Project Canterbury

Tracts on Principles of Divine Worship

No. 3. The Sprinkling of Holy Water.

Published by the Men's Guild, St. Ignatius' Church, New York, n.d.

I. Benedictions.

In the old Latin service-books of the Church of England, as in those of other parts of the Catholic Church throughout the world, there were divers forms for the benediction of persons and things. Our ancestors in the faith recognized and appreciated, not onh the propriety of blessing whatever was to be used in Divine service in God's House and in the various rites of the Church, but also, the desirability of obtaining God's blessing upon themselves personally and upon the things which they, as His servants, would use in their own homes and in their daily avocations. They felt that such things as were of special importance to them in their daily life, would be the better fitted for iheir purpose if a special blessing were bestowed upon them by one of God's priests; as the House of God was hallowed by prayer and benediction, with the sprinkling of holy water, so should their own dwellings be more suitable for their occupation and more secure against all manner of dangers, by similar benedictions. They esteemed their fields more likely to be fertile and the seed sown therein more likely to be abundant in its growth, if both were duly blessed. Medicine for the sick, food for those in health, clothing, armour, weapons, household utensils, dumb animals, boats, nets, bridges, in short whatever concerned them in their pilgrimage on earth, were accounted subjects for particular blessing. Mindful of the constant malignity and the ceaseless activity of the evil spirits, and knowing that Satan is allowed, in cases where God's protection is not sought, to make use of irrational and even of inanimate creatures for the hurt of human beings, they valued highly the hallowing which might ward off, from themselves and their possessions, the assaults and baneful influences of devils.

In all the divers forms of benediction, the blessing was commonly sealed by the sprinkling of holy water.

2. Superstition.

In these days, many of our fellow members in the Church of God, esteem benedictions upon irrational and inanimate creatures useless, and the use of holy water superstitious. But thus to judge is certainly to condemn that which has had the sanction of all Catholic Christendom, or, in other words, the sanction of God Himself.

What is superstition? Literally, the word signifies any religious worship or veneration over and above that which is appointed by proper authority; practically, it is belief that certain creatures (animate or inanimate) have powers for good or ill, such as do not belong to them either naturally or by means of the Church's hallowing.

If holy Church, which is the "proper authority" for all faithful Christians, by virtue of her prayers imparts, under given conditions, to certain creatures a power for good, the reverent use of such creatures, according to the conditions specified, cannot be superstitious.

In its grosser forms, superstition is a very grevious sin and leads directly to many other deadly sins; in its simpler forms it is folly, and therefore sinful. It is superstitious to trust in the efficacy of charms, and to think to ensure good fortune by wearing any kind of charm. It is superstitious to believe that a journey begun on a Friday must have a bad end, or that to sit down at a table as one of thirteen people, must bring some misfortune.

On the other hand, to wear a cross or crucifix which has been blessed, or to sprinkle one's self with holy water, in humble confidence that thereby both body and soul may be preserved from dangers and especially protected against the assaults of evil spirits, is not superstitious, but an expression of reverent trust in the efficacy of the prayers of the Church which were used in hallowing both water and cross.

3. Effects of Blessing on inanimate things.

Almighty God, the source and fulness of all blessing, commonly bestows His blessing by some instrument, and always under conditions. To the priests of His Church, as to no one else, has God given authority and power to bless in His Name.

The priest's blessing given with due solemnity and right form of words, hallows and fits certain things for God's service, and gives them a sacred character which they retain as long as they remain as they were when they were blessed, i.e., are neither changed in form, nor in any way profaned so as to make them unsuitable for the purpose to which they were devoted. Thus vestments and vessels for use at God's altar, and in ministering sacraments, water for baptism, oil for the sick, chrism f for use in baptism, confirmation and ordination, candles, palms and ashes, are sanctified by the proper blessing, and may not lawfully, nor without sin, be needlessly put to a use other than for which they were blessed. On the other hand, the field and the seed, the dwelling, the food, etc., upon which God's blessing has been asked, are not actually sanctified but only made to meet for the use of His people.

4. Holy Water.

The origin of the use of holy water is not certainly known, but it seems highly probable that the Christian Church was led, at a very early period, to accept and adapt for her own purposes something of the kind which was familiar to her converts, whether Jewish or heathen. For under the Mosaic law any one who was ceremonially unclean, had to be sprinkled with the holy water of "separation" (Numb. xix.) ere he could take part in public worship; and among heathen people, the use of a lustral water, as they entered their temples, was very common. Moreover it is certain that, from very early times (i. e., at least as early as the close of the second century), places for Christian worship were often provided with fountains or vessels of water, in the open court near the chief entrance, in order that the ancient religious ceremony of washing the hands might be performed there by the people before they took part in Divine service.

But whenever or however the custom began, the use of water, hallowed for the purpose, as an instrument of blessing, became general in the West during the ninth century. In earlier times, (e. g. during the fourth and fifth centuries), water which had been blessed and hallowed for the administration of holy baptism, was sometimes taken from the font and carried away to their homes by people who wished to make some pious use thereof. This practice, which seems to have been permitted at first, was in later times forbidden. A rubric in the old Sarum Manual expressly directs that the water in the baptism font should not be used for ordinary aspersions, but be retained only for the sacrament of Baptism.

The Bishop of Rome (A.D. 847), in a charge to his clergy, regulating a custom of long standing, bade the priests, on "every Lord's day, before Mass, bless water wherewith the people may be sprinkled." The pontifical of Egbert, Archbishop of York (A.D. 732-766), contains forms for blessing water to be used in consecrating church-buildings. In a book entitled "A Rationale of Rites and Ceremonies," which was prepared with much care and labour by a number of bishops and other clergy acting under a royal commission, and published in 1543, the use of holy water is described as a pious and worthy custom which should be retained in the Church of England.

When holy water is provided in the vestibules of church-buildings (as was commonly done of old), the faithful, as they enter the church, make a personal use thereof by dipping the tips of the fingers of the right hand into the water in the stoup and blessing (i. e., making the sign of the cross upon) themselves while they recite some brief act of contrition. It is a pious custom to make use of holy water in like manner whenever we are about to do anything of importance, when tempted to sin, when in any serious illness and before lying down to sleep at night and on arising in the morning.

5. "Let the ancient customs prevail."

The general restoration, among us, of the pious and Catholic custom of using holy water, after the traditional manner, is much to be desired. Abuses in times past, jealous rivalries for precedence in the order of the sprinkling before the principal Mass on Sundays, the baneful influence of the Puritans in England and this country, and loss of faith in sacramentals among people of the Anglican Communion have brought about, among us, a long disuse of this custom. But abuse of a good thing seldom justifies its disuse. Certainly we ought not wilfully to neglect the use of a help to holy living which bears the stamp of the approval and sanction of all Catholic Christendom.

We all need God's help to serve Him as perfectly as possible and to defend us against our spiritual foes. Anything that will serve as a means to bring us such help from God, is not to be despised or rejected even though, in comparison with the sacraments, it be a little thing. For, ''he that despiseth little things, shall fall little by little;" and we may be sure that the lesser helps to holiness, if rightly used, will make the greater more effectual.

If, of old under the Mosaic Law, people were made ceremonially clean by the sprinkling of the ashes of an heifer and the blood of sacrificial victims, and salt sprinkled by Elisha the prophet had virtue to heal the barren waters, how much more shall water hallowed by prayer and benediction of a priest of the Catholic Church, have power to cleanse us from the dust and stain of venial sins, strengthen us in holy purposes, and preserve us from vain imaginations?

Holy Church desires that we should be careful to preserve our baptismal innocency, and to add grace to grace; or if we have lost our innocency by sin, that we should recover it by penitence.

Hence the vase of holy water at the entrance of a church is intended to remind us of our baptism, its purpose and effects, that we may then and there renew our baptismal vows, piously bless ourselves with the water and so enter the house of God, dedicated anew to His service.

6. Sacramentals.

Holy water, i, e., pure clean water with which a little salt has been mingled, both elements having been duly blessed by a priest of the Church, is called a Sacramental, because, like other things of this class, it has some outward resemblance to the Sacraments. The term sacramental is applied to certain benedictions e. g., the blessing given by a bishop), certain prayers (notably the Lord's prayer), and some pious customs (e. g., making the sign of the cross), as well as to the material objects which are blessed for the sake of those who use them. In sacramentals, as in sacraments, there is a sign and form of words which possess super, natural power and (when rightly used) invoke God's grace. But sacramentals have no virtue in and of themselves, and become effectual for good only when they are rightly used. Sacraments, on the other hand, contain and convey grace; yet neither sacraments nor sacramentals avail any one who makes a bad use of them. As the Ark of God afforded no protection to the Jews who presumptuously carried it to the battle-field, so no sacramental will avail to shield from the power of the evil spirits, any one who is guilty of mortal sin and impenitent. Neither sacraments nor sacramentals can profit a person who, although capable of exercising faith, uses either of them without any right belief in them.

7. Benefits to be obtained by the use of Holy Water.

Holy water has no power to beautify the soul here in time and the body in eternity, as Penance and the Eucharist have; but for those who reverently use it, having the right dispositions of faith and contrition, it has power to banish demons, dispel their deceits and vexations, cleanse the soul from stain of venial sins, avert earthly ills (other than those which God allows for our good), and to promote our temporal welfare. Such effects are wrought by the reverent use of holy water because then and thereby the prayers of the Church, which were used in hallowing the water, became effectual to procure such blessings for those who fulfil the conditions under which the blessings may be granted. In using holy water, or any other sacramental, the faithful should take heed not to attribute to it a power to accomplish more than that for which the prayers of the Church make request.

Project Canterbury