Holy scandal! Is sipping holy water really dangerous?

OK! OK!

I yield to all of you who sent me the link to that strange ABC News “Good Morning America” report about the dangers of sipping holy water! Let’s talk about that story a bit and, trust me, there isn’t much to talk about.

First things first: Is there really some kind of epidemic out there linked to people drinking large amounts of holy water? Here’s the top of the story:

Despite its purported cleansing properties, holy water could actually be more harmful than healing, according to a new Austrian study on “holy” springs.

Researchers at the Institute of Hygiene and Applied Immunology at the Medical University of Vienna tested water from 21 springs in Austria and 18 fonts in Vienna and found samples contained up to 62 million bacteria per milliliter of water, none of it safe to drink. Tests indicated 86 percent of the holy water, commonly used in baptism ceremonies and to wet congregants’ lips, was infected with common bacteria found in fecal matter such as E. coli, enterococci and Campylobacter, which can lead to diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain and fever.

So there are several things going on here.

Several people have asked me if members of ancient, liturgical churches really do drink holy water. The short answer is “yes,” but it is not very common. A better word would be “sip,” linked to prayers for divine healing.

However, I have never, ever seen anyone drink water from a baptismal font! In Orthodoxy, that would have oil in it, for starters. The water people might sip would be linked to the annual blessing of the waters, when people take home containers of clean, blessed water from this special ritual. I have never seen water used, well, twice that is involved in this rite.

Catholic readers: Can someone enlighten us on the ritual practices that might — repeat might — be linked to this story. Do people really stop and sip the water that is in the fonts near Catholic parish doors?

And then there is this, care of a tweet from the always newsy Father James Martin:

Yes, note that the story makes no attempt to separate outdoor, free flowing springs at holy sites from water that is under parish and clergy control, in terms of the rites in which it is used. Did the editors know that they were dealing with two completely different types of sources here?

Meanwhile, try to picture the following:

There have been advances made for the more hygienic use of holy water, including the invention of a holy water dispenser a few years ago by an Italian priest, while studies have also indicated that adding salt (at recommended levels of 20 percent) can help disinfect the water.

But Kirschner cautions that salt is not a reliable way to prevent infection and instead recommends priests regularly change the holy water in churches and erect signs to inform congregants about the dangers as well as of the history of the holy springs.

Yes, try to imagine that sign going up at Lourdes.

Now, here is the key. The story gives absolutely no information from trustworthy Catholic sources on what is going on with this holy-water drinking trend — at the parish level. Is the water in fonts really the water that’s used in infant and adult baptisms? How often is the water in the font changed?

Catholic readers: Go for it.

IMAGE: The famous grotto at Lourdes, in France.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia B

    Holy moley! I’m 69, Catholic all my life, and have never heard of anybody drinking holy water in baptismal fonts or the little thingies at the entrance to churches where you dip your hand and bless yourself or even from little bottles.

    I think it’s Europe that is into all kinds of spas and cleanses. Probably they should check out Baden Baden and other watering holes in Europe that aren’t even religious. Drinking holy water must be cultural, in my opinion.

  • wlinden

    “He has heard
    the phrase “[holy water]” and considers, in a poetic reverie,
    what he shall make it mean. He does not go and ask the nearest
    priest what it does mean. He does not look it up in an encyclopedia
    or any ordinary work of reference. ” — Chesterton, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND CONVERSION

  • James Stagg

    Generally speaking, there are three kinds of “holy” water.

    First, the water from springs (Lourdes) that are considered “holy” by popular decision. There may be hundreds of these springs scattered about the world, but few, if any, are actually blessed by the Church.

    Second, the water in fonts at the doors of churches, i.e., still water (not flowing or recirculating). in most cases it would be difficult if not absurd, to drink from these fonts. Most fonts do not lend themselves to even a sip. These are the fonts where people dip their fingers and make the Sign of the Cross on forehead, shoulders and chest. This water originates at the Easter Vigil, when it is blessed (using the holy oils) and retained for use throughout the coming year. This is to replace the stored water that (supposedly) has been emptied from containers in preparation for Good Friday or Palm Sunday (pick one). In each Roman Catholic parish, there is usually a moderate-sized container, where the Easter-blessed water is stored. This is usually the source for personal bottles of holy water, and filling the church fonts and aspergillum.

    Third, the water used for baptisms. CLEAN, FRESH water is usually used to fill the baptismal font for infant and adult baptisms. It is used once, unless there are multiple baptisms to be done at the same time. Generally, in the Roman tradition, babies, children and adults have water dipped from the font, three times, poured over the forehead. Immersion would be an option; in 75 years of life, I’ve never seen that done.

    Are there variations to the above? Pick a number. For example, some newer Roman Catholic churches have a flowing-water baptistery built at the entrance to the church, some with steps for immersion. That same font of water is used to bless oneself upon entry to the church. Methinks the recirculating water is filtered. If worried about such, best to ask first, then dip.

    And yes, in the second instance above, we sometimes run out of holy (Easter) water. There are procedures.

  • FW Ken

    I’ve never seen water blessed at Easter in a quantity sufficient for an entire year, but maybe I’m wrong. I have seen new water blessed at the baptistry and carried to the fonts. We also have a dispenser at the back of the church for getting holy water to carry home and bless your house. I’ve never heard of drinking it, but what people do on their own time, I can’t say.

    A friend did once send me some Lourdes water that I did drink when I could not shake a sore throat. I didn’t get sick, though – I got well.

  • tmatt

    For those who are curious, here is a link to some info about the rites used in the Orthodox blessing of the waters:

    http://www.antiochian.org/node/18690

  • Beate

    I must admit that the words “Do NOT drink the Holy Water!” have come out of my mouth, but never when I was talking to someone over the age of two!

  • Anthony Ray Hernandez

    The stuff you can take home is drinkable. Well, like the article says, Eastern Christians tend to sip it. No one sits there and guzzles it like a Dasani.

  • Harry Jamesbr

    Holy moley! I’m 69, Catholic all my life, and accept never heard of
    anybody bubbler angelic baptize in baptismal fonts or the little
    thingies at the access to churches area you dip your duke and absolve
    yourself or even from little bottles.
    Torpedos sms | mensagem de aniversario | free hd wallpaperz
    I anticipate it’s Europe that is into all kinds of spas and cleanses.
    Probably they should analysis out Baden Baden and added watering holes
    in Europe that aren’t even religious. Bubbler angelic baptize have to be
    cultural, in my opinion.

    • Julia B

      ????

      • wlinden

        Troll?

        • Julia B

          Probably. And it looks like my comment fed through a really bad cyber translation program. LOL

  • Bradley Keebler

    Thinking out loud,,, I have heard from a Priest that his mother would pour some Holy water into the pot of soup while it cooked. I doubt the boiling harmed the “Holy”, “blessedness” of the water for as we know the “gates of hell will not prevail against the Church” (Matthew 16:18), so it would seem a little heat from the boiling of Holy water in the soup would not either.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    Agreed that this is confusion between holy water and holy wells/holy springs. Now, customs differ; here in Ireland, the folk-belief is that if you keep Easter water (the water freshly blessed at the Holy Saturday Easter vigil) for seven years, there is a cure in it. People would bless themselves with it, rub it on – and yes, some might drink it.

    I’ve never heard of anyone drinking from a baptismal font or the font at the door where you bless yourself going in to the church; maybe some people do! I would expect that usually they’d bless themselves or sprinkle it on themselves/others/dwelling places/things for a blessing.

    Now, holy wells and springs are a different kettle of fish. There’s one holy well in a local parish, dedicated to St. Brigid of Kildare, to whom my maternal grandfather had great devotion. It’s really a series of three holes in a boggy field, and nowadays it’s practically a cattle wallow (the farmer who owns the field lets his cows graze there). But yes, when my mother and I visited the church there some years back, we knelt down on the wet grass and blessed ourselves and took a sip of the water. Apparently this is a practice of utmost danger, according to the above newspaper article.

    I do understand the concerns that just because there is a folk belief that back in the seventh century, St. Severe of Really Angry With You Pagans stuck his crozier in the ground and a spring gushed forth, that being a holy well does not mean there aren’t any germs or diseases lurking in it. However, we were not struck down with diarrhoea, dysentery, or brucellosis :-)

  • Julie Peitz Nickell

    Oh, no. I saw this story line on Family Guy. I thought it was such blatant anti-Catholicism. A friend had an uncle who added holy water to his whisky. He was a devout Catholic, not without his problems and I think he figured it would help him. I suppose the alcohol would kill any germs.

  • Ryan Hall

    The point of blessing an object is to consecrate it for holy use apart from the mundane/profane. Water is consecrated as holy for the purpose of blessing and reminding us of our baptism. No catholic priest I know would ever allow someone to drink the holy water, it is not communion wine. Drinking holy water would be using it for a profane purpose.

    • Fr. Richard

      Sorry Ryan, but you are not correct. Like our Orthodox brethren Catholics who use the Byzantine rite also bless water on Theophany (Jan. 6th) and people do come up to take some to drink, as well as to take it home. I don’t know why you would consider drinking this type of water as a profane practice.

      • Ryan Hall

        That is not the case in the Latin rite. In fact, I queried my bishop about it, and he expressly forbids the drinking of holy water.

        • Ryan Hall

          Okay, my bishop asked me to clarify. In instances where one is specifically seeking internal healing, it might be permissible, but even then my bishop says that that is a grace properly conveyed in the sacrament of annointing (unction). What he was getting at was drinking it like a magical water fountain is to be avoided.

    • Unanimous Consent

      Ridiculous. In the Rituale Romanum there is a Blessing of Beer, Blessing of Cheese of Butter, Blessing of Lard, Blessing of Salt or Oats for Animals, and a Blessing of Any Victual.

  • AugustineThomas

    They only change the water after I drink it.

  • Kris D

    The holy water I would be most concerned with is in the Ganges

  • http://nathaniel-campbell.blogspot.com/ Nathaniel M. Campbell

    I’ll add this tidbit, for what it’s worth. I was born almost 7 weeks premature, and since they didn’t know if/how long I’d live, the priest came to the NICU the day I was born to baptize me. He wasn’t allowed to bring outside water in, so the nurses got him a cup of clean water that he blessed and then baptized me with. Since it was now blessed water, however, it couldn’t just be dumped down the drain, and (so I was told) my grandmother didn’t have the energy to take it outside to dump on the ground, so she drank it instead.

  • CathyLouise

    When I was in high school, and Mormon friend and her 6th grade brother were at a mass. Her brother thought Catholics just had strange drinking fountains and scooped up water from the stoup. That’s the only time I’ve ever heard of anyone drinking the holy water.

  • BlueCanary42

    FWIW, Eastern Orthodox Christians take home holy water after Theophany (Epiphany) and are encouraged to drink it when ill, as well as anoint themselves/their homes with it. There is a monastery that I know of that has a well which is blessed. People come with empty milk jugs, Nalgene bottles, etc., and fill them up to take home.

    I know that Roman Catholic practice is different, though.

  • MaryJo Koltuniuk

    My husband is from the Byzantine rite and they have a small tank that dispenses the holy water, with small cups meant expressly for that purpose. When taken with the prayer that you may be healed seems beautiful in my eyes.

  • BillYeager

    Perhaps you might want to focus less on the “nobody in my religion drinks water from the font!” knee-jerkery and think for a minute on why we are taught to wash our hands after using the toilet. If water in a font is teeming with harmful bacteria, which a person then dips their fingers into, followed by the usual genuflection, they risk spreading that bacteria on their face, not to mention that which would remain on their hands. This all without accounting for the frequent habit of the faithful touching their fingers to their lips, either as part of the genuflection or, later, whilst in prayer.
    That you might consider the water to be ‘holy’ does not preclude it from contamination.

    • Martha O’Keeffe

      Nobody is saying that, Bill. What we are saying is that the tone of the story makes it sound like those who use holy water as a sacramental are glugging pints of the stuff regularly, while Truly True Scientific Scientists have proven that it is the most lethal stuff available on the face of the earth, chock-full of all kinds of deadly germs.

      What we are saying is that, as people who do use holy water as a sacramental, we don’t know anyone who regularly swills holy water, so this story sounds odd to our ears. What we are saying is that we know holy water isn’t immune from the physical laws of nature, and that nobody thinks or believes it is.

      What we are saying is we’d like to know more – are there people out there who do drink glasses of water from church fonts? Where did this story come from? Is that really what the scientific study is saying? And if the papers either don’t know or ignore the distinction between the water provided for use in churches and what folk belief considers to be holy wells, how reliable are the rest of what they purport to be facts in the story?

      • BillYeager

        Looking past your obviously snide use of ‘Truly True Scientific Scientists’, it is clear that you are avoiding acknowledging the facts being presented by way of straw-man declarations about how you don’t know anyone who regularly swills holy water. That you also reach a conclusion that this must imply the scientific study is dubious or flawed exposes your motivation for doing so.
        You couldn’t be more wrong.

        A quick search on pubmed for ‘Holy springs’ brings up the research these news reports was based on. You will see that there is absolutely no reason to believe this study is flawed. Besides the objective science that proves it, common sense would also indicate that there is likely to be high levels of contamination in font water. Much like the bowl of complimentary peanuts on a bar, which is proven to be high risk for multiple contaminants from the people who dip into it with grubby hands, water in the font, which will probably have had many more hands dipping into it during the course of a day than the aforementioned bowl of peanuts, will see bacteria, fecal matter and whatever else is on the fingers of the attending congregation, contaminating it.
        So, are you going to continue your straw-man-exercise-in-distraction, or are you willing to accept that, actually, you probably wouldn’t want to be dipping your fingers in this contaminated water, even if you aren’t planning on drinking it.

  • Nils

    A friend of mine used to add it to his coffee….

  • amanda

    My great grandma and great grandpa and lot of my atholic family had used it and for there own purposes at home drank from holy water from church. My great grandma would fill a container and drink it .that was her choice. She lived to 96 and great grandpa 86 from a tumor from the war so idk why its a big problem. When i go to church i just bless myself. If thats the case where all the peolple in the hospital from holy water. If its that bad there should be alot.


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