It is likely that when you enter a Catholic Church, the first thing you do is bless yourself with Holy Water, making the Sign of the Cross. And yet, although this is something we do frequently, it may be that we sometimes do it routinely, perhaps without much real thought into what we are doing, or why.
Holy Water is a ‘sacramental’ of the Catholic Church. The Catechism tells us that “Sacramentals are sacred signs instituted by the Church. They prepare men to receive the fruit of the sacraments and sanctify different circumstances of life” (Catechism, para.1677). And so they are not Sacraments and they do not confer grace – but they do ready us to receive grace, if we are properly disposed. The Catechism explains that “these are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy” (Catechism, para.1667).
Water is first mentioned in the Bible at the start of Genesis, when we are told that the Spirit moved over the waters before the land was formed. The spiritual use of water dates back to the earliest days of the Jewish community, who used it for ritual cleansing and for the blessing of people and places. Holy Water is an ancient sacramental within the Church; and water was used from the first days for Baptism, those waters being sanctified by the Baptism of the Lord Himself.
Holy Water is ‘holy’ because it has been specially blessed by a Priest, who adds to it blessed salt. The first specific mention of this seems to be in the Apostolic Constitutions of Pope Alexander, sometime around 130AD, when he wrote – ‘we bless salt and water for the people, that all who may be sprinkled therewith may be cleansed and sanctified’.
In the Liturgy of the Church, we use Holy Water most notably at Baptism – it is the symbol of cleansing, the forgiveness of sins, and of new life in the Lord. It is also used at various other times and an explicit use of sacred water is the Easter Water of the Vigil on the night of Holy Saturday, into which the newly-lit Paschal Candle is plunged.
The Catechism tells us that the pious use of sacramentals should “extend the liturgical life of the Church but do not replace it” – in other words, they are a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. Assuming their proper use, the Church encourages their use, as they ready us to receive grace and sanctify the various moments of life.
Not so long ago, many Catholic homes had a small Holy Water font near the front door and it was customary for the occupants to bless themselves on leaving home or on returning there in the evening. This seems to be a less common practice now, sadly.
A number of the Saints advocated the pious use of Holy Water – amongst them, the great Doctor of the Church, Saint Teresa of Avila. She was very clear that the use of Holy Water repels the evil one – and of course, this particular sacramental is explicitly used as part of the ritual of exorcism. She said that “I have myself felt an extraordinary consolation when I have used Holy Water. It is certain that I have felt a great joy and inner peace which I cannot describe”.
There is a beautiful story of Saint Bernadette Soubirous and the appearances of the Blessed Virgin at Lourdes, and what occurred at the second appearance, on 14th February 1858 –
‘Bernadette armed herself with a small phial of Holy Water and left for the Grotto. As soon as she arrived at the grotto, she fell to her knees opposite the niche, and began to pray. Almost immediately, she exclaimed – “There She is! There She is!”.
One of the girls present told Bernadette to throw Holy Water on the Lady, in case it really was Satan. Bernadette did as requested. “She is not angry”, she related, “On the contrary, She sanctions it with Her head and is smiling at all of us”. The girls knelt around their little companion and began to pray.’
We use Holy Water for three principal reasons – as a sign of our sorrow for our sins (remember the Asperges at some Masses, when we are sprinkled by the Priest with Holy Water); to ask protection from evil (reflecting the words of the Priest in the ritual used to bless the water); and to recall to us our Baptism, when Holy Water was poured over us.
These three reasons are sufficient to encourage us to make proper use of this beautiful sacramental of the Church. Indeed, the Church provides Holy Water specifically for our use, so when next you go to Church, why not take a small bottle or flask and bring some Holy Water home with you, and get into the habit of blessing yourself with it each day.