The self-sacrificing missionaries who first ministered to the scattered Catholic population of the United States encountered, as in many other countries, innumerable difficulties, not the least of which was that of strictly conforming to the ceremonial of the Church in her various sacred functions. At a time when the Adorable Sacrifice was offered up, now under a tree, now in a barn, a house, or a school-house, again in a canal tunnel—as the Very Rev. Prince Gallitzin once celebrated it west of the Alleghany mountains—it is not a matter of surprise that all the ceremonies of the liturgy were not observed. This state of affairs existed for a longer or shorter period in all parts of the country, and it still exists in many places. Few of the older of our missionaries but are able to recall scenes in which it would have been impossible to carry out the ceremonial; and the poor priest, with the best intentions, found himself in very truth the creature of circumstances. Many of the early missionaries were also at a disadvantage on their own account. Like their people, they were for the most part from Ireland, Germany, or France. The centuries of English oppression, with their restrictions on Catholic education in general, and prohibition, under the severest penalties, of education for the priesthood, were not sufficient to quench the missionary spirit of the Irish people, although they were frequently successful in depriving those who aspired to the sacred ministry of the opportunity of receiving that thorough training which would have better fitted them for the exercise of the noble calling to which, even in their oppressed condition, they heard the divine voice inviting them, and which they had the hereditary courage to obey. The unsettled state of continental Europe, too, a century ago—about the time the Church in this country received permanent organization—was of such a character as to leave the candidates for the sacred ministry a very unfavorable opportunity of preparing themselves to follow the promptings of their heroic zeal. Hence many of them came to this country during that unhappy time with but an imperfect preparation for the fulfilment of their exalted mission. To these difficulties must be added the variety of national customs, both of priests and people, which could not fail to exercise an influence on the rising Church in America.
Coming nearer to our own time, when the indomitable energy of the first American prelates prompted them to found ecclesiastical seminaries for the training of our youth—which was undertaken at a very early day—new elements entered in to render the introduction of the entire ceremonial difficult, if not impossible. The urgent needs of the infant Church forced the greater part of the bishops, much against their will, to ordain and send out priests as soon as they had received the minimum of necessary attainments, in order that bread might be broken for the children who were crying for it. These young priests were generally so much occupied with missionary work that they could find little time for study; they had no brother priests to consult, except at distant intervals; and they were commonly so poor as to be unable to buy the few books suitable for them which the market then afforded. What wonder that their too scanty store of knowledge suffered from the ravages of time, and that the difficulties of their position forced them to encroach somewhat on the domain of ritual requirements? Far be it from us, or from those more favored in our day, to underestimate their difficulties or censure their conduct. Rather should we study to emulate their ardent zeal and heroic spirit of self-sacrifice. These young priests, finding their seniors—with whom they were sometimes placed as assistants, and many of whom had entered the ministry under still less favorable circumstances—omit certain ceremonies, would naturally follow their example, and this for two reasons: first, from fear of being criticised, a fear which was not in every case imaginary; and, secondly, from a reflex conclusion that what was permitted to their elders was also permitted to them. I am accounting for this state of affairs; not approving nor condemning it. People are sometimes perplexed to account for difficulties the solution of which is very simple.
When better times dawned upon the Church here the difficulties by which the priests were surrounded were not entirely removed. The urgent demand for missionaries was, if anything, greater than before, owing to the ceaseless tide of immigration, largely Catholic, which flowed into the country; the professors in our seminaries had for the most part labored on the mission among us and were conversant with the difficulties of the field, and they were not always as familiar, it may be, with the strict requirements of the liturgy as could be desired. Besides, the necessity they were under of crowding a long course of studies into a brief space of time forced them, in spite of themselves, to overlook certain points to which greater attention can be devoted at the present day. With these rather lengthy prefatory remarks we shall turn to the subject of the Asperges. And first of its history.
The introduction of the custom of blessing water before the principal Mass on Sundays, and sprinkling the people with it, is commonly attributed to Pope St. Leo IV. (847-855); but there are not wanting learned writers who trace it to a far more remote antiquity, and regard the words of this Pontiff as referring to an existing custom rather than to the introduction of one not as yet in use. Addressing the clergy on certain of their duties he says: “Bless water every Sunday before Mass, whence the people may be sprinkled, and have a vessel especially for that purpose.”1 The Asperges was directed to be given by one of the canons of a synod held at Rheims by Regina and Hincmar, in the ninth century, and Walafrid Strabo (born 806) speaks of it.2 Hence we may safely conclude that the Asperges, substantially as we now have it, dates from at least as early as the beginning of the ninth century. But that it underwent minor changes since that time is more than probable, inasmuch as the rubrics of the Missal were not irrevocably fixed till some seven centuries later.
When St. Pius V., acting in accordance with the recommendation of the Fathers of the Council of Trent, issued a carefully revised edition of the Roman Missal, he commanded all persons of whatever dignity—even the cardinals of the Holy Roman Church—in virtue of holy obedience, to make use of that Missal and no other, unless they had—as in the case of certain churches and religious Orders—a different rite dating back at least two hundred years. The same command, with even severer penalties, was renewed by Popes Clement VIII. and Urban VIII. Among the rubrics of the Missal is one directing that the priest who is about to celebrate Mass shall—after the blessing of water, according to the Ritual—vest in cope of the proper color for the day or feast, and shall proceed with the servers to the foot of the altar, where he shall sprinkle it, himself, the servers, and the people. The ceremony is also prescribed by the ritual, the Ceremonial of Bishops, the ceremonial prepared by the directions of the several councils of Baltimore and approved by the Pope, and by every work that treats of this subject; so that it is utterly impossible to find any work that even supposes the possibility of its omission. It will suffice to quote Wapelhorst (p. 129) on this point. He says that the Asperges is to be given at the conventual or principal Mass, although that Mass is celebrated without singing; and it is not at all to be omitted, but what should otherwise be sung is to be read by the celebrant. In a note he proves it to be the opinion of all liturgicists that the Asperges cannot be omitted without fault, since it pertains in a certain sense to the substance of the principal Mass, just as the blessing of the candles does to that of the feast of the Purification, and ashes and palms on their respective days.3
The celebrant is the person who must perform the Asperges, even though a prelate is present, although another priest may bless the water, as several decrees of the Sacred Congregation have decided. The Ceremonial prescribes the manner in which it is to be given.
In the first synod ever held in the United States, that which convened at Baltimore in November, 1791, it was decreed that in churches served by more than one priest, or in which there were lay persons able to sing, the solemn sprinkling with holy water should be given as the Missal prescribes.4
The mystical signification of the Asperges is, that we may renew every Sunday the remembrance of our baptism, which was formerly conferred on Easter and Pentecost—or rather on the eve of those feasts— and also that the holy water by being blessed every Sunday may always be pure. The faithful are sprinkled with holy water that by the prayers which are recited in the blessing of it—to the essay on which the reader is referred—they, by being purified from sin, and defended from the wiles of the spirit of evil, may with greater attention and devotion assist at the adorable sacrifice of the Mass.5
The following are the words recited by the priest during the Asperges, the antiphons and responses being sung by the choir as well as recited by the celebrant: Ant. “Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, O Lord, and I shall be cleansed: Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be come whiter than snow. Psalm. Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy. Glory be to the Father, etc. Ant. (repeated). Thou shalt sprinkle me, etc. V. Show us, O Lord, Thy mercy. R. And grant us Thy salvation. V. O Lord, hear my prayer. R. And let my cry come to Thee. V. The Lord be with you. R. And with Thy spirit. Let us pray. Hear us, O holy Lord, Father Almighty, everlasting God; and vouchsafe to send Thy holy angel from heaven, to guard, cherish, protect, visit, and defend all those who are assembled together in this house. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.” The antiphon and psalm change in Paschal time, and are: “I saw water flowing from the right side of the temple, Alleluia; and all unto whom that water came were saved, and they shall say, Alleluia, Alleluia. Psalm. Praise the Lord, for He is good; for His mercy endureth forever. Glory be to the Father,” etc.
In the Asperges the congregation constitutes one whole, and it is not necessary, in order to receive the benefit of it, that the holy water should touch every person, any more than it is necessary for the holy water to touch every candle or palm branch in their respective blessings.
1 Fornici, p. 356.
3 Ita omnes. “Absque culpa hæc benedictio et populi adspertio omitti nequeunt, cum quasi pertineant ad Missæ principalis substantiam, uti benedictio cereorum in die Purificationis. Cinerum et Palmarum suis respective diebus.” Romsée, Bouvry, etc.
4 “Concillia Baltimorensia,” p. 19.
5 Wapelhorst, N. 80, ad. 9.