Catholic CornucopiadCheney

B. Holy Water,

Vindicated against the Sneers of the Ignorant and the Ungodly
By the Archbishop of Halifax

The Sacramentals of the Holy Catholic Church

“Let us draw near with a true heart in fulness of faith,
having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our
bodies washed with clean water.”—Hebrews, x. 22.

More than enough has been said upon this part of our case, because, as we have seen before, it is not at all necessary to recur to Paganism for the primitive idea of Holy Water. Not only the idea, but the name of Holy Water, and its association with religious rites, is to be found in Holy Writ. “And he (the priest) shall take Holy Water in an earthen vessel, and he shall cast a little earth of the pavement of the tabernacle into it,” etc. (Numbers, v. 17.) That lustral Water was preserved for purification, seems evident from the same authority. (viii. 5, 6, 7.) “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the Levites out of the midst of the Children of Israel, and thou shalt purify them according to this rite: Let them be sprinkled with the water of purification, etc.”

The principle connected with this rite of the Catholic Church being thus sufficiently vindicated, we must now enquire at what time, and by whom, was Holy Water first introduced. By the admission of our opponents, we are enabled to go back for more than seventeen hundred years; a very respectable antiquity, as all must allow. In a list of what were called “the gradual apostacies of the Church of Rome” we find the following:

“Holy Water first used, A.D., 120.” [We can not understand how the Church of England, in particular, can object to the use of Holy Water, or term it “an apostacy,” when she admits that the Faith of Rome was pure for a long period after this. It is singular, too, that if Holy Water was so wicked an institution, or could not have been traced to the times of the Apostles, none of the four first General Councils should have condemned it. They were well aware of its existence.]

Indeed, all Protestant controvertists are forced to admit that it is ancient as this, that is, 1736 years old! As they are so very considerate and obliging, they might have gone back a few years farther. After such a tremendous jump of seventeen centuries and a half, a very slight additional effort would have brought them up to the very age of the Apostles. Perhaps we may coax them on a little further hereafter. But, in any case, an institution so old as this in the Christian Church—one which they admit was established by Pope St. Alexander I., who was the Sixth Bishop of Rome after St. Peter,—who was elected between the years 108 and 119, of the Christian era, (some say in the year 109,) does not deserve the mockery and scorn with which it is treated by the irreverent scoffers of our day. Supposing Pope Alexander to have been thirty years of age at his election, St. John the Evangelist was living for many years after his birth. St. Alexander is said to have studied under Pliny the younger, and Plutarch, and was raised to the highest dignity in the Church at a comparatively early age, on account of his extraordinary piety and learning. He must have seen and conversed with many who were acquainted with St. Peter and St. Paul, for he was born in Rome. Is it not most natural to suppose that he was well acquainted with the customs and rites of the Christians in the days of those Apostles?

Now, Cardinal Baronius, in his annals (ad annum 57,) shows, on the authority of Latin and Greek writers, that in the ancient Christian temples, both amongst the Greeks and Latins, there was at the entrance, or porch, a font, cistern, or shell, in which the people were wont to wash their faces and hands before they entered the house of prayer. [See 1 Tim. ii.] The same venerable authority (ad ann. 134) shows that the custom of blessing salt and water, and sprinkling the faithful therewith had descended from the Apostles themselves. But why do the profound Protestant critics of modern times assign the introduction of Holy Water to Pope Alexander? Because in the ancient Liber Pontificalis attributed to Anastatius the Librarian, and confirmed by innumerable evidences of antiquity, the name of this holy Pope is connected with the blessing of salt and water. Let us see, however, in what manner. Hic constituit aquam aspersionis cum sale benedici in habitaculis hominum.” “He prescribed that the water of aspersion with salt should be blessed in the dwellings of men”—that is, he extended the use of an Apostolic custom, and permitted Holy Water to be blessed, and used in private houses as well as in the church.

We may here state, that the opinion which declares Holy Water to be useful, not only to excite good thoughts and pious affections in the mind, and to banish evil spirits, but that it also serves for the remission of venial sin, [as St. Thomas asserts in his Summa,] is confirmed by the following words ascribed to this holy Pope:

“We bless, for the people, water mingled with salt that all, being sprinkled therewith, may be sanctified and purified. This we likewise command all priests to observe. For, if the ashes of a heifer, sprinkled with blood, sanctified and cleansed the people, how much more does not water, when mixed with salt, and hallowed by the divine prayers, make the people holy and clean? And if the barrenness of water was healed when salt was sprinkled upon it by the Prophet Eliseus, how much more, when salt is sanctified by the divine prayers, does it not take away human sterility, and sanctify, cleanse, and purify, those that are defiled, and multiply other blessings, and avert the snares of the devil and defend mankind from the craftiness of evil spirits?” [Aquam sale conspersam populis benedicimus, ut ea cuncti aspersi sanctificentur et purificentur; quod et omnibus sacerdotibus faciendum esse mandamus. Nam si cinis vitulae sanguine aspersus populum, sanctificabat atque mundabat; multo magis aqua sale aspersa, divinisque precibus sacrata populum sanctificat atque mundat? Et si sale aspera per Heliseum Prophetam sterilitas aquae sanata est quanta magis divinis precibus sacratus sal sterilitatem rerum autem humanarum, et coinquinatos sanctificat, atque mundat, et purgat, et cetera bona multiplicat, et insidias Diaboli avertit, et a phantasmarum versutiis homines defendit?. S. Alexan. 1. Epist. 1. ad omnes Orthodoxos. This epistle, though not reckoned amongst the Authentic Canons, is very ancient, as well as the tradition which connects Holy Water with St. Alexander.] St. Clement, the Roman, (who was converted by St. Peter or St. Paul, and died in the year 100,) declares that the custom of blessing Holy Water was established by St. Matthew, and gives the form of the benediction which was prescribed by that Evangelist. (Constitut. Apos. viii. 35.)

Baronius relates, on the authority of St. Epiphanius, that some magical incantations of the Jews were confounded by one Josephus, a converted Jew, through the sprinkling of Holy Water, anno 327.

Theodoret, (v. 22.) and Baronius, ann. 389, state that St. Marcellus, Bishop of Apamea, banished by means of Holy Water, the Devil, who was preventing the destruction of the temple of Jupiter there, and that the temple was accordingly Demolished.

We read in the ancient life of St. Chrysostom that he cured a sick child, by blessing water and sprinkling him with it, and restored him to his mother free from all disease. The same Greek Father, (Hom. 18, in 1 Cor.,) alluding to the well known custom of taking Holy Water, to be cleansed from spiritual as well as bodily defilement, says: “'Why do you, after the commission of sin, run to the bath? Is it not because you deem yourself more dirty than any filth?” And again, (Hom. and Pop. Antioch,) he says: “Thou wouldst not attempt to touch the Sacred Victim with unwashed hands, although stained by great necessity. Do not, therefore, approach with an unclean soul. St. Paulinus of Nola testifies that the ancient Latin Churches, and especially the old Vatican, had fonts at their entrance ; (in Epist. ad Alethium) and in his 32d Epist. to Sulpicius Serverus, he writes that the Basin or Fountain which he calls Cantharus, [The Cantharus, from his description, seems to have been a fountain, in which the water was made to jut forth from curious statuary, with a small dome or cupola over it, covered with brass, to protect it from the weather. “Ubi Cantharum ministra manibus et oribus nostris fluenta ructantem fastigiatus solido sede thronus ornat et inumbrat: non sine mystics specie quatuor columnis salientes aquas ambiens.”] furnishes water in the court before the Church, to wash the hands of the faithful who enter:
Sancta nitens famulis iuterfluit atria lymphis
Cantharus, intrantumque manna lavat amne ministro.

St. Leo the Great, erected a similar fountain before the Church of St. Paul, at Rome, on which it is said the following verses were inscribed:
Unda lavat caruis maoulas, sed orimina purgat,
Purificatque animas mundior amne fides.
Quisque suis meritis veneranda, sacraria Pauli
Ingrederis supplex, ablue fonte manus
Perdiderat laticum longæva iucuria cursus.
Quos tibi nunc pleno Cautharus ore vomit.
Provida Pastoris per totum cura Leonie
Hæc ovibus Christi larga fluenta dedit.

“Water washes the stains of the flesh ; but faith, purer than water, cleanses from crime, and purifies souls. Whoever thou art that enterest in suppliant spirit this sacred temple, which is venerable for the merits of him (St. Paul) whose name it bears, wash thy hands in this fountain. Through long neglect, had been lost, the water-course which this ornamental fountain now pours forth for thee in abundant streams. The provident and comprehensive care of Leo, the shepherd, has supplied the flock of Christ with these copious waters.”

In the life of Pope Symmachus, by Anastasius the Librarian, we are informed that this holy Pontiff also erected a fountain at the church doors. “Ante fores Basilicæ gradus fecit in atrio et Cantharum.”

The same custom prevailed amongst the Greeks. In the 4th Chap. 10 Book of his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius tells us that at the beauteous Temple which Paulinus had built at Tyre, he placed fountains to wash the hands of those who entered as symbols of sacred expiations: “hunc sacrarum expiationum signa posuisse, fontes scilicet ex adverso Ecclesiæ structos, qui interius sacrarium ingressurius copiosos latices ad abluendum ministrarent.” (Loc. citat.) Paul the Silent, in his description of the celebrated Sancta Sophia, mentions a fountain of this description in connection with that temple. We have before quoted St. Chrysostom, who, in different parts of his works, alludes to this common usage in the Greek Church. To the text already cited we might add a passage from his LII. Homily on S. Matthew, from his III. Homily on the Epist. to the Ephesians, and from his LXXII. on S. John, where, reproaching the faithful for not practically realizing, in the purification of their souls, that cleansing of which they were symbolically admonished by the waters at the church door, he says: “ When we enter the Temple, we wash the hands, but not the heart.”

Hence, down to the present day, the Greeks observe the rite of blessing and sprinkling Holy Water, as well as the Latins. The benediction of the water is confined, amongst them, to the first Sunday of the month, and after the blessing, the Rubric directs the priest to sprinkle the water upon the church and congregation. (Goar. Euchol. Gracor, 441, 448, 451.)

But on the day of the Epiphany, which is celebrated as the day of Christ’s Baptism, [The three Epiphanies, or manifestations of Christ, are alluded to in the Antiphon at Magnificat on this day, in the Roman Breviary : “Tribus miraculis ornatum diem sanctum colimns. Hodie Stella duxit ad præsepium. Hodie vinum ex aqua factnm est ad nuptias. Hodie in Jordane a Johanne Christus baptizari voluit ut salvaret nos. Alleluia.” The baptism of Christ is also alluded to in the hymn, (from Sedulius, anno 412,) on this day:
Lavacra puri gurgitis
Cœlestis Agnus attigit, etc.]
nearly all.the Oriental Christians, as well as the Greek Church, perform a very solemn blessing of Holy Water. They carry some of this water home, sprinkling their houses with it, and keep the remainder with much reverence, until the next recurrence of the Epiphany. [Goar. Seq.] In his LXXIV. Homily, preached on this Festival, St. Chrysostom distinctly mentions this custom. Of course we are not surprised to learn from the accounts of travelers, that the same rite is observed with much solemnity by the Russian Church.

If we return to the Latin Church, and follow the chain of proofs in reference to the use of Holy Water which extends from the early ages to the present the testimonies are so abundant, that we should never have done, if we were to recount them all.

St. Gregory, of Tours, in his life of St. Quintin, (anno. 506,) relates that that holy Bishop cured, of a violent fever, the family of the Senator Hortensius, by sending them some Holy Water.

St. Gregory, the Great, gives an account of a certain Goth who had his thigh bone broken in two and who was perfectly cured by some Holy Water, which St. Fortunatus sent to him by one of his Deacons. It will be seen in the extract which we give from this holy Pope, the Apostle of the English, that the words Holy Water are used three times. “Cui (Diacono) benedictam aquam venerabilis Fortunatus statin dedit dicens; vade eitius, eteam super jacentis corpus projice. Perrexit itsque diaconus atque ad Gothum introgressus, benedictam aquam super membra illius aspersit. Res mira et vehementer stupenda! mose ut aqua benedicta Gothi coxam contigit, ita omnis fractura solidata est, et saluti pristineæ coxa restituta, ut hora eadem de lecto surgeret, etc.” St. Greg. M. Dial, gs. i. 10.

St. Braulio, Bishop of Saragossa, a disciple of the renowned St. Isidore of Seville, wrote, amongst other works, a Life of St. Œmilianus, a holy Priest, who died upwards of a hundred years old, in the year 564. In the list of miracles wrought by him, St. Braulio, chap. xvii., describes his casting out a devil from the house of a Senator through the agency of Holy Water and fasting. “Tertio die expleto voto indicti jejunii, salem exorcizat et aquæ commiscet more Ecclisiastico ac donum ipsam aspergere cœpit. Tunc ex intestino domus prorupit invidus,” etc. “The vow of the appointed fast having been accomplished on the third day, he exercises salt, and mixes it with water according to the custom of the Church, and began to sprinkle the house itself,” etc.

If we go from Spain to England, we find Venerable Bede frequently alluding to the same well known custom of the Church. Besides the passage already given from his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, there are many others equally pertinent; such as, “Tunc benedixi aquam, et astulam robois præfati immittens obtuli ægro potandum. Nec mora: melius habere cœpit,” etc. Lib. iii. c. 13.

About the same period (anno 700) the celebrated St. Willibrord delivered a house from the infestation of evil spirits by means of Holy Water. Albinus Flaccus in vita S. Willibrord.

His contemporary, St. Hubert, Bishop and Patron of Liege, clearly described the efficacy of water mixed with salt, and blessed by the Priest, by the authority of the Apostles, as a protection against the assaults of our spiritual enemy. His words are quoted by Sarius (in vita 3 Novemb.,) and will be found in the margin. [Vide aquam quæ sacerdotali consecratione sale admixto benedicta, et ad effugandam inimici nequitiam orationis virtute impregnate est liquorque olim itidern Apostolica auctoritate benedictus huc inferatur, quorum aspergine atqua litun mox its effugabuntur hinc inimioi virulenta phantasma, ut amplius non audeat sua inferre machinamenta.]

Passing over a long series of similar authorities in Ecclesiastical writers, Missals, Liturgical books, etc., we now come to an Irish Saint and Bishop, the illustrious Malachy, one of the great successors of St. Patrick in the Archiepiscopal see of Armagh and Primate of Ireland. His intimacy with St. Bernard is well known, and the eloquent anchorite of Clairvaux, in the life of St. Malachy. which he composed, and in the sermon which he delivered on his death, has left to future ages the most undoubted proofs of his profound veneration for the sanctity and virtues of the Irish Prelate, whom he loved with all the warmth and fervor of true Christian friendship. Describing the wonders which were wrought by this holy man, St. Bernard mentions several in which Holy Water was employed. Thus, in returning from Rome, whither he had gone to receive the Pallium, he remained for a short time with St. Bernard and his holy community at Clairvaux. From thence on his way home, be safely arrived in Scotland, and found Henry, the son of King David, at the point of death. The monarch “humbly entreated him to heal his son. He sprinkled the youth with water which he blessed, and, looking upon him said—“Have confidence, my child, you will not die this time.” On the following day his health was restored, to the great delight of his father, and amidst the joyous shouts of his family.” So writes St. Bernard. (Lib. de vita S. Malachiae cap. xvii.) “Malachias perfectus a nobis, prospere pervenit in Scotiam. Et invenit David regem qui adhuc hodie superest, in quodam castello suo: cujus filius infirmabatur ad mortem. Ad quem ingressus honorifice a Rege susceptus, et humiliter exoratus ut sanaret filium suum; aqua cui benedixit, aspersit juvenem et intuens in eum, sit; Confide, fili, non morieris hac vice. Dixit hoe, et die sequenti. . . . secuta est sanitas, sanitatem lætitia patris, clamor et strepitus totius exultantis familyæ.” St. Bernard declares that when he wrote, both father and son were still living, and that they loved St. Malachy as long as he survived. We may also state in passing, that he praises the young Scottish Prince very warmly, describing him as “a brave and prudent soldier, and a zealous lover of justice.”

St. Bernard relates another miraculous cure effected by St. Malachy, in Leinster, on an insane woman, who was tied down with ropes, whom he ordered to be unloosed, and sprinkled, or rather washed with Holy Water. “In regione eadem (Laginia) ligatam funibus phreneticum soli jussit et in aqua, quam benedixit lavari. Lota est, et sanata est.” (Ibid. cap. xx.)

In like manner, with Holy Water, he cured Count Durmod, a wicked man and a glutton, who had been long confined to his bed. St. Malachy severely rebuked him for his sinful life, and, sprinkling him with Holy Water, made him rise without delay, so that he was able to mount his horse at once, to the great amazement of his friends. Diarmitium Comitem, multo jam tempore decambeeptem lecto, duriter quidem increpans, quod malus homo esseti immoderatius serviens, ventri et gul&alig; benedicta aspersum aqua surgere, fecit sine mora, ita valentem, ut equum ascenderet, illioc, etc.” (Chap. xxiii.) During his last journey towards Rome, he died at his beloved Clairvaux on the way. St. Bernard likewise mentions that he cured a woman of a dreadful cancer, by sprinkling Holy Water upon it. This occurred in the North of England, at a place which St. Bernard calls Gisiburne. “Ibi adducta est ad eam mulier patiens morbum quem cancrum vulgo appellant, ipso horrendum visu; et sanavit eam. Nam ubi aqua cui benedixit, aspersa sunt ulcerum loca dolorem non sensit. Die vero sequenti vix ulcera apparebant. [Id. c. xxx] This miracle occurred in the year 1148, the very year of the Saint’s death, who expired at Clairvaux on the 2d of November. It was the same year that the celebrated battle of the Standard, so disastrous to the Scotch, was fought between King David, who was the uncle of Matilda and Stephen the Norman, who had so craftily usurped the English throne soon after the death of Henry I.

But we have been led farther than we intended both in time and place. Returning to France, and going back two centuries earlier, we have an important testimony respecting the custom of blessing water, and sprinkling the people with it, which now prevails throughout the Catholic Church. In the Capitulary of Hinemar, Bishop of Rheims, anno 852, he gives the following direction in the 5th chapter: “On every Sunday, let each priest in his own church, before the solemnities of Mass, in a clean vessel, bless the Holy Water, with which the people entering into the church are to be sprinkled, and let those who will, take some of it, in clean vessels, and sprinkle it through their houses and fields, as well as on their food and their drink.” “Omni die Dominico quisque Presbyter in sua Ecclesia ante Missarum solemnia aquam benedictam Faciat in vase nitido, de qua populus in trans ecclesiam aspergatur et qui voluerint in vasculis nitidis ex illa accipiant, et per mansiones et agros, necnon super cibos et potum suum conspergant.”