“Religion Behind the Scenes” spotlights the less discussed, but no less crucial, tasks that keep religious communities running, and the people who make it all happen.
Water is a sacred symbol, common in the Holy Bible and in many denominations of Christianity. Among other things, water is often used as a symbol for spiritual cleansing (Ephesians 5:26; Hebrews 10:22), the Holy Spirit (John 7:37-39), and even for God Himself (Jeremiah 2:13 & 17:13). In traditions, such as Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and some Lutheran synods, Holy Water is frequently utilized during the liturgy and in various sacraments—and with symbolic meanings akin to those mentioned.
Reared as an Episcopalian, Father Richard Tomlinson converted to Roman Catholicism after college, and currently serves as Parochial Vicar at Prince of Peace Catholic Church & School, in Taylors, South Carolina. Ordained to the priesthood in 2009, Father Tomlinson has not only made Holy Water, but has quite literally used it daily in his ministry and life. In this installment of Religion Behind the Scenes, he tells us a bit about how Holy Water is made and how it is used in the Christian church.
Obviously, a lot of people who will read this interview are not going to be Roman Catholic. So, could you define for us what Holy Water is and how it's used in Roman Catholicism?
Well, Holy Water is water that has been blessed by a priest, though other clergy (such as a bishop) can bless it as well. The two main uses are for baptism and as a sacramental—in blessing something or in the liturgy itself. And, like any sacramental, it's ordered toward the sacrament, meaning the presence of Christ Himself. And so, in baptism, for example, the water was blessed by Christ (in His baptism), and then (through the priest) it is blessed again by Christ—and it takes away the stain of original sin or any other sins that have been committed. So, the Holy Water has a cleansing power, which is really crucial to the understanding of baptism. Thus, it symbolizes our baptismal purity, and it also signifies the protection that comes from that. It represents the physical activity of being purged of original sin; and represents being renewed and refreshed—as well as the ability to experience God’s grace in a pure and unadulterated way.
But I think it’s important to realize that Holy Water (in the Catholic tradition) is made by mixing blessed salt with water, and the blessed salt is there for the purpose of exorcisms. Salt has a long history of being used as a preservative, and also as a purifying agent. Specifically, salt mixed with water comes from Second Kings chapter 2, where the prophet Elisha is in Jericho. And the water there is not healthy. And so, the people ask him to do something about it. And he says, “bring me some salt” and he put salt in the water, and then it becomes very sweet and good to drink. He says, “I have healed these waters.” So, in the blessing of the salt (for the making of Holy Water), that action of Elisha [2 Kings 2:19-22] is actually referred to. And so, the Holy Water is a very powerful defense against evil spirits and evil thoughts within us. It brings us to that baptismal purity, and it also gives us protection from spiritual evil.
You mentioned that clergy other than a priest can bless or make Holy Water. What clergy are allowed to do that?
Well, in addition to priests, the bishop can when making a special kind of Holy Water known as “Gregorian Water”—which was used in the old Pontifical for the consecration of an altar in a church. Gregorian Water contains more than just blessed salt and water. It is also mixed with wine and ashes. So, it’s a very, very powerful kind of Holy Water.
A deacon can bless Holy Water in the Novus Ordo. But he couldn’t do the exorcisms, so he can’t bless the salt—but he can mix the water and the blessed salt together and give a blessing.
Are there circumstances in which a Catholic might use Holy Water—other than baptisms, exorcisms, or as a sacramental?
Well, in the traditional Latin Mass, the priest can do a ceremony called the Asperges—where the congregation is sprinkled with Holy Water. It happens (in the Easter season) during the vidi aquam, where the choir sings a the antiphon while the priests sprinkles the people with Holy Water.
So, my Greek Orthodox parents would bring Holy Water home from the church and use it. Are there circumstances in which it would be inappropriate to use Holy Water?
Well, of course, you shouldn’t use it for any profane purpose, but it can be used—especially in the Eastern tradition—in a variety of ways. I remember once, when I was in Jericho (in the Holy Land), and I was visiting an Orthodox Church at Epiphany; and there were dozens of trays or plates of Holy Water that had been blessed and were being distributed to people who would take it home and drink it, use it in cooking, or whatever.
In the West, we have a vat of Holy Water in the narthex, and people can come and take as much as they want. We fill it up on a regular basis. Catholics use Holy Water at home, mostly for blessing. So, for example, it’s a tradition in the West to go around the house at night saying the St. Michael prayer and sprinkling Holy Water for protection from evil spirits, bad dreams, or whatever. Of course, for a Catholic priest, you’re using Holy Water in blessings all of the time. So, you know, we just had the blessing of the animals on the feast of Saint Francis, for example. And I would go around to each animal and sprinkle them with a little Holy Water and then give them a dog biscuit. Ha-ha. But whenever we bless anything, we usually incorporate a sprinkling into that blessing.
Talk to me a little bit about the process of making Holy Water. How is it created?
Well, first you would bless some salt—and, as I say, this is for the exorcism. And then, after the salt is blessed, you do a blessing of the water. And during that blessing of the water, you mix the salt into the water, making the sign of the cross, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So that’s the basic process. One of my colleagues (here at Prince of Peace) has created a video showing the process of making Holy Water. He goes through the prayers themselves, which are very beautiful. It’s worth watching.
For something like the blessing of Epiphany Water, the basic idea is same, but it’s a much more extended service. You have the litany of the saints, and you have several songs which are sung. It’s a very lovely service, but it takes quite a while. Whereas the simple blessing of Holy Water, you know, probably takes less than five minutes. Epiphany Water is not different from traditional Holy Water. The only time it would be different is in the Novus Ordo, where you have a blessing of baptismal water, and you don't need to use salt for that. As a matter of fact, the only time you use salt in the Novus Ordo blessing is at Mass—where the blessing of the water and the sprinkling take the place of the penitential rite. So, in the Novus Ordo, the Holy Water is used in the Mass itself, and is used specifically to recall those baptismal promises, especially at the Easter season.
What would you say is the most sacred side of creating Holy Water? In what sense do you feel something sacred is happening as you engage in the creation of this?
Well, I think it's comparable to the feeling you have when you celebrate Mass, or when you perform any of the sacraments. You're acting in persona Christi capitis, “in the person of Christ the head.” And so, you're really being privileged to do something that human beings cannot do for themselves. You’re partaking of this spiritual power that our Lord has passed onto us through the Church, through all these centuries—and there is a great mystery there, but especially that mystery of the interior cleansing that goes on. And the exorcisms are very powerful. There is protection that the water will bring, and it can cause the devils to flee, and bring peace, tranquility, and healing to those who use it. So, there's that wonderful sense of priestly mission that we have—to bring the protection of Christ, the love of Christ, the joy of Christ into places where it’s very much needed.
When you're confecting Holy Water, or when you’re blessing any object—like when you go to a home to do a blessing, or when you’re blessing people, animals, or automobiles—with the sprinkling of Holy Water, you're invoking the Lord's protection on them. So, there's that mystical connection that is made through the material element of the water; but, of course, it's water transformed by the faith of the people involved, and also by the prayers that we've said over it.
You mentioned blessing automobiles with Holy Water. What can you tell us about that?
I remember once, when I was in seminary, a friend of mine (who was a monk as well as a priest) had gotten a new car and he blessed it. He knew cars well, so he blessed each of the major parts individually. You bless it with the idea that the car will run well, and also that the inhabitants of the car will be safe as they travel in it. Perhaps that they will not give into road rage and those kinds of things.
Saint Francis of Rome is the patron saint of automobiles. She lived in the 15th century and was a Roman noble woman. She would go out at night to bring food and medicine, or whatnot, to the poor and those in need. And it is said that her guardian angel went before her with a lighted lamp. And apparently that lamp reminded Pope Pius XI of the headlights on an automobile—and so he declared her the patron saint of cars. On her feast day, the ninth of March, all of the taxi cabs in Rome will line up outside her convent to be blessed.
Would you say that the utilization of Holy Water increases peoples’ sense of the sacred or, in some way, influences them in positive ways?
Oh, yeah. You know, Catholics bless themselves with Holy Water, usually when they come into a church. And, if you go to a monastery (at the end of complin), the abbot will bless each of the monks and each of the guests with Holy Water. And most Catholics keep Holy Water in the house. I, myself, do, and I sprinkle it around the room before I go to bed. So, it becomes a part of your life and, like all of the sacramentals, the use of Holy Water deepens our faith, and reminds of our commitment to the Lord and of His love and protection for us. So, the Holy Water is something reminding us of creation, of God's love, of the purity to which we're called, and which we strive for.
And it’s so ubiquitous because it is in every church, it’s used in the Holy Mass, and it is used in all the blessings that we do. We’re almost “immersed” in it, in that it is everywhere in the life of the Church—surrounding us as a natural part of our lives. And, of course, water being so important—for life, for cleansing, for purity. It reminds us of why Christ came into our world, what He brought into our world, and what He's calling us to become …ideally in this life, but certainly in the life to come.
Are there any misconceptions or superstitions surrounding Holy Water and its use?
Well, I think you can always look at it as kind of a “magic power,” you know? And while it does have some mystical power—there’s no doubt about that—it is important to remember that the power comes from our faith. And so, an unbeliever who took Holy Water wouldn’t be helped by it. I mean, if you’re hoping to gain some kind of power over demons or something, it's not going to work if you don’t believe. The power of Holy Water only comes from the faith of the one who is using it. That's not to suggest that there's not an objective dimension to it or something supernatural about it, but there's nothing “magical” in the sense that it's going to accomplish something that faith itself cannot accomplish.
That being said, people who do exorcisms typically want to have Holy Water nearby. And there are places in the exorcism where you sprinkle the Holy Water, sort of pacifying the demons and getting their attention, you know. And certainly, we've had experiences, for example, when we’re down at the abortion clinic, or something like that, when the Satanists are counter protesting. And they don't like Holy Water. When they see the Holy Water or hear Latin, they get very upset. So, it’s very interesting stuff.
You mentioned that, in the Eastern tradition, Holy Water is consumed more widely than in the Western tradition—with the Orthodox cooking with it or drinking it. Do you have any discomfort with how Eastern Orthodox Christians use it?
No! As a matter of fact, I think there's so much richness in the Eastern traditions, both in the Orthodox and Syrian traditions, and the West has a great deal to learn from them. As Pope John Paul II said, the East and the West are like breathing with “two lungs.” And one of the tragedies in Christian history has been the separation of the Churches. Certainly, in the West, we recognize the validity of the sacraments of the Eastern Church. And so, I would say that, if anything, many of these Orthodox practices are ones that can enrich our faith. Sometimes, in the West, we tend to be a little single minded and overly legalistic, or that kind of thing. The Orthodox have a wonderful appreciation of the Holy Spirit at work in all of creation, and certainly their attitude toward and use of Holy Water is one example of that.
Are there any aspects of how Holy Water is made that might surprise people?
Well, I think the crucial thing is the mixture of salt and water. There is a blessing of Holy Water (in the Novus Ordo) which does not include salt—but I don’t know what good it does, because, while Holy Water isn’t necessarily always used in exorcisms, it is intended to bring that element of protection (which is associated with the salt). And that spiritual power is essential to the whole idea of Holy Water.
Baptism is a little bit different, in the sense that you don't necessarily have to have the salt in the water. I mean, if needs be, you can use any water—even seawater—to perform a baptism. There's actually an ancient tradition that you should use flowing water in baptism. And that's why you'll see in some churches a kind of little stream where the water flows into the baptismal font. And, of course, baptism doesn’t have to be performed in a church. Originally, baptisms were all done in a lake, river, or stream—or something like that.
So, those are a few of the things that people are often unaware of or might have a misconception about.
Has there been any evolution, that you're aware of, in how Holy Water is created from the earliest times down to today?
Well, you know, the prayers have changed somewhat. In the Novus Ordo (or “Ordinary Form of the Mass”), there are some different prayers from what used to be said in the Latin Mass. But, I think you have to be a little bit flexible with these things. The basic elements of how Holy Water is made and used are essentially the same, really going back to the prophet Elisha; the mix of salt and water and, of course—for Christians—the invocation of the Trinity. So, with those basic elements present, you can have various prayers that you say (like for the blessing of Epiphany Water). But the rest has basically remained consistent.
Is there anything else that comes to mind that you think people should understand about Holy Water?
Well, as I said, it's oriented toward baptism. And so, it is to remind us of those baptismal promises. And again, those baptismal promises include renouncing Satan and all his works and empty promises. But it also brings us to that state of original purity in which Adam and Eve were created, and to which all men and women are called. Of course, being weak and having human frailty, we all fall away from that ideal; but the sacramentals help to remind us of what our baptismal calling is—in addition to offering us protection from all evil influences which, as you know, are everywhere around us. So, it’s a reminder that we have to be on guard as much as we can. And, above all, we have to have trust in our Lord Jesus Christ and His love and care for us.
Interview conducted, transcribed, edited, and condensed by Alonzo L. Gaskill.
10/30/2021 8:02:05 PM