IT is interesting to note how often our Church has availed herself of practices which were in common use [in ancient pre-christian times], and which owed their origin to their appropriateness for expressing something spiritual by material means. The Church and her clergy are "all things to all men, that they may gain all for Christ," and she has often found that it was well to take what was praiseworthy in other forms of worship and adapt it to her own purposes, for the sanctification of her children.... [S]ome Catholic rites and ceremonies [use] symbolical practices which express the religious instinct that is common to all races and times.
Holy water, as our catechisms taught us, is "water blessed by the priest with solemn prayer, to beg God's blessing on those who use it, and protection from the powers of darkness." *
Water is the natural element for cleansing, and hence its use was common in almost every ancient faith, to denote interior purification. Among the Greeks and Romans the sprinkling of water, or "lustration," was an important feature of religious ceremonies. Cities were purified by its use, in solemn processions. Fields were prepared for planting by being blessed with water. Armies setting out for war were put under the protection of the gods by being sprinkled in a similar manner. Among the Egyptians the use of holy water was even more common, the priests being required to bathe in it twice every day and twice every night, that they might thereby be sanctified for their religious duties. The Brahmins and others of the far Orient, and even the Indians of our own continent, have always attached great importance to ceremonial purification by means of water.
Among the Jews the sprinkling of the people, the sacrifices, the sacred vessels, etc., was enjoined by the regulations laid down by Moses in the books of Exodus and Leviticus; and it was undoubtedly from these practices of the Mosaic law that our Church took many of the details of her ritual in regard to holy water.
The use of holy water in Catholic Churches goes back possibly to Apostolic times. There is a tradition that St. Matthew recommended it in order thereby to attract converts from Judaism by using a rite with which they were familiar in their former faith. However, we have no certainty that he introduced it, but we know that it can be traced back nearly to the beginning of our religion. It is mentioned in a letter ascribed by some to Pope Alexander I, and supposed to have been written in the year 117; but the genuineness of this letter is very doubtful. We find a detailed account of its use, however, in the "Pontifical of Serapion," in the fourth century, and the formula of blessing mentioned therein has considerable resemblance to that used at the present day.
The blessing of water [at] Mass on Sunday and the sprinkling of the congregation with it, which ceremony is called the "Asperges," goes back to the time of Pope Leo IV, in the ninth century, and possibly even further. The word Asperges is the opening word of a verse of Psalm 50, which is recited ... as follows: "Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, O Lord, and I shall be cleansed; Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow." [See Ps. 50:9 in the Douay Rheims version, or Ps 51 in the NAB or other modern versions, and footnote 3 in the NAB.]
The custom of placing holy water at the door of the church for the use of the faithful is still more ancient. Among the Jews a ceremony of purification was required before entering the Temple to assist at the sacrifices, and this undoubtedly suggested the Catholic practice of using holy water at the church door. It is said to have been in vogue in the second century, and we know that it is at least of very ancient date.
In the Middle Ages it was customary to use holy water when entering the church, but not when leaving it -- the idea being that purification was necessary before entering the house of God, but that after assisting at the Holy Sacrifice it was no longer needed. However, the general practice now is to take it both on entering and departing...
Often a priest is asked: "Is Easter water the same as the other holy water?" The answer is that it has the same uses, but is blessed in a different manner... The first kind is baptismal water, which is blessed on Holy Saturday, and may also be blessed [before any baptism by a priest or deacon]. This water receives a special and solemn blessing... It is used... for the administration of the sacrament of Baptism. ... However, the Sacrament is valid if merely ordinary water is used, and in "private Baptism" the latter is lawful as well as valid.
The most common kind is the holy water which is blessed by the priest for the sprinkling of the people before Mass, and is placed at the doors of the church. This also may be taken home and used for the blessing of persons and things.
Thus the only varieties of holy water that directly concern the faithful are the water blessed on Holy Saturday for them, and that obtainable at any time at the church. They have the same value and the same uses, although the formula of blessing is different.
[This is the contemporary blessing used on Holy Saturday for baptismal water. Click here for the pre-Vatican II form of the blessing.]
"Father, you give us grace through sacramental signs, which tell us of the wonders of your unseen power. In baptism we use your gift of water, which you have made a rich symbol of the grace you give us in this sacrament. At the very dawn of creation your Spirit breathed on the waters, making them the wellspring of all holiness. The waters of the great flood you made a sign of the waters of baptism that make an end of sin and a new beginning of goodness. Through the waters of the Red Sea you led Israel out of slavery to be an image of God's holy people, set free from sin by baptism. In the waters of the Jordan your Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Spirit. Your Son willed that water and blood should flow from his side as he hung upon the cross. After his resurrection he told his disciples: "Go out and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Father, look now with love upon your Church and unseal for it the fountain of baptism.
By the power of the Holy Spirit give to this water the grace of your Son, so that in the sacrament of baptism all those whom you have created in your likeness may be cleansed from sin and rise to a new birth of innocence by water and the Holy Spirit.
We ask you, Father, with your Son to send the Holy Spirit upon the waters of this font. May all who are buried with Christ in the death of baptism rise also with him to newness of life.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen." (From the English translation of the Rite of Holy Week © 1972, ICEL. All Rights Reserved. The blessing is reprinted here for educational purposes only.)
(The use of salt is optional in today's liturgy and blessing.)
Why does the Church use salt in holy water? Because it was a Jewish custom, and because of the symbolical meaning of salt. Just as water is used for cleansing and for quenching fire, so salt is used to preserve from decay. Therefore the Church combines them in this sacramental, to express the various reasons why it is used -- to help to wash away the stains of sin, to quench the fire of our passions, to preserve us from relapses into sin. Moreover, salt is regarded as a symbol of wisdom. Our Lord called His Apostles "the salt of the earth," because by them the knowledge of the Gospel was to be spread over the world. The custom of using salt is a very ancient one, and is traced by some to the second or third century. [The exorcism of salt and its blessing can be viewed at the pre-Vatican II blessing of Holy Water.]
Holy Water is used in the blessing of nearly everything which the Church wishes to sanctify. The [pre-Vatican II] Ritual contains hundreds of distinct benedictions [blessings] in which it is used. Besides the pouring of baptismal water which forms the "matter" of the Sacrament of Baptism, the sprinkling with holy water [may be] a part of the ceremonies of the... [sacrament of the sick] and of the administration of the Holy Eucharist to the sick; and it is employed also in services for the dead. [See Viaticum.]
The Asperges, or sprinkling of the congregation on Sunday, has a mystical meaning of its own. It renews every Sunday the memory of Baptism, by which we have been sanctified and purified from sin; and it is intended also to drive away all distractions which might hinder us from the proper hearing of Mass. It is well to remember that the holy water need not actually touch every person in the congregation. The whole assembled body of the faithful is blessed together, and all receive the benefit of the blessing, even though the holy water may not reach each individual. See sprinklng holy water as a sacramental.]
Holy water should be used frequently. [It is still the catholic custom to make the sign of the cross with holy water when we enter the church. Click here for information on the background to the sign of the cross.]
Stand at the door of any church and watch the people who enter. Do many of them gain the indulgence? They dip their fingers into the water, make a mysterious motion in the air, and pass along. There is no recollection,... no recognizable sign of the cross -- merely an action performed through habit and in a very slovenly manner.
[It would seem beneficial if people would slowly make the sign of the cross and thoughtfully say the words so that their entrance into the church is in God's name and what they do in the church will be under the Trinity's authority and done with God's help. ]
The detail of Christ's Baptism is by Piero della Francesca,1442, Tempera on panel. It is at Mark Harden's Artchive, where you can see the full image. It is presented here for religious and educational purposes only.
A. Holy water is water blessed by the priest with solemn prayer to beg God's blessing on those who use it, and protection from the powers of darkness.
Q. 1072. How does the water blessed on Holy Saturday, or Easter Water, as it is called, differ from the holy water blessed at other times?
A. The water blessed on Holy Saturday, or Easter Water, as it is called, differs from the holy water blessed at other times in this, that the Easter water is blessed with greater solemnity, the paschal candle, which represents Our Lord risen from the dead, having been dipped into it with a special prayer. [See ccc 1217ff.]
Q. 1073. Is water ever blessed in honor of certain saints?
A. Water is sometimes blessed in honor of certain saints and for special purposes. The form of prayer to be used in such blessings is found in the Roman Ritual -- the book containing prayers and ceremonies for the administration of the Sacraments and of blessings authorized by the Church." Baltimore Catechism 3