Fields were prepared for planting by being blessed with water. Armies setting out for war were put under the protection of the gods by being sprinkled in a similar manner. Among the Egyptians the use of holy water was even more common, the priests being required to bathe in it twice every day and twice every night, that they might thereby be sanctified for their religious duties. The Brahmins and others of the far Orient, and even the Indians of our own continent, have always attached great importance to ceremonial purification by means of water.

Among the Jews the sprinkling of the people, the sacrifices, the sacred vessels, etc., was enjoined by the regulations laid down by Moses in the books of Exodus and Leviticus; and it was undoubtedly from these practices of the Mosaic law that our Church took many of the details of her ritual in regard to holy water.

When Was It Introduced?

The use of holy water in Catholic Churches goes back possibly to Apostolic times. There is a tradition that Saint Matthew recommended it in order thereby to attract converts from Judaism by using a rite with which they were familiar in their former faith. However, we have no certainty that he introduced it, but we know that it can be traced back nearly to the beginning of our religion. It is mentioned in a letter ascribed by some to Pope Alexander I, and supposed to have been written in the year 117; but the genuineness of this letter is very doubtful. We find a detailed account of its use, however, in the “Pontifical of Serapion,” in the fourth century, and the formula of blessing mentioned therein has considerable resemblance to that used at the present day.

The Asperges

The blessing of water before the High Mass on Sunday and the sprinkling of the congregation with it, which ceremony is called the “Asperges,” goes back to the time of Pope Leo IV, in the ninth century, and possibly even further. The word Asperges is the opening word of a verse of Psalm 50, which is recited by the priest as follows: “Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, O Lord, and I shall be cleansed; Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow.”

The custom of placing holy water at the door of the church for the use of the faithful is still more ancient. Among the Jews a ceremony of purification was required before entering the Temple to assist at the sacrifices, and this undoubtedly suggested the Catholic practice of using holy water at the church door. It is said to have been in vogue in the second century, and we know that it is at least of very ancient date.

In the Middle Ages it was customary to use holy water when entering the church, but not when leaving it – the idea being that purification was necessary before entering the house of God, but that after assisting at the Holy Sacrifice it was no longer needed. However, the general practice now is to take it both on entering and departing, and this is to be recommended for the reason that the Church has attached indulgences to its use, and these may be gained every time it is taken.

The Kinds of Holy Water

Often a priest is asked: “Is Easter water the same as the other holy water?” The answer is that it has the same uses, but is blessed in a different manner and at a different time. There are four distinct kinds of holy water. The first kind is baptismal water, which is blessed on Holy Saturday, and may also be blessed on the eve of Pentecost. This water receives a special and solemn blessing, and the holy oils consecrated on Holy Thursday are mingled with it. It is used only for die administration of the sacrament of Baptism. Water which has been thus blessed is the only licit matter for solemn Baptism. However, the Sacrament is valid if merely ordinary water is used, and in “private Baptism” the latter is lawful as well as valid.

The second kind is “water of consecration,” or “Gregorian water,” so called because its use was ordered by Pope Gregory IX. It is used by bishops in consecrating churches, and in its blessing it has wine, ashes and salt mingled with it.

The third kind is the so-called Easter water, which is distributed to the people on Holy Saturday. A part of this water is used for the filling of the baptismal font, to be blessed as baptismal water and to receive the holy oils; and the remainder is given to the faithful to be taken to their homes. In Catholic countries, and in some parishes in our own, this water is used by the clergy for the solemn blessing of houses on Holy Saturday.

The fourth and most common kind is the holy water which is blessed by the priest for the sprinkling of the people before Mass, and is placed at the doors of the church. This also may be taken home and used for the blessing of persons and things.

Thus the only varieties of holy water that directly concern the faithful are the water blessed on Holy Saturday for them, and that obtainable at any time at the church. They have the same value and the same uses, although the formula of blessing is different.

The Blessing of Holy Water

When holy water is blessed, the priest reads several prayers, which include an exorcism of the salt and the water. An exorcism is the banishing of evil spirits. The Fathers of the Church teach us that when Satan caused the fall of our first parents he also obtained an influence over inanimate things intended for the use of man; and therefore, when any material object is to be devoted to the service of God, the Church often prescribes for it a form of exorcism, to free it from the power of the Evil One.

The prayers used in this ceremony are very beautiful, and express well the reasons for the use of holy water. Those said over the salt invoke the power of “the living God, the true God, the holy God,” that whosoever uses it may have health of soul and body; that the devil may depart from any place in which it is sprinkled; that whoever is touched by it shall be sanctified, and freed from all uncleanness and all attacks of the powers of darkness. The prayers said over the water are addressed to the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, that through the power of the Blessed Trinity the spirits of evil may be utterly expelled from this world and lose all influence over mankind. Then God is besought to bless the water, that it may be effective in driving out devils and in curing diseases; that wherever it is sprinkled there may be freedom from pestilence and from the snares of Satan.

Then the priest puts the salt into the water in the form of a threefold cross, saying: “May this mingling of salt and water be made in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” – after which another prayer is recited, in which God is asked to sanctify this salt and water, that wherever it shall be sprinkled all evil spirits shall be driven away and the Holy Spirit shall be present.

The Meaning of the Salt

Why does the Church use salt in holy water? Because it was a Jewish custom, and because of the symbolical meaning of salt. Just as water is used for cleansing and for quenching fire, so salt is used to preserve from decay. Therefore the Church combines them in this sacramental, to express the various reasons why it is used – to help to wash away the stains of sin, to quench the fire of our passions, to preserve us from relapses into sin. Moreover, salt is regarded as a symbol of wisdom. Our Lord called His Apostles “the salt of the earth,” because by them the knowledge of the Gospel was to be spread over the world. The custom of using salt is a very ancient one, and is traced by some to the second or third century.

The Liturgical Uses of Holy Water

Holy Water is used in the blessing of nearly everything which the Church wishes to sanctify. The Ritual contains hundreds of distinct benedictions in which it is used. Besides the pouring of baptismal water which forms the “matter” of the Sacrament of Baptism, the sprinkling with holy water is a part of the ceremonies of Matrimony, of Extreme Unction and of the administration of the Holy Eucharist to the sick; and it is employed also in services for the dead.

The Asperges, or sprinkling of the congregation on Sunday, has a mystical meaning of its own. It renews every Sunday the memory of Baptism, by which we have been sanctified and purified from sin; and it is intended also to drive away all distractions which might hinder us from the proper hearing of Mass. It is well to remember that the holy water need not actually touch every person in the congregation. The whole assembled body of the faithful is blessed together, and all receive the benefit of the blessing, even though the holy water may not reach each individual.

How We Should Use It

Holy water should be used frequently. There is an indulgence of one hundred days every time it is taken. This indulgence was renewed by Pius IX in 1876, and in order to gain it there are three requirements: The sign of the cross must be made with the holy water, the person must have contrition for his sins, and he must say the words: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”

Stand at the door of any church and watch the people who enter. Do many of them gain the indulgence? They dip their fingers into the water, make a mysterious motion in the air, and pass along. There is no recollection, no audible words, no recognizable sign of the cross – merely an action performed through habit and in a very slovenly manner. None of the above requirements are fulfilled. Bear in mind that while the use of holy water in any way may be beneficial, to gain the indulgence it is necessary to make the sign of the cross, to say the usual words, and to have in our hearts a spirit of true contrition.