Kind reader, as you sometimes stand at the church door, and see people enter and depart, taking holy water as they do so, and some making a well-defined sign of the cross, and others a motion that might be taken for the brushing away of an importunate mosquito, or for anything else but what it is intended to represent, did you ever feel a desire to learn anything more about holy water than that it is blessed by a priest as necessity requires, and placed at the church door for the convenience of the people? Or do you, perhaps, belong to the large number of those who are content to practise their religion in a mechanical sort of way without caring to trouble themselves with an inquiry into the history and signification of its numerous sacred rites?
The first point to attract attention is the extensive use of holy water m the sacred functions of religion and among the faithful. From the grand basilica to the hut of the beggar holy water is found, and it enters into the imposing ceremonial of the one as well as into the simple devotions of the other. It is required in almost all the blessings of the Church and in some of the sacraments, and few sacred rites are complete without it. The room in which we are born is sprinkled with it; in one of its three several forms it is poured on our brow in baptism; it accompanies the last sad rites of religion over our remains, and the ground in which we are laid to return to dust is consecrated with its hallowed drops. This is an evidence of the importance the Church attaches to it, as well as of the perfect manner in which the faithful have imbibed her spirit; and it must also be regarded as a proof of its efficacy in conferring blessings and repelling the attacks of the enemy of mankind.
What, then, is holy water? We need not be told that it is water which has been blessed with certain exorcisms and prayers, and into which salt similarly blessed has been mingled.
The better to understand the history of holy water in the Christian Church, it will be well to inquire into the part which water played in the religious ceremonies of both the Jewish and the pagan nations of antiquity. Water being the natural element for the removal of external defilements, it was to be expected that any system of religion, whether true or false, abounding, as all did in ancient times, in symbolical rites, would adopt water as the symbol of interior purity. We do not, however, read of water having been used in the religious ceremonies of the worshippers of the true God before the establishment of the Mosaic Law. Nor need we be surprised at this; for up to that time the ceremonial of divine worship had hardly begun to be developed, but consisted almost wholly of prayers and the offering of sacrifices by the patriarch of the tribe or family. But with the establishment of the Jewish Dispensation, when the ritual prescriptions were defined with the greatest precision, purification by water was made to play an important part.1
The student of the Greek and Latin classics need not be reminded that among the Greeks and Romans lustrations and other religious ceremonies, in which the use of water entered largely, formed an important part of the ritual exercises of their temples ; and the following will suffice for the general reader. “Originally ablution in water was the only rite observed by the Greeks; but afterward sacrifices, etc., were added. They were employed both to purify individuals, cities, fields, armies, or states, and to call down the blessing of the gods. The most celebrated lustration of the Greeks was that performed at Athens, in the days of Solon, by Epimenides of Crete, who purified that city from the defilement incurred by the Cylonian Massacre. A general lustra tion of the whole Roman people took place, every fifth year, before the censors went out of office. On that occasion the citizens assembled in the Campus Martius, and the sacrifices termed Suovetaurilia, consisting of a sow, a sheep, and an ox, were offered up, after being carried thrice around the multitude. This ceremony, to which the name of lustrum was particularly applied, is said to have been instituted by Servius Tullius in 566 B.C., and was celebrated for the last time at Rome in the reign of Vespasian. … All Roman armies were lustrated before they commenced military operations. The Roman shepherd at the approach of night adorned his fold with branches and foliage, sprinkled his sheep with water, and offered incense-and sacrifices to Pales, the tutelary divinity of shepherds. Whatever was used at lustrations was immediately after the ceremony cast into the river, or some place inaccessible to man, as it was deemed ominous for anyone to tread on it.”2 In the Egyptian pagan worship lustrations were more frequent than among any other people, the priests being required to wash themselves twice every day and twice every night.3 But it is needless to multiply examples from pagan antiquity; suffice it to say that so universal was the custom that it found its way into the New World, the less barbarous tribes of Mexico and Central America having their sacred water, which was used for various religious and medicinal purposes.4 And among some at least of the pagans, as among Catholics, the custom existed of sprinkling themselves, or having themselves sprinkled by the priests, with water on entering their temples.5
The fact that a sort of holy water was in use both among the Jews and pagans might appear to give some plausibility to the statement sometimes made that many Catholic rites and ceremonies are but a reproduction of those of paganism; or, as one Pittsburg divine charitably put it, “the Romanists are only baptized pagans.” Without attempting to defend the Church against these silly attacks, it may be said that several different replies may be made to these accusations. In the first place, water being, as was said above, the most ready and natural element for the cleansing of external defilements, it was to be expected that it would also be used as the symbol of purification from the defilements of sin, as in baptism. Again, the Jews having employed water in certain religious rites, the use of it in the New Dispensation would have a tendency to aid in winning some, at least, of them to the Christian religion. As such an adaptation we have the blessing, or “churching,” of women after partarition, as an act of thanksgiving, taking the place of the legal purification enjoined on similar occasions by the Mosaic Law. And a like course of action was sometimes found to be of advantage among pagans who were too strongly attached to some of their pagan rites. According to the principle laid down by St. Paul, missionaries made themselves all to all that they might gain all to Christ.6 As an instance: when St. Augustine, who had been sent to England to preach the Gospel, found the custom among the pagans of having idols placed in the hollow of trees, and other similar places, he was perplexed as to the best means of winning the people from this idolatry. Knowing, as he did full well, that if the idols were removed not a few of the people would retain a superstitious veneration for the places they had once occupied, he wrote for advice to St. Gregory the Great, who was then ruling the Universal Church. The Pope advised him to substitute for the pagan idols the images of the Blessed Virgin and the saints; which he did, with the desired effect. Finally, it may be answered that the Church has received from her divine Founder the plenitude of power for the institution of such rites and ceremonies as may seem best to her, enlightened as she is by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, for the carrying out of her exalted mission. Let us now direct our attention to the history and use of holy water in the Christian Church.
The present rite of blessing water by prayer and an admixture of salt is frequently referred to Pope St. Alexander I., who governed the Church from the year 109 to 119. But from the words which he uses in his decree it would appear that the rite is more ancient than the time of that Pontiff. He says: “We bless, for the use of the people, water mingled with salt.” Marcellius Columna attributes the introduction of holy water to the apostle St. Matthew, whose action was approved by the other apostles, and soon became general.7 Whether we are disposed to accept this evidence as conclusive or not, it is all but certain from other proofs that the use of holy water dates from apostolic times, as St. Basil, among others, maintains.8
The blessing of water before High Mass on Sundays, and the sprinkling of the people with it by the celebrant, before he commences the offering of the Adorable Sacrifice, are commonly attributed to Pope St. Leo IV., who governed the Church from 847 to 855; but there are also very learned authorities who trace it to a far more remote antiquity.9 The custom of placing holy water at the door of the church for the use of the faithful entering and departing is still more ancient, as may be inferred from the fact that the idea was evidently suggested by the Jewish custom of requiring purifications before entering the temple to offer or assist at the sacrifices. But it would be impossible to fix the precise date. The custom of Christians sprinkling themselves with water, or even of washing their hands and face before entering the house of God, existed throughout the Church at least from the time of Tertullian, that is, before the end of the second century.10 Mgr. Barbier has the following in regard to the custom of taking holy water on leaving the church: “The holy-water font, as its name indicates, is a vase intended to contain holy water for the use of the faithful, who bless themselves with it on entering the church, and not when leaving; for they purify themselves to enter the holy place; but when they leave it they should have no further use for that spiritual succor, sanctified as they have been by prayer, the sacraments, and the liturgical offices. Such is the practice universally followed in Rome.” While this was, indeed, the original idea with regard to the use of holy water, it would appear that the custom now generally found of taking it both on entering and departing is to be commended, both because it is so universally in use, because it is certainly beneficial, and because the Church has enriched the pious use of holy water every time it is taken with an indulgence, as will appear further on.
The use of holy water among the faithful at their homes is of still greater antiquity, as may be learned from the Apostolic Constitutions, which contain a formula for the blessing of it, that it may have power “to give health, drive away diseases, put the demons to flight,”11 etc.
Let us now turn to the historical and liturgical view of the question. First, there are three, or, in another sense, four, kinds of holy water. According to the first division, there is, first, baptismal water, which is required to be blessed on every Holy Saturday and eve of Pentecost in all churches that have baptismal fonts. This water, after the holy oils have been mingled with it, is used only in the administration of baptism. In the next place, there is water blessed by a bishop to be used in consecrating churches, or reconciling churches that have been desecrated. This is called Gregorian Water, because Pope Gregory IX. made its use obligatory for the purposes specified. Wine, ashes, and salt are mingled with it. Then there is the common holy water, which, as is well known, is usually blessed by a priest. This blessing may be performed at any time, and in any suitable place. It is directed to be done every Sunday before Mass, as we shall see, with the exception of Easter and Pentecost, when the water blessed on the previous eve is used for the Asperges. In the Oriental churches there is the custom of solemnly blessing water on the feast of Epiphany, in memory of the baptism of Our Lord in the river Jordan, which event is commemorated by the Church on that day.12
According to another division, there may be said to be four kinds of holy water; for when water is being blessed for the baptismal font it is usually put into a larger vessel, and at a certain stage in the ceremony the font is filled, to receive the holy oils and be used in baptism, while the rest is distributed among the people. This is commonly called “Easter Water.” It maybe remarked, in passing, that the laws of the Church require the holy water to be removed from all the fonts at the church doors during the last three days of Holy Week.
When we examine into the blessing of holy water, it is found to consist of exorcisms, prayers, and the mingling of salt with the water. By the fall of our first parents the spirit of evil obtained an influence not only over man but also over inanimate nature, whence he is called in Scripture “the prince of this world.”13 For this reason, when any material object is to be devoted to the service of God, an exorcism is generally first pronounced over it, to banish the evil spirit and destroy his influence; after which one or more prayers are read over it to call down the blessing of God upon it, and upon those who use it in a spirit of faith. In the exorcism of salt, the priest addresses it, declaring that he exorcises it by the Living God, the True God, the Holy God, by the God who commanded the prophet Eliseus to cast salt into the water to purify it;14 that it may become exorcised for the use of the faithful; that whosoever uses it may enjoy health of soul and body; that all phantasms and wickedness and all deceits of the devil may depart from the places where it is sprinkled, and that every evil spirit be adjured by Him who is to come to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire. The salt, having been exorcised, is blessed with the following beautiful prayer: “O almighty and eternal God! we humbly implore Thy boundless clemency that Thou wouldst mercifully deign to bless and sanctify this salt, Thy creature, which Thou hast given for the use of mankind, that it may bring health of mind and body unto all that take it, and that whatever is touched or sprinkled with it may be freed from all uucleanness and from all attacks of the spirit of wickedness.” We see from this prayer that the Church begs God to attach a triple efficacy to the blessed salt: 1st, that it may be a means of salvation to the soul; 2d, that it may be a preservative against corporal dangers; 3d, that it may sanctify everything with which it comes in contact. It does not produce these effects of itself, as a sacrament does, but it obtains actual graces for the pious user, which will, if co-operated with, obtain them.15 The same remark applies to the efficacy of the water.
Then follows the exorcism of the water, in the name of God the Father Almighty, in the name of Jesus Christ, His Son Our Lord, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, for the dispelling of all the power of the enemy of man, and that the same enemy with his apostate angels may be utterly expelled by the power of the same Jesus Christ Our Lord, who is to come to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire. This exorcism is followed by the subjoined prayer: “O God! who, for the salvation of mankind, hast wrought many great mysteries and miracles by means of the substance of water, listen propitiously to our invocations, and infuse into this element, prepared by manifold purifications, the power of Thy benediction: in order that Thy creature (water), being used as an instrument of Thy hidden works, may be efficacious in driving away devils and curing diseases; that whatever in the houses or in the places of the faithful shall have been sprinkled with this water may be freed from all uncleanness and delivered from all guile. Let no pestilential spirit reside there, no infectious air; let all the snares of the hidden enemy be removed; and if there should be anything adverse to the safety or repose of the indwellers, may it be put entirely to flight by the sprinkling of this water, that the welfare which we seek, by the invocation of Thy Holy Name, may be defended from all assaults; through Our Lord Jesus Christ,” etc.
“This formula of prayer implores the following effects for the holy water: 1st, to drive away the devils; 2d, to cure diseases; 3d, to free houses and their contents from all evil, particularly from a plague-infected atmosphere. After these prayers the priest puts a little salt into the water three times, in the form of a cross, saying: ‘May this commingling of salt and water be made, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’”16
A few words on the use of salt in this and certain other solemn rites of the Church. Salt is frequently referred to in both the Old and New Testaments. “The union of water and salt is not without mystery. The property of the first is to cleanse, of the second to preserve. The Church wishes that this sacramental should help to wash away sin from her children, and to preserve them from a relapse. Water quenches fire and fosters the growth of plants; thus, in the spiritual order, water serves to quench the fire of the passions and to promote the growth of virtues. Salt is the symbol of wisdom; it typifies the Eternal Wisdom, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Water represents human nature. Hence the mingling of the two substances is emblematic of the Incarnation—of the assumption of human nature by the Eternal Word. Water represents repentance for past offences; salt, from its preservative properties, represents the care which the true penitent takes to avoid future relapses.
“There is a remarkable instance in the Fourth Book of Kings, 2d chapter,”—to which reference is made in the exorcism of salt, given above,—”of the efficacy which God attaches to salt. The inhabitants of Jericho complained to the prophet Eliseus that the water of their town was bad and the ground barren. The holy man said to them: ‘Bring me a new vessel, and put salt into it. And when they had brought it, he went out to the spring of the waters, and cast the salt into it, and said: Thus saith the Lord: I have healed these waters, and there shall be no more in them death or barrenness.’”17
The custom of mingling salt with the water when it is blessed is of great antiquity in the Church. One of the Apostolic Canons says: “We bless water mingled with salt, that all who are sprinkled with it may be sanctified and purified.”18
The importance which Holy Church attaches to indulgences, more especially in modern times, makes it pertinent to inquire, What indulgences, if any, are granted to the use of holy water? The Raccolata says (p. 5): “His Holiness Pope Pius IX., by a brief (March 23, 1876), granted to all the faithful, every time that, with at least contrite heart, they shall make the sign of the cross with holy water, pronouncing at the same time the words ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,’ an indulgence of one hundred days.”
1 Exodus, xix. 10; xxx. 18, et seq.; Leviticus, viii. 6; Numbers, xix. et seq.; Deuteronomy, xxi. 1 et seq., etc.
2 “American Cyclopedia,” article Lustration.
3 Herodotus, book II. No. 37.
4 Hubert Howe Bancroft’s “Native Races,” vol. ii. p. 611; and vol. iii. p. 370 et seq., etc
5 “Kirchen-Lexicon,” article Weihwasser.
6 I. Cor. ix. 20-22.
7 “Institutiones Liturgicæ,” by J. Fornici, pp. 353, 354.
9 See essay on the Asperges.
11 “Catholic Dictionary,” article Holy Water.
13 St. John, xii. 31; xiv. 30, etc.
14 IV. Kings, ii. 2.
15 Barry, p. 60.
16 Barry, pp. 60, 61.
17 Barry, pp. 58, 59.