TABLE OF CONTENTS
What Is Holy Water?
> Pre-Christian Origins
> Typology Explained
> Three Kinds of Holy Water
What Is Holy Water’s History?
> The Earliest Surviving Blessing-Texts
> Turning Points: Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries
> Most Recent Developments
Why Is Salt Used in Holy Water?
> What Really Happened in Jericho?
> Salt’s Other Uses and Symbolism
Probabilism, Balance, Normative Principle, Non-Legalism
> The Normative Principle
Can Only a Priest Bless Holy Water?
> St. Epiphanius of Salamis
> St. Gregory of Tours
> Lawful Enchantment in the Malleus Maleficarum
Is a Priest’s Holy Water Different from a Layperson’s?
> Euchology: Constitutive versus Invocative Blessings
> Type of Blessing Holy Water Receives
> Type of Blessing a Layperson Can Give
> The Question of Authority
Why Do People Insist a Priest Must Bless Holy Water?
> Most People Don’t Know Any Better
> Incomplete Theology and Conflicting Opinions
> The Quest for “Thou Shalt Not”
What Rituals Are Used for Holy Water?
> What to Look for in Blessing Rituals
> My First Time Blessing Holy Water
> Eastern Orthodox Holy Water
> The Traditional Roman Rite: Rituale Romanum
> The Old Catholic Ritual of 1875
> The Novus Ordo Rite
–> Blessing Inside the Mass (Sacramentary, Appendix II)
–> Blessing Outside the Mass (Book of Blessings, nn. 1388-1399)
> An Anglican Blessing for Holy Water (from the Exeter Report)
How Do I Use Holy Water?
> Choice of Container
> Crossing Oneself or Others
> The Asperges/Vidi Aquam
— > Adaptation for Private Usage
> Fonts in the Home
Desecration: Can Holy Water Lose Its Blessing?
No matter what the hierarchy tells you, everybody knows that Holy Water is used in magical ritual. And not just among Christians, seeing that it’s even sold in Azure Green’s catalog. (I once owned a 2003-era catalog that said this water was blessed by Catholic priests and a donation was given to their churches, wish I still had it and could post a photo.)
Holy Water is often used magically as an extension of its exoteric usage: for purification, for protection, for healing, and any related use the practitioner can imagine. This is natural and to be expected, not just in light of Christianity’s influence on western occultism in particular, but because of water’s relationship with humanity in general.
However, as much as Holy Water is used, how many people think about how it’s made? Who can make it? What are its proper uses? What should we consider when acquiring some?
Today we’re going to discuss these elements, along with the actual ritual that’s used for blessing the majority of Holy Water found in modern churches. (Hint: it’s not the ritual from the old Rituale Romanum!)
What Is Holy Water?
If you’re a Catholic, you may find it superfluous for me to explain what Holy Water is, because it’s something we’ve known about from childhood and accepted all our lives. It’s easy to forget that not everybody was raised Catholic, or in a tradition where water was blessed and/or otherwise used as part of their religion. In fact some people come from religious traditions hostile to the very notion of blessing and sprinkling water, under the claim it’s “idolatry” or some such, so this seems as good a place as any to get started.
At root, Holy Water is a sacramental, something of a “minor sacrament.” The definition of a sacramental is set forth in the 1917 Code of Canon Law:
Sacramentals are things or actions by which, in some imitation of the Sacraments, the Church is accustomed to use in order to obtain effects by way of her petition, especially spiritual ones.
(Canon 1144, my rough translation)
The difference between the seven sacraments and the innumerable sacramentals is that Christ directly gave us the sacraments, while the sacramentals were either indirectly given by Christ or wholly created by the Church for some or other function, or the edification of the faithful. The distinction between sacraments and sacramentals is somewhat blurred, as Fr. Philip Weller tells us in his introduction to Roman Ritual, Vol. 3, The Blessings:
Until the Council of Lyons (1274) solemnly declared that there are seven sacraments, the Church had used the term, sacrament, in its broadest signification for every sacred rite which employed words, actions, and objects to dispense grace. … Furthermore, it is not true to say without qualification that one distinction between sacraments and sacramentals is that the former owe their institution to Christ, the latter to the Church. For some of the sacramentals definitely come directly from Christ, exactly how many and which ones is not clear. There is one sacramental, however, of whose divine origin there is no particle of doubt. This is the Mandatum, the washing of feet at the Last Supper, and today still listed in the liturgical books as a sacramental for Holy Thursday, … To say the least, he leaves no doubt in our minds that there is a sacramental instituted by Jesus Christ!
(pp. x-xi, 1946 edition.)
The primary categories of sacramentals are blessings and exorcisms, which include physical objects being blessed or exorcized. In the case of Holy Water, both salt and water are traditionally exorcized and then blessed before being combined and a further prayer said over them, making it a combination of both categories.
The concept of Holy Water as purification finds itself rooted well enough both in Nature and in Scripture. For the former, we use it to take baths and – like our Pagan ancestors who likewise purified with water – it’s not far to extrapolate from here to “As above so below.” For the latter, we can start by finding an example of water used for spiritual cleaning in the Book of Numbers, where the following is prescribed for spiritually purifying a man who became unclean from touching a corpse:
 And they shall take of the ashes of the burning and of the sin offering, and shall pour living waters upon them into a vessel.  And a man that is clean shall dip hyssop in them, and shall sprinkle therewith all the tent, and all the furniture, and the men that are defiled with touching any such thing.
Drawing from Tradition, we can also extrapolate that the Church came to use water for purification where the ancient Israelites used blood. One example is that the bloodless rite of Baptism is the fulfillment of the blood-letting that flowed from circumcision – because the Blood of Christ brought an end to blood sacrifice once and for all – we may safely (though not definitively) conclude Holy Water took the place of the sprinkling of blood in Old Testament rites. One example of such blood-sprinkling (possibly combined with sympathic magic) can be found in Leviticus, where the priest purifies a leper:
 This is the rite of a leper, when he is to be cleansed: he shall be brought to the priest:  Who going out of the camp when he shall find that the leprosy is cleansed,  Shall command him that is to be purified, to offer for himself two living sparrows, which it is lawful to eat, and cedar wood, and scarlet, and hyssop.  And he shall command one of the sparrows to be immolated in an earthen vessel over living waters:  But the other that is alive he shall dip, with the cedar wood, and the scarlet and the hyssop, in the blood of the sparrow that is immolated:  Wherewith he shall sprinkle him that is to be cleansed seven times, that he may be rightly purified: and he shall let go the living sparrow, that it may fly into the field.
Other rituals of purification in the Old Testament required animal sacrifice, yet the Crucifixion rendered all the old sacrifices “fulfilled” – that means, their purpose had come to an end since the Messias had arrived – and after Christ’s death the sprinkling of blood was no longer necessary, useful, desirable, or even efficacious in the Christian mind. The best explanation within Scripture comes from the Epistle to the Hebrews:
 Neither by the blood of goats, or of calves, but by his own blood, entered once into the holies, having obtained eternal redemption.  For if the blood of goats and of oxen, and the ashes of an heifer being sprinkled, sanctify such as are defiled, to the cleansing of the flesh:  How much more shall the blood of Christ, who by the Holy Ghost offered himself unspotted unto God, cleanse our conscience from dead works, to serve the living God?  And therefore he is the mediator of the new testament: that by means of his death, for the redemption of those transgressions, which were under the former testament, they that are called may receive the promise of eternal inheritance. …  For when every commandment of the law had been read by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water, and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people,  Saying: This is the blood of the testament, which God hath enjoined unto you.  The tabernacle also and all the vessels of the ministry, in like manner, he sprinkled with blood.  And almost all things, according to the law, are cleansed with blood: and without shedding of blood there is no remission.  It is necessary therefore that the patterns of heavenly things should be cleansed with these: but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.  For Jesus is not entered into the holies made with hands, the patterns of the true: but into heaven itself, that he may appear now in the presence of God for us.
(9:12-15, 19-24, DRV)
Modern occultists may see glimpses of the Law of Correspondence in the reference to “the patterns [i.e. copies] of heavenly things” compared with “the heavenly things themselves” in verse 23, while theologians consider this in the context of typology, where a given thing in the Old Testament is a “figure” or “symbol” foretelling its fulfillment in the new.
A classic example of typology is in Numbers 21, where Moses raised up the bronze serpent to heal the Israelites who looked upon it. This is the type. In John 3:14 Jesus says “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up,” which is the fulfillment of that type.
Following this logic, we return to the relationship between Circumcision and Baptism, finding that Circumcision was a type and Baptism its fulfillment in Baptism, which St. Paul intimates in Colossians:
 In whom also you are circumcised with circumcision not made by hand, in despoiling of the body of the flesh, but in the circumcision of Christ:  Buried with him in baptism, in whom also you are risen again by the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him up from the dead.
In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas elaborates on the conclusion we can draw between circumcision and Baptism:
Consequently, it is manifest that circumcision was a preparation for Baptism and a figure thereof, forasmuch as “all things happened” to the Fathers of old “in figure” (1 Cor. 10:11); just as their faith regarded things to come.
(3, 70, 1)
In his first reply to objections in the same section, St. Thomas further elaborates on this relation by explaining that “For just as circumcision removed a carnal pellicule, so Baptism despoils man of carnal behavior.”
This brings us to the origin of Holy Water. Just as we find the blood of Circumcision as a type fulfilled in the water of Baptism, we can extrapolate that the blood of ancient Israel’s purification rituals (and the instance of water on occasion) was a type for the water employed for purification by the Church. This gives us our Scriptural and Theological foundation.
Three Kinds of Holy Water
Before proceeding, I should point out that there are three kinds of Holy Water: Baptismal Water which is blessed on the Easter Vigil and contains water, oil of catechumens, and sacred chrism; Gregorian Water which contains wine, ashes, and salt and is used for consecrating churches and altars; and regular Holy Water (aqua lustralis or aqua benedicta) which traditionally consists of water and a small amount of salt. As most people mean the third kind when they say “Holy Water,” this is the only kind I will discuss in today’s article.
What Is Holy Water’s History?
According to tradition, the blessing of Holy Water goes back to Pope St. Alexander I in the early second century (he died around 116 AD). According to Fr. Duchesne’s edition of the Liber Pontificalis, “He appointed the blessing of the water of sprinkling and of salt in the dwellings of the people” (Loomis translation, p. 11). Likewise, Fr. Giovanni Fornici describes this and quotes the Pope in his Institutiones Liturgicae, claiming the custom itself is older:
Now the institution of this rite of blessing water sprinkled together with salt has been attributed by some to Pope Alexander I, whom the Council of Florence numbers the fifth from St. Peter. For so Durandus, along with others, [tells us] St. Alexander decreed that this blessing can be done by all priests [Fornici gives his source as: “in the canon of consecrating water, dist. 3”]. From these words themselves, this rite is truly considered to be older; for in the canon thus cited it is said: “We bless water combined with salt for the people, that all sprinkled by it may be sanctified and purified, and we entrust all priests to do the same;” where it must be noted he does not say “We have decreed” that water is to blessed, but: “We bless” for the people, by which is denoted an already-introduced usage of blessing water, and “we entrust all priest to do the same,” to wit, that the people may not be lacking this help on account of defect of ministers.
(Page 354, 1851 edition. My rough translation.)
Now it must be said that modern scholarship believes this account be false, and seems to have been recognized as such by the early twentieth century. For myself, I have no idea whether this account is true, but feel the necessity to make you aware of this attribution precisely because it has such a longstanding history.
The Earliest Surviving Blessing-Texts
The earliest text we have containing a blessing of water for the sake of purification is an Egyptian pontifical from the fourth century called the Sacramentary of Saint Serapion (named after St. Serapion of Thumis), where prayer #5 contains a blessing of water and oil within the Communion Liturgy:
We bless through the name of thy only-begotten Jesus Christ these creatures, we name the name of him who suffered, who was crucified, and rose again, and who sitteth on the right hand of the uncreated, upon this water and upon this [oil]. Grant healing power upon these creatures that every fever and every evil spirit and ever sickness may depart through the drinking and the anointing, and that the partaking of these creatures may be a healing medicine, and a medicine of soundness, in the name of thy only-begotten Jesus Christ, through whom to thee (is) the glory and the strength in holy Spirit to all the ages of the ages. Amen.
(Wobbermin Translation, pp. 66-67)
Another prayer for the blessing of water appears in the Apostolic Constitutions dating sometime between 375-400, and is attributed to the Apostle St. Matthias:
Concerning the water and the oil, I Matthias make a constitution. Let the bishop bless the water, or the oil. But if he be not there, let the presbyter bless it, the deacon standing by. But if the bishop be present, let the presbyter and deacon stand by, and let him say thus: O Lord of hosts, the God of powers, the creator of the waters, and the supplier of oil, who art compassionate, and a lover of mankind, who hast given water for drink and for cleansing, and oil to give man a cheerful and joyful countenance; do Thou now also sanctify this water and this oil through Thy Christ, in the name of him or her that has offered them, and grant them a power to restore health, to drive away diseases, to banish demons, and to disperse all snares through Christ our hope, with whom glory, honour, and worship be to Thee, and to the Holy Ghost, for ever. Amen.
Descriptions of Holy Water multiply from this point up to our present time. The water may or may not contain salt, the prayers may be different from one another, but the elements of healing and driving away evil spirits are always present. If anything, the purpose of Holy Water becomes clear in the Church’s mind (remember this sentence, because I’ll come back to it later!).
Turning Points: The Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries
We reach a turning point in the history of Holy Water in the sixth-century Gelasian Sacramentary, also known as the Gelasianum Vetus, where we encounter (what may be called) “embryonic forms” of the modern prayers for blessing Holy Water. In book III, chapter 75, we come across a “Blessing of Water to be Sprinkled in the Home:”
O God, who created the greatest mysteries in the waters’ substance for the human race’s salvation: draw nigh to our invocations and pour the virtue of thy blessing into this element prepared for many types of purifications: that, this creature serving thy mysteries may receive the effect of divine grace, for casting out demons, driving forth diseases, that whatever this wave shall sprinkle in the homes or places of the faithful, shall be free of uncleanness and delivered from poison. Let not the spirit of pestilence reside there, nor an atmosphere of corruption. May all hidden snares of the enemy disappear, and if there is anything that hinders the safety or peace of those dwelling there, let it be set to flight by the sprinkling of this water, that there may be the well-being desired through the invocation of thy name, and a defense against every invasion. Through our Lord, Jesus Christ, thy Son, who shall come again to judge the living and the dead, and the world by fire. Amen.
(Prayer 1556, page 224 in the Mohlberg edition, my rough translation.)
The rite continues with an exorcism of the water:
I exorcize thee, creature of water, in the name of God the Father Almighty and in the name of Jesus Christ the Son and of his Holy Ghost. Be all strength of the adversary, every incursion of the devil, every phantom and every power of the enemy eradicated and put to flight from this creature of water! Therefore I exorcize thee, creature of water, through the true God and through the living God, through the holy God and through our Lord Jesus Christ, that be made a holy water, a blessed water: that wheresoever thou art poured, or sprinkled, whether in house or in field, thou shalt put to flight every phantom, every enemy power! May the Holy Ghost dwell in this house: through our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall come again to judge the living and the dead, and the world by fire! Amen.
(Prayer 1557, ibid. page 225, my rough translation.)
The rite continues with prayers for “making things to be sprinkled together” with the water (original: item ad consparsum faciendum), which begins with a prayer for angelic guardianship and protection – including wording like the prayer at the end of the modern Asperges rite – and then an exorcism and blessing of salt (which look a lot like the prayers in the Rituale), the commingling of salt and water (also like in the Rituale), the addition of wine, and finally a rubric stating “After this you put consecrated oil into the water, and thus you sprinkle them through the house with hyssop.”
The addition of wine and oil are strange, as the oil is used in Baptismal Water and wine used in Gregorian Water, but this most likely reflects a local usage at that time in Gaul, where this Sacramentary was compiled. However, it is at this point we see the beginnings of the prayers for the rite of Holy Water to which we’ve become accustomed, albeit the order is somewhat different from what we’re used to.
The next notable signpost in the history of Holy Water is the eighth-century Gregorian Sacramentary, which is important for the Western Church because when Charlemagne wanted his kingdom to use the Roman liturgy and requested a copy of it for that purpose, this is the book Pope Adrian I sent him (after having been edited by Alcuin at the former’s request).
In this Sacramentary, the prayers for Holy Water are similar to those found in the Gelasian with slight differences, and continue to look like the prayers we would recognize from the Rituale Romanum. However, the stated purpose may be different; for example we find the Prayer of Water for Baptizing an Infirm Person which looks very much like the exorcism of the water in our Rituale:
(After they have catechized him, you bless the water with these words.)
I exorcize thee, creature of water in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God and the Holy Ghost! If there be a phantom, if there be a power of the enemy, if there be an incursion of the devil, be thou eradicated and take flight from this creature of water, that it may be a worthy fountain unto eternal life! And when this, the Lord’s servant shall have been baptized, let him be a temple of the living God, unto the remission of all his sins. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall come to judge the living and the dead, and the world by fire! Amen.
(Bradshaw Society Edition, pp. 136-137. My rough translation.)
On the same page, the Prayer of Exorcized Water in the Home brings us right back to the Gelasian and the Rituale:
I exorcize thee, creature of water, in the name of God the Father almighty, and in the name of Jesus Christ his Son our Lord, to be water exorcized for sending every power of the enemy to flight, to eradicate and remove the enemy with his apostate angels! Through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ who shall come to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire! Amen.
O God, who created the greatest mysteries in the waters’ substance for the human race’s salvation: draw nigh to our invocations and pour the virtue of thy blessing into this element prepared for many types of purifications: that, this creature of mystery may take its effect by divine grace, serving thee for casting out demons, driving forth diseases, that whatever this wave shall sprinkle in the homes or places of the faithful, shall be free of uncleanness and delivered from poison. Let not the spirit of pestilence reside there, nor an atmosphere of corruption. May all hidden snares of the enemy depart, and if there is anything that hinders the safety or peace of those dwelling there, let it be set to flight by the sprinkling of this water, that there may be the well-being desired through the invocation of thy name, and a defense against every invasion. Through our Lord, Jesus Christ, thy Son, who liveth and reigneth in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
(Ibid., pp. 137-138. My rough translation.)
Most Recent Developments
We can trace further to our time, but I think we’ve belabored the point more than enough and then some. The next two important points are the promulgation of the Rituale Romanum in 1614, which saw the codification of the rite for blessing Holy Water that had grown from the seeds of the Gelasian Sacramentary, minus the wine and oil.
The next date of import is 1984, when the post-Vatican II De Benedictionibus (known in English as the Book of Blessings) was promulgated; in this latter work the ritual for blessing Holy Water was changed entirely, courtesy of the big-brained theologians at Study Group 23. We’ll come back to this ritual text later.
Why Is Salt Used in Holy Water?
Nobody asks this question. But since only the Roman Church adds salt to Holy Water, it’s a question worth exploring.
If we read the exorcism said over the salt, we find the salt exorcized through God, “who through Eliseus the prophet ordered thee to be cast into the water, that water’s sterility may be healed” (original: qui te per Elíseum prophétam in aquam mitti jussit, ut sanarétur sterílitas aquae).
This recalls an incident in the Fourth Book of Kings, where Eliseus cures the waters of Jericho:
 And the men of the city said to Eliseus: Behold the situation of this city is very good, as thou, my lord, seest: but the waters are very bad, and the ground barren.  And he said: 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.  And the waters were healed unto this day, according to the word of Eliseus, which he spoke.
What Really Happened in Jericho?
In modern times, it’s easy to say there’s nothing “mysterious” or “supernatural” in this incident, and EPA Guidelines for purifying drinking water actually tell us that “To improve the flat taste of boiled water, add one pinch of salt to each quart or liter of water…” and if the only thing wrong was the water’s taste, then we could readily agree.
Yet the text tells us the water was not only “bad,” but the ground was barren. A skeptic would rightly point out that “barren fields contradict the text’s claim that life in the city was good,” and I’d point out that adding salt to water that isn’t helping crops grow is a lot like one of the problems in Idiocracy. The Bible produced by and for an agrarian society, and an agrarian society knows that you don’t salt your fields unless you want to keep anything from growing there for awhile, and even today we strive to find solutions for growing crops in the face of growing soil salinity. So this story doesn’t exactly hold up to scrutiny, because we all know salt is not a fertilizer.
Salt’s Other Uses and Symbolism
A better way to look at this would be salt’s other uses at the time. Even though microorganisms were unknown, Jews and Pagans alike used salt for preventing infection in wound treatment (“putting salt in the wound”); people in the Middle East and India had been using salt for pickling over a thousand years before Eliseus’ time; and they likewise knew of salt as a preservative. Among the Jews specifically: the Torah commanded salt as part of every sacrifice, and finally the Bible twice mentions a “covenant of salt.”
Let’s look at these last two. In Leviticus, the Israelites are commanded to offer salt:
Whatsoever sacrifice thou offerest, thou shalt season it with salt, neither shalt thou take away the salt of the covenant of thy God from thy sacrifice. In all thy oblations thou shalt offer salt.
The phrase “covenant of salt” is mentioned in two places in the Old Testament, and is commonly interpreted to mean “an unbreakable and unalterable covenant.” The first is in Numbers, in reference to the offering of first-fruits:
All the firstfruits of the sanctuary which the children of Israel offer to the Lord, I have given to thee and to thy sons and daughters, by a perpetual ordinance. It is a covenant of salt for ever before the Lord, to thee and to thy sons.
The second mention is in 2 Paralipomenon, in reference to David’s kingship:
Do you not know that the Lord God of Israel gave to David the kingdom over Israel for ever, to him and to his sons by a covenant of salt?
This finally brings us back to the incident in 4 Kings and Eliseus’ purification of the water. Bible Hub’s Pulpit Commentary on this text gives us some geographical information by informing us of the water situation in the area:
… Jericho was, no doubt, even before the miracle of Elisha, a “pleasant” place. But – there was one drawback – the water is naught, and the ground barren. Bitter and brackish springs, of which there are many in the Jordan valley, gushed forth from the foot of the mountains, and formed rivulets, which ran across the plain towards the Jordan, not diffusing health and fertility, but rather disease and barrenness. Untimely births, abortions, and the like prevailed among the cattle which were fed in the neighborhood, perhaps even among the inhabitants of the locality, and were attributed to the bitter springs, which made the land “miscarrying” (ἀτεκνουμένη, LXX.). It was the prayer of the men of Jericho that Elisha would remove this inconvenience.
Thus we now have a more complete picture. We don’t know what precisely was wrong with the water supply at Jericho, be it Josue’s curse on the city (Josue 6:26), the water table making contact with radioactive elements in the area, or some other cause, but we understand the reason Eliseus was described as using salt to fix it.
Salt was – in addition to its natural properties of preservation and purification – something of a “sacrament” in the relationship between God and the church of the Old Testament. That it was the reference-point in the “covenant of salt” makes it a symbol of that covenant, its incorporation into all sacrifices makes it a reminder of that covenant, and its use in spiritual affairs becomes a call to invoke that covenant into action on the petitioner’s behalf.
Of course, everything in the above paragraph is speculation on my part. Even if true, there may not be conscious knowledge on the part of Eliseus or whomever wrote of him performing the miracle of the salt. But it doesn’t contradict any of the known facts about how salt was viewed and used at the time, either.
In closing this section, I would like to give the last word to The Sacramentals of the Holy Catholic Church by Fr. William J. Barry. He explains salt’s addition to Holy Water in the following way:
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 falls.
Probabilism, Balance, Normative Principle, and Non-Legalism
I’m about to venture into some controversial territory. So before we go further, I’d like to lay out my guiding principles so everybody understands where this is coming from.
According to Catholic moral theology, probabilism is a methodology for navigating moral and legal questions. In its essence, it teaches that when there is a doubt concerning some question of law, one is allowed to follow a probable opinion. Fr. Henry Davis defines a “probable opinion” thusly, in his Summary of Moral and Pastoral Theology:
Since this system invokes probable opinions, it is necessary to define the probable opinion. It is an opinion which a wise and prudent man would accept as probably true, though he fears it may not be. The fundamental principle of this system [probabilism] is that in the conflict between law and liberty, liberty is in possession.
While I am far from a “wise and prudent man,” this is the principle I attempt to follow in forming my thoughts below, particularly in regard to what seems to be an incomplete and in some ways contradictory theology regarding sacramentals.
It does not behoove a theologian to make rash judgments, but to weigh the data carefully before forming an opinion. I am an imperfect human being, as are we all, but in all things I’m generally a centrist and hope the conclusions I present will show themselves as having at least a little bit of serious thought behind them.
The Normative Principle.
This may require some explaining, as I’m appropriating it from Protestant theories of worship. In Protestant worship-language, the Normative Principle teaches that “If the Bible doesn’t explicitly forbid it, then you’re allowed to do it.” Its opposite is the Regulative Principle, which teaches that “If the Bible does not explicitly permit it, then it’s forbidden.”
My use of the Normative Principle is by appropriating it from questions of worship to questions of theology, and expanding the focus from “The Bible” to the whole of Scripture and big-T Tradition. Combined with Probabilism, my hermeneutic thus reads something like: “That which is not expressly forbidden is tacitly permitted.”
Finally, my last principle is something I call Non-Legalism, by which I mean an indifference toward legalistic questions of liceity (whether a thing is “licit” or conforms to man-made rules), and focusing exclusively on questions of validity (whether a thing “works” spiritually and has effect). My interest therefore is not whether “thou shalt,” but rather whether “thou canst.”
Now that we’ve laid out our principles, let’s get started!
Can Only a Priest Bless Holy Water?
This is a question everyone asks sooner or later, and one I’ve consistently answered in the negative. In the first place, I’ve answered that a layperson is able to bless Holy Water because the sacramentals derive from the baptismal priesthood, not the ministerial, and have previously traced this through Church writings ending with the current Catechism of the Catholic Church in section 1669 (the Scriptural proof-texts in the Catechism’s footnotes are kind of weaksauce though; they’d have done better going with Mark 16:16-18). I’ve also pointed to a section from Bishop Morrow’s excellent catechism My Catholic Faith:
The laity can bless, but not in the name of the Church. Thus we have the custom of parents blessing their children when they leave the house, at the Angelus, or when they go on a journey. In these private blessings, the more pious the person giving the blessing, the greater its effect.
(Page 383, 1963 edition, emphasis in the original)
Today, however, I would like to change tacks and talk about a few instances where the Early Fathers speak of laypeople blessing their own water for the purpose of health, spiritual combat, and purification.
St. Epiphanius of Salamis
We’ll start with St. Epiphanius of Salamis, who talks about a Jew named “Josephus of Tiberias” in his Panarion or “Contra Haereses.” After giving a detailed account of Josephus’ life and a vision he had of Jesus in a dream, he tells the story:
There was a madman in the city who used to roam the town, I mean Tiberias, naked. If he was dressed he would often tear his clothing apart, as such people will. Now Josephus was overcome with awe and wished to put the vision to the test, although he was still doubtful. So he brought the man inside, shut the door, took water, made the sign of the cross over it, and sprinkled it on the madman with the words, “In the name of Jesus of Nazareth the crucified begone from him, demon, and let him be made whole!” Falling down with a loud cry, the man lay motionless for a long time foaming profusely and retching, and Josephus supposed that he had died. But after a while he rubbed his forehead and got up and, once on his feet and seeing his own nakedness, he hid himself and covered his privy parts with his hands, for he could no longer bear to see his own nakedness.
(Book I, XXX, 10:3-6, Frank Williams translation)
As the story continues, Josephus eventually converts to from Judaism to Christianity, is baptized, receives permission from the Emperor to build churches, and runs into conflict with Jewish magicians who seek to “bind the fire” of his brick-ovens so the churches can’t be built.
He ordered water fetched in a vessel, (I mean a flask, but the local inhabitants call this a “cacubium,”) <and> took this vessel of water in the sight of all — a crowd of Jews had gathered to watch, eager to see how it would turn out and what Josephus would try to do. Tracing the sign of the cross on the vessel with his own finger, and invoking the name of Jesus, he cried out, “In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, whom my fathers and those of all here present crucified, may there be power in this water to set at naught all sorcery and enchantment these men have wrought, and to work a miracle on the fire that the Lord’s house may be finished.” With that he wet his hand and sprinkled the water on each furnace. And the spells were broken, and in the presence of all, the fire blazed up. And the crowds of spectators cried, “There is one God, who comes to the aid of the Christians,” and went away.
Notice that St. Epiphanius is telling us about a man – first an infidel and later a layman – who blesses Holy Water (the only thing it can be considering its stated purposes!) and uses it effectively. Ordination is not here required for Josephus to bless water in Jesus’ name, and not even baptism.
St. Gregory of Tours
Now let’s move to St. Gregory of Tours. In the 82nd chapter of his De Gloria Confessorum, he speaks of a recluse named Eustitius who healed the sick by way of honey, the sign of the cross, and by “giving them blessed water to drink, he continually restored them to health” (my rough translation).
This Eustitius was specifically mentioned as recluse but not as a cleric. We know this because the very next sentence has clergy bringing him two vessels of bees (duo vasa apum) for working another kind of cure. So again, we have a layperson blessing water for the same purposes of Holy Water, and that blessing described as successful.
These are only two incidents, and far from establishing a consensus patrum on the subject. However and in addition to every theological statement I’ve made and source I’ve quoted on this subject in the past, the fact two such holy men make these claims and give these claims credibility, is enough to tell us one does not need to be a priest, or a deacon, or otherwise in Holy Orders, to be able to bless Holy Water.
Lawful Enchantment in the Malleus Maleficarum
I conclude this section with a quote from the Malleus Maleficarum, where for all Kramer’s hang-ups and fanaticism, he lets down his guard for a moment and makes a concession affirming exorcisms, blessings, and “lawful enchantments” at the hands of laypeople. The section is fairly long, so ellipses have been used for brevity:
For the first, we have the opinion of S. Thomas in Book IV, dist. 23. He says: When a man is ordained as an exorcist, or into any of the other minor Orders, he has conferred upon him the power of exorcism in his official capacity; and this power may even lawfully be used by those who belong to no Order, but such do not exercise it in their official capacity. … On this account Gulielmus Durandus, the commentator on S. Raymond, says that such lawful exorcisms may be used by a religious and discreet priest, or by a layman, or even by a woman of good life and proved discretion; by the offering of lawful prayers over the sick … And even if he uses adjurations, through the virtue of the Divine Name, and by the virtue of the works of Christ, His Birth, Passion and Precious Death, by which the devil was conquered and cast out; such benedictions and charms and exorcisms shall be called lawful, and they who practise them are exorcists or lawful enchanters.
(Part II, Question II, Chapter 6, Summers translation, emphasis mine)
Is a Priest’s Holy Water Different from a Layperson’s Holy Water?
With all that said, there is in fact a difference between a priest’s Holy Water and a layperson’s Holy Water, a difference of kind if not necessarily a difference in efficacy. To explain why, it’s important to understand two more elements within the scope of blessings. The first is the distinction between constitutive and invocative blessings, and the second is the question of authority.
Euchology: Constitutive versus Invocative Blessings
Before going further, it’s important to realize that blessings come in two types: constitutive and invocative.
A constitutive blessing (benedictio constitutiva) is also traditionally referred to as a “consecration” because it permanently sets apart some person, place, or thing for dedication to divine service. The standard (modern) description of a constitutive blessing’s effect is that “Here the person or object takes on a sacred character and would not be returned to non-sacred or profane use,” which intends (or at least implies) the imparting of a permanent character onto the object’s essence.
In regards to who can confer consecrations, the Code of Canon Law relegates them only to the bishops, which in my opinion is fitting because any organization’s public materia ritualia should only be consecrated by that organization’s public officers:
No one who lacks the episcopal character can validly perform consecrations, unless permitted by law or apostolic indult.
(Canon 1147 §1, my rough translation)
By contrast, an invocative blessing (benedictio invocativa) is also traditionally called a “benediction,” and consists of invoking God’s name over a given person, place, or thing without a resulting change in the recipient’s condition, the most commonly-given example being a parent’s blessing over a child.
The pre-Vatican II distinction between these types of blessings is explained by Fr. Joseph Pohle in his The Sacraments: A Dogmatic Treatise in the following way:
Consecration (benedictio constitutiva) results in the effective withdrawal from profane use of the person or thing upon which it is bestowed, and its dedication to the purpose of divine worship (e. g., the tonsure, minor orders, the blessing of oil, the dedication of a church, an altar, a vestment). Benediction (benedictio invocativa) has four distinct effects: forgiveness of venial sins, remission of temporal punishments, bestowal of actual graces and of material benefits. The forgiveness of sins resulting from the use of sacramentals is ascribed by St. Thomas to an implied act of contrition. The remission of temporal punishments due to sin requires something more, viz.: an ardent love of God elicited during the use of the sacramentals. There is only one exception to this rule, viz.: when indulgences are attached to the use of blessed objects (e. g. rosaries, medals), because an indulgence is a remission of temporal punishments by virtue of the power of the keys entrusted by Christ to His Church. The bestowal of actual graces in connection with sacramentals depends partly on the subjective devotion and receptivity of the faithful, partly on the effective intercession of the Church. Lastly, the sacramentals may also bring down upon their users material benefits (blessing of bread, dwellings, fields, etc.), provided, of course, that the benefits asked for by the Church do not conflict with the divine economy of grace or the salvation of souls.
(Pages 119-120, Preuss translation)
A further explanation of the distinction between invocative and constitutive blessings can be found in Addis and Arnold’s A Catholic Dictionary from 1884, under the entry on “Blessings:”
To the former class [invocative] belongs the blessing of houses, fields, ships, candles, food, &c., &c.; to the latter class [constitutive] the blessing of sacerdotal vestments, corporals, altar-cloths, &c. It is impossible to distinguish accurately between the use of the word consecration and blessing when it is used in the sense of benedictio constitutiva; but consecration denotes a more solemn form of blessing, so that we speak of blessing an abbot or a bell, but of consecrating a chalice or an altar.
(Pages 89-90, emphasis mine)
This information in turn raises two questions: 1. is the blessing of Holy Water constitutive or invocative, and 2. can a layperson perform constitutive or invocative blessings?
The Type of Blessing. This first question is kind of tricky, because the ritual for Holy Water is called neither a blessing nor a consecration, in fact its title literally translates as The Order Toward Making Blessed Water (original: “Ordo ad Faciendam Aquam Benedictam”). In fact it’s not even officially called “Consecrated Water” or even “Holy Water,” just simply “Blessed Water” (aqua benedicta). Thus the neither the name of the sacramental nor the title of its ritual give any clue as to whether this is a constitutive or an invocative blessing.
Because I know someone might bring it up in the comments here or on social media, it might be helpful to discuss the work of Dr. Masaru Emoto. In the 1990s, Dr. Emoto claimed that water changes its shape in response to the emotions we project onto it, and purported to document this by way of freezing water and photographing the crystals. For example the graphic below shows water crystals after various things have been said or done over it:
If Dr. Emoto’s work can be verified, then it stands to reason that the blessing over Holy Water does, in fact, change the water’s substance, and therefore the blessing would be constitutive beyond a doubt. However, two things are wrong with this: first, the change brought about would not be permanent, as Dr. Emoto’s hypothesis implies any changes would be undone once the water is intentionally desecrated or unkind words spoken over it even by accident; second, it has yet to be answered whether Dr. Emoto’s work is genuine science or his experiments left too much room for error or manipulation of data. In this regard I cannot be satisfied to call the question on the basis of his work, although I keep an open mind toward what future research might demonstrate.
What this means is that since the scientific route is inconclusive at the moment, we have to go right back to reasoning and philosophizing. Here we go:
That Holy Water is used in divine worship would indicate an intended dedication, though it’s also used by the faithful in context of their private lives. Holy Water is used in the blessing of most objects, persons, or places, as well as in exorcisms, but it is also used privately and mundanely by individual faithful who drink it in the hope of curing sickness or may add a little bit to their bathwater as part of their spiritual practices.
As a constitutive blessing is intended for objects like chalices, vestments, and other objects the laity generally aren’t allowed to touch – and as blessings for the faithful in general are invocative by nature – it’s difficult to claim definitively that Holy Water receives a constitutive blessing. However as the “making” of Holy Water clearly intends some sort of change in the water itself, it’s difficult to caim definitively that Holy Water receives an invocative blessing, either. The best I can make out is that Holy Water stands somewhere in an unnamed middle ground between consecration and invocation, and attempts to claim it as one or the other would be overreach at best and presumption at worst.
A Layperson’s Type of Blessing. Having discussed the type of blessing Holy Water receives and having failed to draw a conclusion with certainty, we now come to whether the laity can confer constitutive or invocative blessings.
That a layperson can confer an invocative blessing over any person, place, or thing under his or her legitimate authority is incontrovertible. If, as the Novus Ordo catechism tells us, “blessings derive from the baptismal priesthood” and “every Christian is called to be a blessing and to bless” (n. 1669), and if every layperson has the ability to invoke God’s name over food, drink, etc., then the layperson’s power to confer invocative blessings is locked down with no real room for argument.
Whether a layperson can confer a constitutive blessing, on the other hand, is a much hazier question. On the surface, the answer is clearly “no,” as a layperson is not an officer of the Church and therefore lacks the authority to consecrate people, places, or objects for the public and official use of the Church. However, there is nothing barring a layperson from consecrating an object for his or her own private use within context of home, family, or personal spiritual practice. Note that this is something of a doctrinal gray area, however, as the most that’s been said on it is that laypeople have the power to bless, but only in their own name and by their own will, not by the authority or official standing of the Church. The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1911 speaks of it in this way, after defining blessings in a narrow “strictly liturgical and restricted” sense and claiming only a priest has the ability to confer blessings in that narrow regard:
When, therefore, laymen and women are represented as blessing others it is to be understood that this is an act of will on their part, a wish or desire for another’s spiritual or temporal prosperity, an appeal to God which has nothing to recommend it but the merits of personal sanctity.
(Article on “Blessings”)
While we do not claim that the priesthood has a monopoly on the power to confer blessings (only the liceity to confer them in an official capacity, as established in Canons 1146 and 1147:2), we likewise cannot and do not claim a layperson’s blessing to be otherwise than as presented in this quotation.
Yet even so, we still find ourselves faced with a contradiction in the Church’s teaching. If “blessings derive from the baptismal priesthood,” as the Catechism states absolutely, then either all baptized persons have the spiritual power to confer blessings of all kinds or they have no spiritual power to bless at all. This is a tautology with no room for middle ground. Though rules can (and should) be laid out concerning their liceity for the sake of decorum, any attempt to restrict validity to a layperson becomes a contradiction of that absolute statement, which does not admit of qualification.
My own opinion is that the Church’s theology on sacramentals is incomplete and poorly thought-out at best, as it holds the “derives from the baptismal priesthood” and “only a cleric can do it” conceptions in its mind simultaneously and confusing questions of liceity with questions of validity.
The Question of Authority
The power to bless (or withhold blessing from) a given person, place, or thing is a matter of the authority one has over the person, place, or object designated as the recipient. This is why bishops can bless priests but not priests bishops, parents are able to bless children but not children their parents, and so forth.
This “authority,” however, is a matter of spiritual authority and not merely the position of bossing someone around (for our purposes this excludes CEOs and politicians from having spiritual authority, unless some other authority-relationship also exists on a case-by-case basis). It may be easier to picture “spiritual authority” in the sense of a person, animal, place, or thing that has entrusted themselves to your spiritual guidance or care, or something/one over which you have been entrusted though legitimate means (for example, purchasing a house gives you spiritual authority over that building and its land). Likewise, authority is always coupled with responsibility not to screw up your job. Literally every Catechism explains the reciprocal nature of authority relationships in context of the Fourth Commandment, so there’s no need for it to detain us here.
We now come to the question of spiritual authority over nature and natural creation. I would guess that most THAVMA readers have read this passage from Genesis at least once:
 And he said: Let us make man to our image and likeness: and let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and the beasts, and the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth.  And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them.  And God blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth.  And God said: Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed upon the earth, and all trees that have in themselves seed of their own kind, to be your meat:  And to all beasts of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to all that move upon the earth, and wherein there is life, that they may have to feed upon. And it was so done.
This means that you, as a human being – by virtue of being a human being made in the God’s image – have authority over nature. More specifically, you have authority over those specimens of nature that are explicitly entrusted to your care (your home and the surrounding land, your pets, etc.). So if somebody hands you a bottle of water and says “This is yours now,” that water is under your authority.
Make no mistake that there’s a serious responsibility not to abuse your authority, but the authority is there nonetheless, and that extends to the authority to bless that water for warding off spirits, deflecting curses, healing disease, and so on. And you have the authority to expect that blessing to “stick” and be effective in your endeavors.
This in a nutshell is how a layperson is able to bless Holy Water: humankind is given authority over creation in general, and the individual is given authority of specimens of nature in particular.
So, how is there any difference between water blessed by a layperson and water blessed by a priest? Or is there any difference at all?
The answer is that there’s a difference, but it’s not a difference that affects the validity of the blessing. If anything, it’s a difference of man-made classifications.
When a priest blesses water, or oil, or anything else, he does so as an officer of the Church, with the authority to say “This is the official blessing of the Church.” When a layperson blesses, he or she does so without that “official” title, meaning the water, oil, or anything else is blessed in his or her own name as a child of God. There is no necessary difference in the efficacy of their blessings, nor am I aware of any theological or (more importantly) empirical proof demonstrating there can be a difference in efficacy.
The primary principle functioning behind the blessing of Holy Water is called ex opere operantis, meaning the efficacy of the blessing is dependent on the operator’s spirituality, purity, devotion, and all those other things you learned in religious instructions. In fact this is the principle underlying all the sacramentals, including exorcism. Since the sacramentals and the ex opere operantis principle derive from the baptismal priesthood and not the ministerial (i.e. the ordained). As I’ve said for the umpteenth time in reference to sacramentals, this places the priest and the layperson on equal spiritual footing with the only difference being one of “official” status.
[NOTE: There are claims that sacramentals have a “quasi ex opere operato status” (Ott, page 349), or that they are otherwise have some sort of guarantee. In the face of what I’ve seen laypeople accomplish spiritually and even the first time I blessed Holy Water as a layperson, I find these assertions wholly unconvincing.]
Beyond the requirement of authority and the principle of ex opere operantis, there is also a secondary principle known as praesertim operante ecclesia, which loosely translates “especially by means of the working church.” This refers to the assistance the operator receives in making the blessing effective, in context of the Tripartite Church: not only is the operator asking for God to empower the objects in question, but the prayers of the Church Triumphant in heaven, of the Church Militant on earth, and the Church Suffering in purgatory are all assisting the operator in asking God to make this blessing efficacious. Again, a priest has no special spiritual footing here, as clergy and laity alike are able to ask the Tripartite Church for help and intercession.
In fact, the only potential difference may lie in whether the priest is blessing the water for himself or for another. If he’s blessing it for another person’s use, then God may validate the blessing in spite of the priest’s worthiness or lack thereof, for the sake of the person who will actually be using the water. But there’s no theological principle dictating a layperson blessing water for another person won’t have the same result either.
Ultimately and even though it may not be “official,” we can only conclude that an individual devout layperson may have a better chance at making Holy Water than an individual priest who happens to be morally corrupt and only half-believing. There may be rules and principles governing this outcome, but those rules and principles are what make this outcome is part of our reality.
In the end, the best way to know for sure is to make a batch of Holy Water, and then go find a demon-possessed person and start splashing it on them. You’ll have your answers soon enough!
Why Do People Insist a Priest Must Bless Holy Water?
In spite of all the principles we’ve just discussed, there are people – laity and clergy alike – who insist that only a priest can bless Holy Water. I can think of three reasons why this is so.
First Reason: Most People Don’t Know Any Better
For one, most people just don’t know any better and have never thought to question it. They’re taught the falsehood that a priest is somehow “better” or “holier” than the “regular people,” or that “the priest receives the power of blessing at his ordination.” If we google “laypeople blessing holy water,” for example, we’ll find internet fora where the question is asked and the answer typically parroted is “only a priest may bless a sacramental.”
(We’re going to deal with this in more detail below. Please be patient.)
This should surprise nobody, not least because most people would rather “feel” their religion than “think” their religion (not a judgment; it’s just a part of human nature). Even among those inclined to “think” their religion, most people’s lives are so occupied with work and family responsibilities that they simply don’t have the free time for a lot of deep-diving, investigation, or fact-checking in questions of theology.
Second Reason: Incomplete Theology and Conflicting Opinions
Of course, even for people who “think” their religion and have both the talent and opportunity to do their own research, the first place one would look is a veritable wall of contradictions. If we return to our example of googling “laypeople blessing holy water,” let’s discuss the gems we find. On the catholic.com forum, for example, we find an individual asking if a layperson can bless Holy Water because “in a pinch, a lay person can baptize someone. I’m just curious to see if this extends to blessing water.”
Here are some of the answers received (I emphasize that I am in no way judging or attacking anyone; I believe them to be speaking in good faith and am simply repeating their responses and giving commentary):
Only the priest has the power to make it holy by virtue of his Holy Orders, (i,e, a Sacramental).
No, a lay person cannot bestow a blessing. Only the ordained have that authority.
This comes down to authority.… The holy water then, is a sacramental, and therefore, the making of this sacramental is not an emergency. And it requires that an ordained priest be the only to bless the water in order for the graces to be conferred.
A lay person can bless in certain circumstances. For instance a person can “bless themselves”, parents can bless their children, a lay person can say a blessing over a meal, a catechist can bless catechumens. However only clergy (deacons, priests, Bishops) can bless a sacramental.
Generally speaking, the responses in this thread were biased toward the negative and always based on the concept of “authority” but no detailed explanation of why it boils down to authority with no other regard for spiritual principles, nor for what the Church has actually acknowledged. We also don’t see anyone asking “why” hard enough and implacably enough to drill through the usual “only a priest” or “only a cleric,” and get to what’s beneath the surface.
We see this again in a response posted on Quora, where the question of a layperson blessing Holy Water is again asked:
No. Ordinary water (H2O) becomes holy water via the prayer of an ordained minister (bishop, priest or deacon.) Another way of saying it is God, the Holy Spirit, sanctifies the water upon the invocation of the ordained minister. There are many variations of the prayer of confecting holy water.
Again, the question to be asked is “Why can only an ordained minister able to do this, and not a layperson?” The attentive reader might also notice that while the above forum said “only a priest,” this current response says “bishop, priest, or deacon.”
Elsewhere on Quora, we find the complete opposite opinion given. This time in response to the question “Can you bless/create your own holy water if you need it desperately and there is no priest present? If not, why?” The first response is overwhelmingly in the affirmative:
Yes, you may. As a baptized Christian you have been incorporated into the death and resurrection of the Lord and have been confirmed as priest, prophet, and king. There are entire books of blessings approved for use by the laity, and parents have been blessing their children and farmers their land and most everyone their food since the earliest days of Christianity.
The Jews, also, bless food — it was this blessing which Christ used at the last supper when he prayed over the bread and wine. So also the pagans blessed their food and soldiers their weapons.
There are many liturgists who insist that there is a difference between blessings by priests and blessings by the laity, and I am fine with that. However, these are differences, not divisions. You have every right to bless things you wish to use.
Even if you are not a Christian, you have the right to pray over items, and the right as God’s creature to bless. After all, a blessing is a prayer calling on God to care for people and things — the power to call on God comes from his breath dwelling in you.
Each time a firetruck goes by, I make the sign of the cross and ask God to bless and protect the firefighters. I do not believe for a moment that God rejects my prayer of blessing because I have not been ordained.
The gentleman who responded to the first Quora question also comments on this question, adding the following:
My guess is that were laypeople to bless water in such circumstances God would impart a blessing over the water, but it would not be “Holy Water,” per se. Just blessed water, like the blessing of other food and drink.
Again, I point out that he and all other respondents are responding in good faith and to the best of their knowledge and ability. However, I also have to point out that Holy Water literally is “blessed water” as per its official name (aqua benedicta).
Now when we switch over to the Fish Eaters website, another generally-respected source, we come across their Introduction to Sacramentals page, which gives a more balanced view:
Note that only a priest has the power to bless an object and make it a sacramental. Lay Catholics are free to bless objects, even using the prayers priests use – and we do so often in blessing our children, blessing meals, blessing Advent wreaths or Mary Gardens, etc. – but our blessings act as “mere” pleas to God.
And on the Catholic Community Forum, we have the question of “Can ‘We’ Bless Things,” where the typical answer is in the negative, but a religious by the screen name of “Agatha” tells us:
Catechism 2645 Because God blesses the human heart, it can in return bless him who is the source of every blessing.
Every baptized person is called to be a “blessing” and to bless.
Catechism 1077 to 1083 is breathtaking in its description of blessing.
I am huge on blessing. Probably because my priest is huge on blessing and I am a believer in the power of God’s love through blessing.
As a religious – we as a group – sometimes with priest, sometimes without – would bless homes, children, animals, creation you name it we blessed it. We would bless children – the priest had me bless throats on St. Blaise’s feast day – His line was no longer than my line – I was surprised by this SUDDEN and unexpected request – I was only a novice – but in prompt obedience learned that prayer FAST and blessed throats and bodies galore. I was dumbfounded – went home and asked God to make sure the BLESSING “TOOK” from me and that the people didn’t get ???gipped – by not having the priest bless their throats.
(Question marks in original, link inserted by me)
Now let us move to the Test Everything blog, administered by a Novus Ordo deacon whose view seems even-handed and balanced. In his post Can Deacons Bless, what he says on the subject of laypeople and blessings is very similar to what I’ve been saying in this blog post (the only major difference being my non-concern with liceity). I advise reading the entire blog post, as it’s real easy to take this quotation out of context:
So yes, all God’s people may offer blessings, not just the clergy. This is not to say there is no difference between a blessing offered by a lay person and a blessing offered by a sacred minister. There is. … Conferring a blessing is a matter of spiritual authority. You can bless yourself. A parent can bless a child. Those in ordained ministry have a greater degree of spiritual authority and so are able to offer blessings on a wider range of people, objects, places and endeavors.
We can go on and on here, but I think we’ve established the vast majority of internet commentary tells us that “only a priest” may gives blessings or a sacramental of any sort, while a slightly deeper dive will reveal commentary that a layperson can give a blessing but tries to restrict it as much as possible (generally by confusing the boundaries of validity with those boundaries of liceity), while other commentary will less frequently answer in the affirmative with no distinctions.
My own impression is that the theology of sacramentals is incomplete, which is to be expected as most theology textbooks barely give them a few paragraphs after the section on the Sacraments. This leads to a need for people to “fill in the blanks” when asked direct questions that aren’t addressed in the “official” party-line sources, and the multitude of approaches necessarily means a multitude of differing responses (probabilism, probabiliorism, liberalism, conservatism, etc.). Thus we can expect differing and even conflicting responses, every last one of them made in good faith and according to the responder’s best knowledge and ability.
To the sincere and intelligent layperson just starting to learn and seeking a direct answer, however, it can only look confusing.
Third Reason: The Quest for “Thou Shalt Not”
In the introduction to his Comparative Religion, F. B. Jevons shares some insights on the development of religious morality. Beginning with primitive man and tracing steps in the evolution of a community’s religious thinking, he explains:
Generally we may say that the calamities which befall the community are regarded as visitations due to the fact that there has been, on the part of some member or other, a departure from the custom, or customary morality, of the community; and that offerings are made to the offended power or deity, to make atonement, to stay the wrath, and to effect a reconciliation. The fall of the tower of Siloam is interpreted as the visitation for sin committed by some one. Natural as such an interpretation is, so long as we start from the position that man brings worldly calamity on himself by transgression, by doing that which, on the customary morality of the community, he should not do, still it is remarkable that most of the great historical religions should have concerned themselves much more with expiating offences and placating their deities, by means of offerings and sacrifices, than with seeking to eradicate the offences themselves. … This doctrine is the consummation of the negative attitude in religion and morality – the negative attitude of the taboo, of the morality which confines itself to prohibitions and says “thou shalt not,” and of the religions which base themselves on fear.
(Pages 11-12, emphasis and link mine)
In some ways, this emphasis on “thou shalt not” may be a natural outgrowth to what psychologists call the behavioral immune system, by which a human or animal learns behaviors that avoid or minimize disease or danger. Examples of the behavioral immune system would be “Thou shalt not eat with dirty hands,” or “Thou shalt not drive in the same lane as oncoming traffic,” and various other day-to-day activities we do to keep ourselves alive and healthy.
Over time, it’s easy to see how a set of beneficial behaviors can develop organically within fledgling human communities for the sake of said community’s protection and well-being, later to become codified into a system of laws governing that society; considering early humanity’s lack of distinction between religion and state, such laws would tend to take on a religious dimension along with all the accompanying ritual and dogma that implies. This dimension would logically grow even more in the face of corrupt leadership which increasingly occurs during the middle and late stages of most societies.
When we bring this back to the Abrahamic religions, we see the “Thou shalt not” train of thought alive and well in our times, though less so within Judaism since the end of the Intertestamental Period, after the destruction of the Temple saw it evolve from a religion of sacrifice to a religion of argumentation and debate (hence the saying among my Jewish friends: “Two Jews, three opinions!”). Within Christianity, however, the “thou shalt not” train is running strong among the rank-and-file laity.
This is important in the question of why most people think only as priest can give blessings. In fact it’s important because when a person asks “Am I able,” that’s a far cry from what they really mean. Because the concepts of duty and obedience are at the forefront of the minds of most regular churchgoers, what they’re really asking is “Am I allowed to?”
Our pedantic English teachers back in elementary school would refer to this as a difference between “can” and “may,” where one speaks to ability and the other to permission. In fact one can think of the average congregation as a community of people bound by obedience to the same set of leaders, rules, and taboos, where the most shocking thing they can hear someone say regarding one of those leaders or rules is “Non Serviam.”
All of what I’ve said above is based on my own experience in pastoral ministry, where I saw the average person in the pews concerned more with moral questions than with theological ones. Even when it was obvious that following the party-line morality would cost them their lives (there’s one case that stands out in particular), the one thing they wanted most was never to violate that all-holy rule of “Thou Shalt Not.”
I encounter the same thing here today, even within the “Orthodox Center” and “Hyperdox Right” wings of the occult community with whom I most often interact. I once even had an E-mail exchange with a gentleman who went back and forth about the question of Catholic occultism and had even read Magic of Catholicism and Is Magic Wrong, and made a lot of headway, only to bow out because he ran into a nun who told him “Thou shalt not.” That’s how strongly most people are programmed.
Applying this information to our purposes, this means the majority of regular churchgoers wrap their religion around a sort of Regulative Principle, meaning that if their chosen authority does not explicitly tell them they’re allowed to do something, then that thing is assumed to be forbidden to them. In essence the “Thou shalt not” becomes the default assumption until the contrary can be explicitly proven. This makes sense to me in the context of why most regular churchgoers are there in the first place, so I refuse to give them any grief about it.
Now let’s pivot. Awhile back in this blog post, I pointed out that my own approach was based on the Normative Principle, which means I reject both the Regulative Principle and the automatic “Thou shalt not” assumption that comes with it. Rather, my interest is not even “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not” dialectic because I’m not seeking anyone’s permission. I’m solely concerned with the question of whether “Thou canst,” while leaving all the “shalt” concerns to the individual reader to resolve within his or her own mind.
The room for a “Thou shalt not” default is laid out in Canon Law, namely that the licit minister of the sacramentals is a cleric (Canon 1146) and the licit ordinary minister of blessings is a priest (1147:2). There is no explicit provision for a “Thou canst not” in Canon Law in regards to laypeople (the Codex is silent on the question) or elsewhere, because nowhere in Scripture or Tradition does it say that a layperson cannot say prayers over a bowl of water and ask God to bless it, nor does it explicitly say anywhere in Scripture or Tradition that God absolutely will not bless that water, nor does anywhere in Scripture or Tradition tell us such an attempt would be a sin.
Once again, “Blessings derive from the baptismal priesthood” is an absolute statement that must be wholly true or wholly false with no room for a middle ground. If it is true, then your Baptismal Certificate is the only permission you need in the eyes of God Almighty.
So say it with me: The ability of a baptized Christian to confer blessings SHALL. NOT. BE. INFRINGED.
What Rituals Are Used for Holy Water?
With all of the above behind us, we can now talk about the ways to obtain Holy Water. There are three.
The first is that you can buy it off the internet, with no guarantees about what you’re actually getting or who’s taking your money. I strongly advise against this unless the seller’s someone you know and trust really well. Even then I’m not too keen on it, because while it’s okay to receive a stipend for your time and/or material costs, sacramentals themselves should never be sold or trafficked for a profit.
The second is walking into a church and asking for some. This is free of charge as (again) sacramentals should never be for sale, though there may be a small fee for a container if they supply one; last I checked, the little plastic bottles cost $1.25 in church supply stores, but you’ll want to find out how the priest blessed this water before getting some, as not all rites are created equal (we’ll get to that in a moment).
The third way is simply putting some water in front of you and blessing it yourself, along with a tiny bit of salt if you’re using the Roman Rite; a corollary to this is asking a priest-friend to bless the water for you. We won’t be reproducing complete rituals in this blog post, but we’re going to discuss three of the most-used rites here and link the complete texts for those desiring to see what’s involved.
What to Look for in Blessing Rituals
If you’ve been reading the THAVMA blog for any length of time, or even done any reading on Catholic theology in general, you’ll be aware that the sacraments have three criteria for validity: form, matter, and intent. If one or more of these things isn’t correct, the sacrament is considered “invalid” because something was so far off it didn’t take. A good example of this is Baptism, where Jesus instituted the practice of using water and thus water is required for the sacrament to be valid. Now suppose if somebody uses motor oil instead of water, it would be invalid because baptism is a washing by water, not a greasing up with ten-winter-thirty.
As sacramentals are imitations of the sacraments, they have their own criteria for validity too. One hypothesis is advanced by Father Lucas LaRoche in his The Efficaciousness of Rites of Exorcism, where he explains sacramentals require form but not matter:
An important distinction, however, is that the sacramental effect in a sacramental does not require matter for the sacramental to be confected. … The individual sacramental would seem to change, then, depending on the form, that is the words, if the words were to change. … This dependency suggests that a different blessing confects a different sacramental, and so Holy Water blessed according to the Rituale Romanum, and Holy Water blessed according to the more recent Book of Blessings, have different effects because the words of the blessing of the water (the form) changes between the two.
This is a good baseline; though I would add to this that intent is also required for a sacramental, because form at its most basic level is an expression of intention. So our treatment of each ritual will focus on the form of the rites (the words used in the blessing prayers themselves), and the intent behind the rite as revealed by its form.
My First Time Blessing Holy Water
A little backstory about how dumb I used to be. The first time I blessed Holy Water, I myself was a layman and misunderstood something I was told. My father was in the hospital from a stroke (this began the countdown to his passing six years later), and his uncle – also named “Ernie” – was on the phone. He asked to speak to me and told me I should do “laying on of hands with oil for healing,” by which I thought he meant I should give Extreme Unction.
“I can’t do that, I’m not a priest.”
“You don’t need to be a priest to use oil and pray for healing.”
I caved in. Now, armed with this misunderstanding, having already seen the Roman Ritual, and having a “courtesy card” to check out books from the University of Dayton’s library (a practice they’ve since discontinued), I checked out volumes 1 and 3 of the Weller translation since it would have everything I needed. Or so I thought.
I began early the next morning, about an hour before sunrise. The only oil I could access would be that made by the Benedictio Olei, which was not the right one but (in my mind at the time) it would have to do. In any case I still needed Holy Water first. So I read over the rite – its exorcisms and prayers – then performed the Rousing of the Citadels as a sort of personal preparation. While I could read Latin back then, I didn’t yet trust myself reading it aloud, so performed the ritual over the salt and water in English. During the entire process, I felt some kind of power pushing through me, from the top of my head, out of my right hand, and into the salt and water. It felt different depending on whether I was saying an exorcism or a blessing, but it was there nonetheless. I then moved to bless the oil and experienced the same thing.
Fortunately it never came down to the Extreme Unction thing. For all her anti-Vatican II sentiment, my mom called the local Novus Ordo church and the priest there did the “Anointing of the Sick” thing that they have in their books. I was grateful for not having to risk committing a sacrilege, and kept the water and oil for the sake of future use.
(I also later found out my great-uncle was involved in the Charismatic Movement, and his meaning of “Oil and Laying on of Hands” was something entirely different from what I was thinking!)
As to the water, I still had a small bottle of it nine years later. If you’ve heard my second Deeper Down the Rabbit Hole interview where Colwell asks me about somebody who was physically burned by Holy Water I blessed, the man’s name is Wraith (one of the elders in Columbus’ pagan community), and the water that burned him was from that batch I blessed while still a layman.
Eastern Orthodox Holy Water
We’ll begin by discussing the Holy Water of the Eastern churches, because their territories give us the earliest surviving books containing Holy Water formulae. Where the Roman Rite uses salt, the Greek Rite uses plain water. Where the Gelasian Sacramentary uses hyssop, the Greek Rite uses a bundle of basil branches.
Within Orthodoxy, there are actually two rituals for blessing Holy Water. The first is the Greater Sanctification of Water, which is used on the Feast of the Theophany (our Epiphany, January 6), and the Lesser Sanctification, which is used throughout the year when more Holy Water is needed.
Unlike the Western rites which tend to be more streamlined, the Eastern Rite tends to be more involved. It takes place in context of the Divine Liturgy and is accompanied by readings, prayers, and hymns, and the form is divided between the “Great Litany” and the Prayer of Blessing itself.
[NOTE: The notion of an “essential form” is generally a Western one and doesn’t fare well when superimposed on Eastern rituals, so the following will be at best an approximation.]
The “Great Litany” of the Orthodox Churches is similar to the “General Intercessions” of the Novus Ordo, or the “Prayer of the Church” found in some liturgical Protestant denominations. It classically begins with “In peace let us pray to the Lord,” and continues with several petitions to which the response is “Lord, have mercy.” During the blessing of water, the following petitions are added to the Litany:
That this water may be sanctified by the power, act, and descent of the Holy Spirit, let us pray to the Lord. R. Lord, have mercy.
That the action of purification which belongs to the Trinity transcendent in essence may be planted herein, let us pray to the Lord. R.
That it may be granted the grace of redemption, and the blessing of the Jordan, let us pray to the Lord. R.
That this water may bestow sanctification, redemption of sins, healing of soul and body, and every necessary benefit, let us pray to the Lord. R.
That this water may be beneficial unto eternal life, let us pray to the Lord. R.
That it may drive away every cunning device of our enemies, visible and invisible, let us pray to the Lord. R.
For those who drink of these waters and who take them home for the sanctification of their dwellings, let us pray to the Lord. R.
That it may be a means for purification of soul and body to those who drink and receive of it in faith, let us pray to the Lord. R.
That as we receive of these waters we may be made worthy to be filled with sanctification through the invisible appearance of the Holy Spirit, let us pray to the Lord. R.
If we examine, we can only accuse these petitions of being comprehensive in expressing the intention behind blessing the water, namely purification, protection, and sanctification. The ritual continues with several prayers, after which the priest says:
Wherefore, O King, You Who love mankind: be present now by the descent of Your Holy Spirit and sanctify this water. Amen. (3 times)
And grant it the grace of redemption and the blessing of Jordan.
Make it a fountain of incorruptibility, a gift unto sanctification, a redemption of sins, a healing of illness, a destroyer of Satan, unapproachable by the adversary powers and full of angelic powers; that it may be to all who drink this water and receive it for the sanctification of souls and bodies, for the healing of suffering, for the sanctification of homes, and for every healing benefit.
You are our God Who with water and the Spirit renewed our nature made old by sin.
You are our God Who drowned sin in the water at the time of Noah.
You are our God Who in the sea delivered the Hebrews from the bondage of Pharaoh by the hand of Moses.
You are our God Who cleaved the rock in the wilderness so that water gushed out and the valleys overflowed, to satisfy Your thirsty people.
You are our God Who with fire and water delivered Israel from the error of Baal at the hands of Elias.*
Wherefore, O Master, sanctify this water by Your Holy Spirit. Amen. (3 times)
Grant sanctification, blessing, cleansing and health to all who touch it and are anointed by it, and who receive of it. Amen.
(*I have made one correction to the translation. Namely that where the translation says “at the hands of Elissáeus,” the original Greek says “τοῦ Ἡλίου” or “of Elias.” The reference is to the contest between Elias and the prophets of Baal in 3 Kings 18:20-40.)
Now the Western notions of “form, matter, and intent” don’t exactly map well with Eastern rites, especially the Western notion of “essential form” (i.e. a set of words where “the thing happens”), and the rite has a few more prayers directly addressing the water before it’s sprinkled over the people. However, I think we’ve seen enough to establish the rite’s efficacy and that any water blessed by it is true Holy Water.
Thus far I have given parts of the Greater Sanctification. It does not differ from the Lesser Sanctification in terms of its thoroughness for expressing the intention of blessing the water, though the latter is shorter and more streamlined. The full text has already been linked at the beginning of this section, for the reader who wishes to explore more in-depth.
The Traditional Roman Rite: Rituale Romanum
This is the ritual everybody’s seen and everybody can find on the internet with very little trouble. This is also the rite that I personally use, and thus the one with which I’m the most familiar.
One thing that stands out about this rite is that it’s very streamlined, containing only those elements that are needed to “get the job done” and prayers that have seen consistent usage since at least the seventh century. This rite is literally the time-tested and distilled “wisdom of the ancients,” and it delivers on what it promises.
The ritual begins with the standard Adjutorium nostrum versicle, and immediately breaks into an exorcism of the salt:
I exorcise thee, creature of salt, by the living + God, by the true + God, by the holy + God, by God who ordered thee to be thrown into the water by Eliseus to heal it of its sterility, that thou mayest be a salt exorcized for the health of believers; and that thou mayest be for all who take thee a remedy for body and soul; and in all places where thou art sprinkled, may every phantom, and wickedness, and fraud, craftiness of diabolical fraud, and every evil spirit leave and be put to flight, adjured by him who shall come again to judge the living and the dead, and the world by fire! R. Amen.
(This and the following prayers are my rough translation.)
After the exorcism, the salt is then blessed:
Let us pray. We humbly beseech thy clemency, almighty eternal God, that thou will vouchsafe to we humbly appeal to thy goodness to bless + and sanctify + this creature of salt, which thou hast given for the use of the human race: that it may be a remedy of body and soul unto all who take it up; and whatsoever is touched or sprinkled thereby shall be delivered of all no uncleanness, and all assaults of spiritual evil. Through Christ our Lord. R. Amen.
The exorcized and blessed salt is now set aside, and an exorcism and blessing are now said over the water:
I exorcize thee, creature of water, in the name of God + the Father almighty, in the name of Jesus + Christ, His Son our Lord, and in the power of the Holy + Ghost: that thou mayest become a water exorcized for putting to flight every power of the enemy, and that thou wilt be strong to expel and root out the enemy himself along with his apostate angels, through the power of the same Jesus Christ our Lord: who shall come again to judge the living and the dead, and the world by fire! R. Amen.
Let us pray. O God, who for the salvation of mankind hast established the greatest mysteries in the substance of the waters: draw nigh and be propitious be near to us who invoke thee, and infuse the power of thy + blessing to this element prepared for many forms of purifications; that thy creature, serving thy mysteries, may receive the effect of divine grace for deterring demons and expelling diseases; that whatsoever this wave sprinkles in the homes or places of the faithful shall be delivered from all uncleanness and freed from harm: let there not reside a spirit of pestilence nor an atmosphere of corruption: may it put to flight all hidden snares of the enemy; and if there be anything which envieth the security or peace of the inhabitants, let the sprinkling of this water cause it to flee: that it may be sought-after thing of well-being through the invocation of thy holy name, and a defense against attacks of every kind. Through Christ our Lord. R. Amen.
Finally the salt is added to the water by sprinkling it three times in the form of a cross (when I do this, I use only a tiny pinch of salt), and then a prayer is said over both elements combined:
May this salt and water be commingled in the name of the Father +, and of the Son, + and of the Holy + Ghost. R. Amen.
The Lord be with you.
R. And with thy spirit.
O God, author of unconquered strength and King of an invincible empire, thou who always triumph magnificently: thou who repressest the powers of enemy domination: tho who overcomest the roaring savagery of the enemy: thou who powerfully fightest off the hostilities of wickedness: thee, O Lord, do we beseech with trembling and humility: that thou wilt vouchsafe to look upon this creature of salt and water, to benignly enlighten it and sanctify it by the dew of thy compassion; that, wheresoever is shall be sprinkled, through the invocation of thy holy name every infestation of the unclean spirit shall be chased away: and the terror of the venomous serpent driven afar: and may the presence of the Holy Ghost deign to be everywhere near us who implore thy mercy. Through Jesus Christ our Lord thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the same Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. R. Amen.
I’ve just broken my promise and pretty much given the entire text of the ritual, but the rite is so optimized that it contains no “filler.” If we compare the text of this rite with the excerpts from the Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries given in the “History of Holy Water” section, we find a strong line of continuity in these prayers after being tested and refined for well over a thousand years. Everything the water is intended to do, is laid out succinctly in both the exorcisms and the blessings, leaving no room for error, misinterpretation, or for any intention other than chasing away demons, protection, purification, and sanctification.
The Old Catholic Ritual of 1875
As an aside, the intention behind the above ritual is so succinctly expressed and leaves so little room for reinterpretation, that the Old Catholic churches in Germany felt it necessary to write a whole new ritual in order to align with their views. According to the explanatory notes in the Old Catholic Ritual, the Roman Ritual had obscured the true meaning of Holy Water:
This original and correct interpretation of the efficacy of holy water has become obscured, in the course of time, by various and superstitious imaginations. … We ought also to restrain as much as possible the use of holy water. To abolish it entirely on principle, would be not only hazardous, at least in some districts, in the face of prevailing custom, but also unjustifiable, because the precipitate abolition of a custom, which in its proper sense is Old Catholic, and which is capable of a reasonable interpretation which excludes all superstition, would shoot beyond the mark of a genuine reform.
On these grounds the sprinkling with holy water is retained in our Ritual in several liturgical offices, where its use is customary, and its abolition is not demanded on any special grounds; and a form for the blessing of the water is also provided.
Close adherence to the Roman Ritual was at the same time impossible. For the latter comprises not merely a very wonderful exorcism of salt and water, but also expressions which are only qualified to evoke superstitious notions. It involves attributing to the consecrated salt and water, on the part of those who use them, the power to produce “health of soul and body,” “to dispel sicknesses,” “to banish all evil spirits from the houses and homes of the faithful, and to scare away all that is antagonistic to the well-being and peace of the inhabitants.” The German Rituals of Wessenberg and Winter contain entirely new forms of consecration in lieu of the latter; and the superiority over these of the form contained in our Ritual, is marked by its strict adherence to Scriptural thoughts and expressions.
(Explanatory Note IX)
The assertions in this entire passage are quite incorrect, and our above historical survey has already shown that expulsion of spirits and healing of illness have consistently been part of the intent behind blessing Holy Water since the Church was in her infancy; the commonality of these features to both East and West can only establish how long-standing a tradition this is. However I would like to include this rewritten form from the Old Catholic Ritual in its entirety, because it may serve as a bridge to the next section:
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Ps. xlii. 1—5.
Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks: so longeth my soul after thee, O God.
2. My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God: when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?
3. My tears have been my meat day and night: while they daily say unto me, Where is now thy God?
4. Now when I think thereupon, I pour out my heart by myself: for I went with the multitude, and brought them forth into the house of God;
5. In the voice of praise and thanksgiving: among such as keep holy-day.
191. The Priest shall mix a little salt with the water, and shall say;
The Lord hath said; “Salt is good, but if the salt have lost his saltness, wherewith will ye season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another.” Mindful of these words we mix this salt with the water, as a token that all who devoutly sprinkle themselves with this water, preserve within themselves the salt of Christian wisdom and strength, and should fulfil themselves with the spirit of peace and love. With this intention we consecrate the water, and sign it with the sign of the holy cross +, that the Almighty, who created it, of his boundless mercy may cleanse our hearts from all sin, may fructify them with the rich stream of his grace, and may satisfy their thirst after righteousness with the water of eternal life, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Priest. Sprinkle me, O Lord, and I shall be clean.
Answer. Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Priest. Let us pray.
Almighty Creator, Lord of heaven and earth, who in holy baptism hast made water to be an emblem of the cleansing of our souls; grant, we beseech thee, of thy goodness, to all of us who use this water in enlightened piety and in a Christian spirit, the heavenly water of thy grace, that in accordance with the promise of thy Son our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, there may be within ourselves a well of living water springing up into everlasting life. This we pray thee through the merits of the same thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, God for ever and ever. Amen.
(Blessing of Holy Water)
If we examine, we find the intention behind this rite to be rather different, amounting to good feelings of “cleansing hearts from sin,” “fructifying with the rich stream of grace,” and “help them thirst after righteousness.” In the prayer itself there is no intention to “bless this water,” but rather the stated request to “bless the people who use this water,” and the water itself is merely “an emblem for the cleansing of our souls.”
Yes. This is an excellent bridge into our next section indeed!
The Novus Ordo Rite: The Book of Blessings
We now finally arrive at the last ritual under consideration, that used in the post-Vatican II liturgy.
More accurately, there are two rites used in the Novus Ordo, one for blessing water at the beginning of Mass (which takes the place of the Penitential Rite), and another for the blessing of water outside of Mass. I’d like to discuss both of them.
Blessing inside the Mass. We’ll begin with the Ordo ad Faciendam et Aspergendam Aquam Benedictam (“Order for Making and Sprinkling Blessed Water”) which is used at the beginning of Mass. This write was first published in the 1969 edition of the Novus Ordo, and we will be using the text found in Appendix II of the current (2002) edition of the Sacramentary, with the English text from the current 2011 translation.
[NOTE: You may notice I call it a “Sacramentary,” while the book calls itself a “Missal.” I mean no disrespect, but rather my reason is technical: properly speaking, a Missal includes the readings for all Masses, while a Sacramentary does not. Since this book does not include the Mass readings, I am only able to call it a Sacramentary.]
During the Mass order itself, there is a note within the Penitential rite saying: “From time to time on Sundays, especially in Easter Time, instead of the customary Penitential Act, the blessing and sprinkling of water may take place (as in Appendix II) as a reminder of Baptism.” We now have a reference point for the ritual’s context, that it does not supplement the “Penitential Rite” at the beginning of the Novus Ordo, but rather replaces the Confiteor altogether. This hints the intention behind the water as a sign of purification, alongside the rubric’s indication that Holy Water is intended as a reminder of our baptism.
As with most post-Vatican II rites, the celebrant begins with a greeting to everyone else assembled, explaining the water “will be sprinkled on us as a memorial of our baptism.” This is another indication of the rite’s intention, repeating the rubric we saw above.
After this, the celebrant says the prayer of blessing over the water, which may or may not contain salt (the Missal considers this a matter of local custom). Here the celebrant has the option of three prayers, two which may be used during the year and one to be used during the Easter season. I reproduce these prayers here for the sake of commentary:
Almighty ever-living God,
who willed that through water,
the fountain of life and the source of purification,
even souls should be cleansed
and receive the gift of eternal life;
be pleased, we pray, to + bless this water,
by which we seek protection on this your day, O Lord.
Renew the living spring of your grace within us
and grant that by this water we may be defended
from all ills of spirit and body,
and so approach you with hearts made clean
and worthily receive your salvation.
Through Christ our Lord.
Thus far, the formula directly says “bless this water,” revealing an intention that the water itself be directly blessed. The water is called a “fountain of life and source of purification,” which is consistent with the theme of recalling our baptism, and the phrases “by which we seek protection” and “by this water we may be defended” indicate a definite intent for the water to used as a form of protection. It’s a very weak formula compared to the Rituale, but it still packs something.
The second optional prayer is:
Almighty Lord and God,
who are the source and origin of all life,
whether of body or soul,
we ask you to + bless this water,
which we use in confidence
to implore forgiveness for our sins
and to obtain the protection of your grace
against all illness and every snare of the enemy.
Grant, O Lord, in your mercy,
that living waters may always spring up for our salvation,
and so may we approach you with a pure heart
and avoid all danger to body and soul.
Through Christ our Lord.
This formula still seeks to impart a blessing directly on the water and continues the same pattern as the first while seeming weaker. While in both formulae God is asked to “bless this water,” the blessing seems less on the water than on the people who will use the water “which we use in confidence to implore forgiveness … and to obtain the protection of your grace.”
The formula also contains a reference “that living waters may always spring up for our salvation,” which is strongly reminiscent of the Old Catholic Ritual we discussed above: “…there may be within ourselves a well of living water springing up into everlasting life.” While Holy Water as reminder of Baptism is not a new concept by any means, the New Rite’s dedication to it seems to have had the Old Catholic Ritual in the back of its mind (or at least the theology that influenced said Ritual).
We now move on to the third and final blessing prayer said over the water, which the rubrics describe as “during Easter Time:”
Lord our God,
in your mercy be present to your people’s prayers,
and, for us who recall the wondrous work of our creation
and the still greater work of our redemption,
graciously + bless this water.
For you created water to make the fields fruitful
and to refresh and cleanse our bodies.
You also made water the instrument of your mercy:
for through water you freed your people from slavery
and quenched their thirst in the desert;
through water the Prophets proclaimed the new covenant
you were to enter upon with the human race;
and last of all,
through water, which Christ made holy in the Jordan,
you have renewed our corrupted nature
in the bath of regeneration.
Therefore, may this water be for us
a memorial of the Baptism we have received,
and grant that we may share
in the gladness of our brothers and sisters
who at Easter have received their Baptism.
Through Christ our Lord.
Of the three prayers, this one may be the weakest. It still says “bless this water” while making the sign of the cross over it, but at no point does it state an intention for the water to do anything except “be for us a memorial of the Baptism we have received.” All the references to what water does relate either to the properties of natural water, or to some event in salvation history where water was used for this-or-that thing, but at no point does the text seek to transfer those properties onto the water the celebrant is actually blessing in this ritual.
As mentioned previously, salt is an optional component in the Novus Ordo ritual for Holy Water. This is neither a good nor bad thing, as we’ve already discussed salt’s non-existence as an ingredient outside the Roman Rite and those western usages that later split from Rome.
In the rite we’re now discussing, the salt is blessed after the water, and then mixed in silence before the people are sprinkled:
We humbly ask you, almighty God:
be pleased in your faithful love to bless + this salt
you have created,
for it was you who commanded the prophet Elisha
to cast salt into water,
that impure water might be purified.
Grant, O Lord, we pray,
that, wherever this mixture of salt and water is sprinkled,
every attack of the enemy may be repulsed
and your Holy Spirit may be present
to keep us safe at all times.
Through Christ our Lord.
In this blessing of salt, we see a complete reversal of the trend in the three prayers for the water. It retains some of the imagery from the Old Rite, particularly the incident of Eliseus healing the waters at Jericho, and outright states an intention that “every attack of the enemy may be repulsed” where the mixture is sprinkled. This indicates a form and intent more consistent with the historical purposes of Holy Water, and the salt combined with the first water prayer may be the most effective combination of the lot.
After this, the water is sprinkled over the congregation and the people are sprinkled, thus bringing an end to this ritual.
The big takeaways are a major change in mood – where the Old Rite started with “I exorcize thee, creature of salt!” the New Rite starts with “Hi, guys, let’s bless this water!” – combined with the elimination of exorcisms over the elements and a rewriting of the blessings themselves. This invokes considerations to which we shall return later.
Blessing outside Mass. The blessing of water during Mass was published in 1969. The current blessing under consideration was published 15 years later in 1984 and composed by Study Group 23, who were tasked with rewriting the rites for the sacramentals. The text we will consider is from chapter 33 of De Benedictionibus, where it occupies sections 1085 to 1096 of the text. In its English translation, it can be found in chapter 41, sections 1388 to 1399 of the Book of Blessings published in 1989. As the English text can be found here, I have no need to reproduce the rite in its entirety.
Where the Roman Ritual’s blessings generally get right to the point, the Book of Blessings prefers to turn every blessing into a miniature church service, complete with biblical readings and greetings to the people. This is neither good nor bad for our purposes, but merely a difference of style.
The blessing begins with the Sign of the Cross followed by a greeting to the people, with the rubric the celebrant may use these or “other suitable words:”
May God, who through water and the Holy Spirit has given us a new birth in Christ, be with you all.
R. And with your spirit. (1989 reading: “And also with you.”)
The celebrant then explains the purpose of Holy Water. For our purposes, this speaks to the intention behind the blessing:
The blessing of this water reminds us of Christ, the living water, and of the sacrament of baptism, in which we were born of water and the Holy Spirit. Whenever, therefore, we are sprinkled with this holy water or use it in blessing ourselves on entering the church or at home, we thank God for his priceless gift to us and we ask for his help to keep us faithful to the sacrament we have received in faith.
At this point, a reader may read one out of a list of predetermined texts. The default text is John 7:37-39. If there is no one else to read, the celebrant does the reading.
Afterward the celebrant says the actual prayer of blessing. The celebrant has three options for which prayer to use, and I will reproduce all three of them here as they help us further determine the intended purposes for this water after the blessing has been conferred.
Option #1 is simple and tells us exactly what it wants God to do:
Blessed are you, Lord, all-powerful God,
who in Christ, the living water of salvation,
blessed and transformed us.
Grant that, when we are sprinkled with this water or make use of it,
we will be refreshed inwardly by the power of the Holy Spirit
and continue to walk in the new life we received at baptism.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
Option #2 is likewise simple and straightforward:
Lord, holy Father,
look kindly on your children,
redeemed by your Son
and born to a new life by water and the Holy Spirit.
Grant that those who are sprinkled with this water
may be renewed in body and spirit
and may make a pure offering of their service to you.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
Option #3 takes the form of a three-part responsorial, with each part addressing a Person of the Trinity:
O God, the creator of all things,
by water and the Holy Spirit
you have given the universe its beauty
and fashioned us in your own image.
R. Bless and purify your Church.
O Christ the Lord, from your pierced side
you gave us your sacraments
as fountains of salvation.
R. Bless and purify your Church.
O Holy Spirit, giver of life,
from the baptismal font of the Church
you have formed us into a new creation
in the waters of rebirth.
R. Bless and purify your Church.
After the prayer, the rite concludes with the celebrant saying, “Let this water call to mind our baptism into Christ, who has redeemed us by his death and resurrection,” and then sprinkling the people while the rubrics state “a suitable song is sung.”
Just as the blessings prayers were straightforward, so is our analysis of the ritual: It’s dead, Jim!
If the sacramentals are “imitations of the sacraments” in a Catholic sense, then this rite is an imitation of the sacraments in the sense of Zwingli: from its first statement of intention and all through its forms, the water is stated to be a “memorial” of our Baptism without actually being empowered to do anything! In fact, you may actually make this water holier if you just “boiled the hell out of it!”
In the event you think I’m exaggerating, you’ll be happy to learn I’m not alone in this assessment. A similar conclusion is reached by Daniel Van Slyke, toward the end of his article The Order for Blessing Water: Past and Present, in words more forceful than my own:
At this point numerous theological questions arise. For instance, at the completion of this Order, is the water used therein blessed? Does it differ from any other water? Can one answer “yes” to these questions when the Ordo itself provides no justification for an affirmative answer? Are the members of Christ’s faithful deceived who believe the water in their churches’ fonts is blessed? Will the farmer who sprinkles such water on his failing crops only benefit to the extent that it helps him recall his salvation? If a mother sprinkles it on her sick infant, does the infant who has not yet the use of reason – and so cannot “recall Christ” – benefit? For whom is the blessing intended – the mother or the infant? Indeed, if the purpose of blessing is primarily praise and thanksgiving, can anyone who is absent from the liturgical celebration of the Order participate in the blessing?
This is actually a common issue in the Book of Blessings, and has let to it being referred to as the Book of Well-Wishes among the clergy. When blessing an object, the book prefers to bless the people who will use the object rather than impart any properties to the object itself. If we return to our previous discussion of constitutive versus invocative blessings, this order cannot be said to bestow either kind of blessing upon the water in question. In fact the Book may be said to exist outside the “constitutive versus invocative” question entirely.
An Anglican Blessing for Holy Water
The Protestant Revolt is well-known for its rejection of the sacramentals, though in recent years many “Churches of the Reformation” have come to reappraise their old positions and form a new appreciation for what their ancestors had discarded. One example of this is Holy Water, which has seen a resurgence in some Anglican and Lutheran churches. There is no “standardized” ritual for Holy Water among these denominations, with clergy free to use the rite that most appeals to them.
(Based on my own experiences visiting them, I wonder if some in the congregation plays a secret game of “Spot the Catholic” based on which visitors immediately cross themselves from the font and genuflect in front of the altar from force of habit?)
The rites I’ve seen tend to be of varying quality, and the strongest one I’ve encountered comes from the 1972 “Exeter Report” on exorcism convened by the Anglican Bishop of Exeter. I reproduce the rite in full since there’s no link to it, and the reader will immediately notice its similarities with the Rituale Romanum:
Salt, in quantity enough to cover a twopenny piece, is placed on a piece of paper. Water, in suitable quantity in a bowl or jug, stands beside the salt. The salt is exorcized or blessed first and then the water. After this they are mixed by pouring the salt into the water, and the last prayer is said.
It is well, when a house or place is being dealt with, to carry out this blessing in the presence of those concerned so that they come to understand that Holy Water is not a “Christian Magic” but the symbol of the prayers that are offered to God as it is blessed.
EXORCISM OF THE SALT
I exorcize you, creature of salt, by the living God, so that you be fit for the healing of mind and body of all who use you. Wherever you are sprinkled may all evil and wicked thoughts depart, all works and deceits of the evil one be driven away, and all unclean spirits be cast out, by him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. Amen.
BLESSING OF THE SALT
Almighty and eternal God, graciously bless and make holy this creature of salt. May it give health of body and mind to them that use it. Let all touched or sprinkled with it be protected against all that is sinful and against all attacks of spiritual wickedness. Through Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord. Amen.
EXORCISM OF THE WATER
I exorcize you, creature of water, in the Name of God the Father Almighty, in the Name of Jesus Christ his Son our Lord, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, that you be fit to put to flight all the power of Satan and to root out and expel Satan himself and his fallen angels: through the power of the same Lord Jesus Christ who shall come to judge the living and the dead. Amen.
BLESSING OF THE WATER
Almighty God, Father Eternal, hear our prayers and bless and make holy this creature of water, that it may serve you for the casting out of devils and the driving away of sickness of mind and body. Grant that whatever is sprinkled with this water may be cleansed from all that is foul or harmful. Let no sickness abide there, and cause all the power of the unseen enemy, with his cunning and deceits, to go away.
Through this water dispel all that is contrary to the health and peace of your people, so that, protected by the invocation of your Holy Name, they may be secure against every adversary; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.
The Officiant then pours the salt into the water, saying:
May this mixing of salt and water be done in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
After this mixing, he shall say:
Almighty Father, look with mercy on this creature of salt and water and of your loving kindness sanctify it. Wherever it shall be sprinkled with the invocation of your holy Name may the attacks of evil spirits be repelled and the fear of evil be kept far away.
May the presence of the Holy Spirit be given to all who seek your mercy: through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the same Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
Not much commentary is needed here, though there seems to be a tension between the introduction’s description of Holy Water as a symbol of prayer and the rite’s stated intention of actually blessing the water for protection, healing, and purification. It’s linked to – and can be considered a simplified form of – the Roman Ritual.
I have no idea how many Anglican clergy use this blessing, or the blessing from the Roman Ritual, or the Book of Blessings, or formulae of their own design, or how many don’t use a blessing at all. The same goes for Lutheran and other churches that use Holy Water. (Though I suspect this will be more prominent amongst Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical-Catholic congregations, while the “low church” parishes might skip the sacramentals entirely.)
What I know is that if we assert the power to bless as coming from the baptismal priesthood, then they too have the spiritual power to bless Holy Water without the need to discuss or even care about the status of anyone’s Holy Orders.
[NOTE: Since I know the question’s going to come up and Anglicans get a lot of crap from Catholic “internet apologists” who forget we’re not living in 1896 anymore, I should probably tell you where I stand on Anglican ordinations. Around 2005 I investigated the factual issues raised by Apostolicae Curae (namely that the 1552 Ordinal was defective), and found the Leo XIII’s decision stands in regard to the Parker and Seabury lineages only. There have been developments since then which may very well render Apostolicae Curae irrelevant, at least for large swaths of the Anglican Communion (namely the Bonn Agreement of 1930 and an evolving “higher” view of the Sacrament of Order). Since Apostolicae Curae actually turned out to be a starting point for dialogue rather than an end to it, then it may be time to open the question anew.]
In any case though, just like with Catholics, it becomes necessary to ask your priest or pastor which rite they use to bless their Holy Water before assuming it’s a good idea to receive some from their font for use at home.
How Do I Use Holy Water?
Riddle me this, THAVMA readers: what’s the point of me writing 43 pages about Holy Water, if I don’t tell you anything about how to use it?
And yes, as I sit here writing this in Word, I am currently on Page 43. My former longest blog post, Mary Matriarch of Christian Magic, clocked in at 23, so we’ve gone on for almost twice as long now!
So let’s get back to this, before I change my mind about a blog post and turn this into a book!
Choice of Container
Generally, people acquire Holy Water in plastic bottles. I don’t recommend this not just because plastic is a synthetic material, but primarily because plastic tends to absorb odors and other nastiness, which can be passed on to any liquid that’s inside the container. You don’t want to risk mistreating a sacramental that way.
Crossing Oneself or Others
The most common way to use Holy Water is by crossing yourself with it. Catholics do this every time they enter a church (it’s force of habit, we can’t stop ourselves), and some do it as a way of blessing themselves before prayer.
When crossing oneself, you either dip your hand into the water or take a few drops from a bottle, and make the sign of the cross over yourself while saying whatever words. Typically the Invocation (“In nomine Patris”) is most commonly said, but the Doxological Cross or any other variation is also appropriate here as well. Silence is also acceptable, and most common when crossing oneself when entering a church or otherwise in public.
It’s also possible to make the sign of the cross over others for the same reason. When doing so, it’s easiest to make the “Little Sign of the Cross,” which is made with the thumb making a cross over the other person’s forehead (the other sign is called the “Great Sign of the Cross,” for reference). The choice of words or silence is as above, as appropriate to the occasion.
The next most common usage for Holy Water is sprinkling, also known as aspersion. This is commonly done over places and objects, either to cleanse them of adverse influences or “seal in” a blessing just spoken over them.
When sprinkling, one may use an aspergilium (dedicated Holy Water sprinkler), or a branch of hyssop (as mentioned in Psalm 50), or a bundle of basil branches (as in the Eastern Orthodox rite), or may just use their fingertips if that’s what they’ve got.
According to the Rituale Romanum, at the end of most blessings the operator sprinkles the blessed object “three times in the form of a cross, while saying nothing.” This leads to the rubric at the end of these blessings “And it is sprinkled with Holy Water,” by which the three-times-in-silence instruction is meant. The reason for this is partially to “seal” the blessing into the object, though this is not necessary, and partially as a symbol of “baptizing” the object into its new mode of service, which ties into the idea of Holy Water as a reminder of our own baptism (though unlike the modern rituals, in this case that reminder is also doing something useful).
Sprinkling is also used to drive things out, as popularized in The Exorcist and its countless imitators. The actual purpose behind this is explained in Rubric #16 of the pre-Vatican II Ritual of Exorcism:
If [the exorcist] notices that the person afflicted is experiencing a disturbance in some part of his body or an acute pain or a swelling appears in some part, he traces the sign of the cross over that place and sprinkles it with holy water, which he must have at hand for this purpose.
It’s something of an artistic license on the Hollywood’s part to portray exorcists as shouting “The power of Christ compels you!” while sprinkling Holy Water, though the phrase Imperat tibi postestas Christi does actually appear in the ritual.
What I’ve seen with sprinkling Holy Water amounts to an effect of “out with the bad, in with the good,” which may summarize this action succinctly.
The Asperges Me/Vidi Aquam
Before we leave the subject of sprinkling Holy Water, we should talk about one of the best rituals based around it. That ritual is known as the Asperges Me or Vidi Aquam, from the antiphon sung at its beginning.
The rite is very simple, and – again speaking only from what occultists call “UPG” – the effect is similar to the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram except that 1. it doesn’t attract entities the way the LRP can, and 2. it simultaneously banishes “bad” and invokes “good.”
Traditionally, this rite is conducted before High Mass on Sunday mornings. The priest stands before the altar and intones the first words of the antiphon: Asperges me …
The choir then chants the rest: … Domine, hyssopo et mundabor. Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor. (Ps. 50:3) Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam. Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto, sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen. Asperges me, etc.
The text is taken from Psalm 50, and here’s the English straight from the Douay-Rheims: (Ps. 50:9) Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed: thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow. (Ps. 50:3a) Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. (And then Psalm 50:9 is repeated.)
It should be noticed that the chant is sung to Mode 7, the Mixolydian Mode (in Orthodoxy this is Mode 4), which in medieval Catholicism and Orthodoxy is associated with the planet Saturn, increasing the Melancholic Humor, and the Element of Earth. This is the building up of barriers, and may help explain why this antiphon was used so much in the grimoires (not to mention the grimoire authors were fully familiar with the liturgical use, too!).
Yet for our immediate purposes, while Saturn may be representative of borders and confinement, it is only through the Sphere of Saturn that we can make our way to the Sphere of Fixed Stars, hence there’s a tension between setting boundaries against what is detrimental, and working through boundaries to open a doorway toward invoking what is beneficial.
While the choir is singing, the priest sprinkles the altar: first the center, then to his left, then to his right. He then sprinkles the people by walking down the central aisle of the church and sprinkling in the same center-left-right pattern.
From Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday inclusive, the Asperges is not sung as the Antiphon. Instead, the priest and choir sing the Vidi Aquam, which is something of a summary of Ezechiel 47:1-9: Vidi aquam egredientem de templo, a latere dextro, alleluia: Et omnes ad quos pervenit aqua ista, salvi facti sunt, Et dicent: alleluia, alleluia.
In English this translates: “I saw water flowing from the temple, from the right side, alleluia: And all to whom this water came, they were healed and shall say: alleluia, alleluia.” Then followed by Psalm 117:1: “Give praise to the Lord, for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever,” the Gloria Patri, and the Vidi Aquam antiphon is repeated.
As you’ll notice, the Vidi Aquam is in Mode 8, the Hypomixolydian (also Orthodox Mode 8), associated traditionally with the Sphere of Fixed Stars, the decrease of the Melancholic Humor, and also the element of Earth. Everything we said above about Saturn, boundaries, and transcendence is hinted here in the liturgy, by the switch in modes and texts during the most triumphant and transcendent season of the Church’s year.
[NOTE: Get a copy of the Graduale Romanum and look at the modes for the Introits of each Sunday. This is no hocus-pocus, merely an acknowledgment that these melodies were composed when the concept of Planets, Elements, and Humors and their symbolism were very much a part of the composers’ worldview, and this symbolism can sometimes give clues as to the “theme” of each Sunday.]
Once the sprinkling is finished, the priest returns to the altar, and after a set of versicles says the following prayer:
Hear us, holy Lord, Father almighty, eternal God: and vouchsafe to send forth thine holy Angel from heaven; to guard, cherish, protect, visit, and defend all who dwell in this habitation. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(My rough translation)
This finishes the ritual, the priest exchanges his cope for a chasuble, and the choir sings the Introit while the priest says the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar.
The ending prayer itself is actually the first part of a longer Ad Consparsum Faciendum prayer I’d mentioned earlier from the Gelasian Sacramentary, which was originally intended for the blessing of homes. I include it now for the sake of completeness:
Hear us, holy Lord, Father almighty, eternal God: and vouchsafe to send forth thine holy Angel from heaven; to guard, cherish, protect, visit, and defend all who dwell in this habitation of thy servant N., and grant, we beseech thee, that sanctification shall belong to the home of our entrance: may [the angel] give unto all who dwell within the bounty of divine [gifts] by way of blessed habit, unto the head of the household and to the family governorship and the keeping of obedience and unimpeachable discipline, unto the infants the grace of good talent, unto the adults increase without stain, unto the elders an age of serious conversation and unto all a long and pleasing old age; and so may she grant blessedness to this house and its holy protectors, so that the watchfulness of angelic protection may persevere to be joined over [this blessedness]. Through our Lord. Amen.
(Prayer 1558, My very loose translation as some case-endings didn’t add up)
Adaptation for Private Usage. If you wish to use the Asperges privately, such as in a room or private ritual area, it’s not very difficult to adapt. Just recite or chant the antiphon while sprinkling, in which case you can either do center-left-right or go around the room in an east-south-west-north fashion. The final prayer would be said when you return to your starting location.
Now it’s time we move on from sprinkling.
While not (openly) practiced among Westerners, the Eastern Churches have a long history of drinking Holy Water as part of their devotions. The rite mentions “those who may drink this water,” and according to OrthodoxWiki:
Orthodox Christians most often bless themselves with holy water by drinking it. It is traditional to keep a quantity of it at home, and many Orthodox Christians will drink a small amount daily with their morning prayers.
(Entry on Holy Water)
In the West, it’s common to hear people talk privately about drinking Holy Water when they’re sick, though there seems to be a taboo against talking about it where others can hear. I myself have drunk Holy Water when I was sick, and in Handbook of Exorcism and Deliverance I advise putting blessed salt on a person’s food or having them drink Holy Water as a way of testing whether someone’s possessed (page 101, and I advise a lot of caution for both medical and legal reasons).
Drinking Holy Water is neither good nor bad on its own, but is good or bad depending on what you intend by drinking it. In a good sense, it can be used as a form of “blessing oneself” and for help when sick or otherwise not functioning at 100%, but be careful in terms of the salt content and any health conditions you may have (or make sure to have a salt-free variety on hand).
I do not advise this, but include it here because it’s something people do.
In some variants of Benedicaria and other folk practices, a “Holy Water Bath” involves filling the bathtub with regular water, and then adding a few drops of Holy Water. The idea is for cleansing and purification, but forgets an important principle about mixing blessed liquids: if any blessed liquid (Holy Water, Baptismal Water, Blessed Oils, etc.) is mixed with a non-blessed or different-blessed liquid, it loses its blessing if the Blessed Liquid makes up less than 51% of the resulting mixture.
This principle is not explicitly spelled out, but can be gleaned from certain rubrics in the Ritual. For example, general rubric #6 for the rite of Baptism tells us:
If the baptismal water is so diminished that it is foreseen it will not suffice, unblessed water may be added even repeatedly, but in lesser quantity than the blessed each time this is done.
(Weller 1948 translation, page 21)
The same is said again in rubric #7, when addressing water that’s been frozen or needs warming up so as not to harm an infant. We also see this principle in the rubrics for Confirmation:
So soon as the consecrated oil has diminished to a small quantity, non-consecrated olive oil should be added to it, but in a lesser amount than the consecrated each time this happens.
(Ibid, page 213. This is also a direct quote from Canon 734:2 of the 1917 Code)
We find it again in rubric #3 for the Rite of Extreme Unction:
If the consecrated oil does not suffice, then other non-consecrated olive oil is added, but in lesser quantity than the consecrated each time this happens.
(Ibid, page 331)
Now the 51% figure is arbitrary on my part, because 51/49 is a generally agreed-upon limit for “greater than/less than.” But as we can see here, the Law of Contagion applies up to a point and the blessing can transfer onto a non-blessed substance of the same type, but there’s also a Law of Common Sense that says such a transfer best happens incrementally over time, meaning a few drops of Holy Water aren’t going to bless the entire Atlantic Ocean or even the water in your bathtub!
If you feel better after taking a bath with a few drops of Holy Water, I can guarantee that it’s not the Holy Water doing it. Most likely it’s either psychological, or God’s looking upon your faith and blessing you because you’ve tacitly asked him to.
Fonts in the Home
In some Catholic households, one will find a Holy Water font next to the front door where people can cross themselves as they enter and leave the house.
This is an excellent idea, and can help get the emotional and spiritual “crud” off you when you walk through the door. However, make sure not to put too much water in the fonts at a time because it tends to evaporate quickly. (Or at least it did when I had fonts at the entrance to my old chapel in Columbus!)
Evaporation may be an issue of climate or air quality, so that’s something to look into in terms of your local area. The best way to avoid it is to find (or make) a font over which you can fit a lid of some kind, which will not only prevent evaporation but will help protect your font (and your water) from dust, pet hairs, and air-bound particles too.
These are your primary ways of using Holy Water, and almost everything else will fit into one or more of these categories.
Desecration: Can Holy Water Lose Its Blessing?
I’m never heard anybody ask this question, but they really should. Why? Because yes, Holy Water can lose its blessing, and so can any other blessed object.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, desecration is described as:
… the loss of that peculiar quality of sacredness, which inheres in places and things in virtue of the constitutive blessing of the Church. When material objects are destined for purposes of Divine worship they are set aside with a view to this end by the solemn form of consecration or by the simpler formula of a blessing, so that they assume a sacred and inviolable character which renders unlawful their employment for profane uses. Now when they lose this stamp or character of sacredness they are said to become desecrated.
If you remember our discussion about constitutive blessings being considered “permanent,” than I hope a light bulb moment just happened in your head. Because even though a consecrated object is intended to have a permanent character, it’s still very much possible for that character to be lost either by deforming the object or by committing it to profane use.
According to the dictionary over at Catholic Culture:
Sacred objects are desecrated by sacrilege whenever something sacred is used for an unworthy purpose. This includes the Mass and the sacraments, along with sacramentals; sacred vessels and church furnishings; and ecclesiastical property. Desecration in each of these areas includes the deliberate invalid reception of the sacraments, simulation of Mass, grave irreverence to the Eucharist; gravely profane use of sacred vessels or vestments; and the unlawful seizure of sacred things or ecclesiastical property.
(Entry on “Sacrilege”)
Since we live in the year 2020 with all the weirdness that entails, we’ve no need to look far to find an example of desecration on a large scale. Barely over a month ago, for example, a priest in Louisiana was caught in a sex act with two professional dominatrices atop the altar at his own church. I post this not for thrills, but because this is probably the most literal publicly-known example of obvious desecration in recent years (my own opinion of that incident is some serious “WTF?”).
Acts of desecration needn’t be that blatant or over-the-top, however. A chalice becomes desecrated if a rock falls on it by accident and the metal can’t be reshaped into a chalice (if it can, it still needs to be re-consecrated), and most things become desecrated by being put to “profane use” (a use other than what was intended by the consecration).
Now if, as we discussed earlier, there is the possibility of Holy Water taking on a constitutive blessing, then it too is a consecrated object and can therefore be desecrated.
Holy Water can lose its blessing if, for example, you boil it to cook maccheroni to go with your Sunday gravy. It can lose its blessing if you add it to a larger quantity of unblessed or differently-blessed liquid (remember the bathwater example?).
It can lose its blessing if poured down the plumbing which leads to the sewer lines (if disposing, it’s best to pour it onto the earth), or if used in other ways I prefer not to write about here.
The lesson here is that of a saying I learned long ago: “To keep it sacred, treat it sacred.” Maintenance is a part of everything from cars to relationships to spirituality, and there is no harm in erring on the side of caution when a potential usage for your Holy Water brings questions or doubt.
I have just reached page 50. I originally intended this blog post as a simple comparison of rituals and questions to ask when acquiring Holy Water from this or that church. However, I’ve got this OCD-level sense of thoroughness that forces me to hammer down every angle the comes to my attention, and behold this monograph-sized blog post is the result!
My final thoughts? My final thought is that by reading this, you’ve just received a master’s degree in Holy Water. Or maybe you should receive one.
But in the meantime, you’ve just read more about the subject of Holy Water than I’ve ever seen in one place before, even in any seminary textbooks I’ve encountered. My hope is that this information is not only useful, but the general information on sacramentals helps you in your practice going forward.
Pax et Bonum!