For All the Sacramentals, Holy Water

Yesterday I shared the Sign of the Cross with you, and today I promised an explanation of Holy Water. I’m glad I found this little book The Visible Church by Fr. John F. Sullivan. And not just for trivial pursuit question ammunition either.

You see, RCIA class is very good, but there is a lot of material to cover in a relatively short period of time. So Fr. John’s book is really helpful to me. Show of hands—who knew there are four distinct kinds of holy water? All you priests put your hands down! For the rest of us, Fr. John explains this sacramental,

Holy Water

Holy Water is “water blessed by a priest with solemn prayer, to beg God’s blessing on those who use it, and protection from the powers of darkness.” It is a very important sacramental of our Church.

Water is the natural element for cleansing, and its symbolical use to denote interior purification was common in many ancient religions—the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and others; and it is so used by the Brahmins of India, the American Indians and other pagans of the present time. Among the Jews, the laws of Moses (contained in the books of Exodus and Leviticus in the Old Testament), enjoined the sprinkling of the people, the sacrifices, the sacred vessels, etc.; and our Church has imitated many of these Jewish practices.

There is a tradition that holy water was used by the Apostle St. Matthew, but this is uncertain. It is traced by some to the early part of the second century, and its use became common somewhat later.

The Kinds of Holy Water.

There are four kinds, each blessed in a different manner. They are as follows:

1. Baptismal Water, which is blessed on Holy Saturday, and may also be blessed on the eve of Pentecost. The Oil of Catechumens and the Holy Chrism are mingled with it. It is used only in the administration of Baptism.

2. Water of Consecration, or “Gregorian Water”, so called because its use was ordered by Pope Gregory IX. It is used in the consecration of churches, and has wine, ashes and salt mingled with it.

3. Easter Water, so called because it is distributed to the people on Holy Saturday, the eve of Easter. A part of this water is used for the filling of the baptismal font, to be blessed as baptismal water; the remainder is given to the faithful. In some countries this water is used by the clergy for the solemn blessing of houses on Holy Saturday.

4. Ordinary Holy Water, blessed by the priest for the sprinkling of the people before Mass and for use at the door of the church. It may be used also for the blessing of persons and things, in the church and at home. Salt is mingled with it—a custom which goes back probably to the second century.

Therefore the only varieties of holy water that directly concern the faithful are the water blessed on Holy Saturday and that blessed at other times. They are sanctified by different formulas, but their value and uses are much the same.

The Uses of Holy Water.

It is used in nearly all the blessings of the Church’s ritual, in the ceremonies of Matrimony and Extreme Unction, in the giving of Holy Communion to the sick, and in services for the dead. For use in church functions it is generally contained in a bowl-shaped vessel with a swinging handle, provided with a sprinkler.

The “Asperges” (pronounced, “as-per-jays”), This is the sprinkling of the people on Sundays before the principal Mass in a parish church. It takes its name from the first word (in Latin) of Psalm 50, of which the opening verse is recited by the priest and sung by the choir at this ceremony during the greater part of the year: “Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be made clean; Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow.”

This practice goes back to the ninth century. It is intended to renew in us every Sunday the memory of our Baptism, and to drive away all distractions during the Mass. In this ceremony, the holy water need not actually touch every person in the church. The whole assembly is blessed together, and all receive the blessing, even though the water may not reach each individual.

The custom of placing holy water at the church door in a “holy water font” is very ancient—probably dating back to the second century. Among the Jews a ceremony of purification was required before entering the Temple, and the Catholic practice may have been suggested by this.

In the Middle Ages it was customary to use holy water only when entering the church, and not when leaving it—to denote that purification was necessary before entering, but not after having assisted at Mass. At the present day holy water may be used both on entering and departing, especially as an indulgence is gained every time it is used.

The Blessing of Holy Water

This is usually done just before the principal Mass on Sunday, but may be done at any other time. The priest reads several prayers, which include an exorcism of the salt and the water, after which the salt is put into the water in the form of a threefold cross, in the name of the Persons of the Trinity. An exorcism is a prayer intended to free persons or things from the power of the Evil One.

The Symbolism of Holy Water

Water is used for cleansing and for quenching fire; salt is used to preserve from decay. Therefore the Church combines them in this sacramental, to express the washing away of the stains of sin, the quenching of the fire of our passions, and the preservation of our souls from relapses into sin.

Salt is also a symbol of wisdom. , Our Blessed Lord called His Apostles “the salt of the earth,” because they were to instruct mankind.

The Indulgence

There is an indulgence of one hundred days for using holy water. Pius IX renewed this in 1876, under these conditions:

1. The sign of the cross must be made with the holy water.
2. “We must say: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”
3. We must have contrition for our sins.
4. For this, as for any indulgence, we must be in the state of grace.

Next time, the Cross and the Crucifix.

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