Most Catholics do it without a conscious thought: step inside the church, dip the fingers lightly in the available holy water font and make the Sign of the Cross. It’s a habit as automatic as shaking hands or salting French fries.
The gesture, of course, speaks volumes: the life of faith, commitment and devotion captured in simple movement. Pair it with the water and it becomes one of the most powerful declarations in all of Christianity.
So what is it about that water?
Throughout the history of Christianity, holy water has been one of the most potent, visible and easily accessible symbols of the faith. As a sign of cleanliness and purification, water has been used in many ancient and modern religious traditions in ways that find imitation in the modern Church. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians used it for cleansing rituals, as did the Brahmins of India and Native Americans. The laws of Moses enumerated in the Old Testament contain several references.
For Catholics, holy water—water blessed by a priest—is known as a “sacramental,” a sacred sign that bears a resemblance to the sacraments. “Unlike a sacrament, a sacramental does not itself confer the grace of the Holy Spirit,” writes Father William P. Saunders, the President of the Notre Dame Institute. “Nevertheless, like a sacrament, a sacramental helps the faithful to sanctify each moment of life and to live in the paschal mystery of our Lord.”
For the modern Catholic, holy water is heavily freighted with meaning and exists as a symbolic reminder of three things:
- Repentance of sin. The ritual washing background of holy water comes into play here, says, Father William, who quotes Psalm 50, which reads in part, “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me.” St. John the Baptist underscored this sentiment in calling people of his time to conversion. This is occasionally recalled during the course of the Mass, he adds, when the priest sprinkles the congregation with holy water.
- Protection from evil. Catholic tradition has long held that holy water is a substantial force for keeping evil at bay. A proponent who wrote specifically about this in 1562 is Saint Teresa of Avila: “From long experience I have learned that there is nothing like holy water to put devils to flight and prevent them from coming back again. They also flee from the Cross, but return; so holy water must have great virtue.”
- Baptism. “In making the Sign of the Cross with the holy water, we are mindful that we are called to renew those baptismal promises of rejecting Satan, all his works, and all his empty promises, and to profess our creedal faith,” writes Father William. “Once again, we repent of sin, so that we can offer our prayers and worship to God with pure and contrite hearts.”
The reminder of baptism is almost ubiquitous when holy water is used in Catholic ritual, says Father Gerald Horan, OSM.
“The notion of blessed water as a physical reminder of baptism goes back quite a ways in the Church,” says Father Gerald, the Episcopal Vicar for Faith Formation for the Diocese of Orange. “We use it in many ways within the celebration of the sacraments. In funerals, we sprinkle the body with water at the beginning of a funeral ceremony, and we bless the rings of marriage with holy water during the wedding ceremony. In all of those it’s meant to be a reminder of the baptismal sacrament.
“It was a very ancient monastic custom that every night before the monks went to bed after the Salve Regina that the abbot or prior of the monastery would bless the monks with holy water. There are a lot of blessing ceremonies in which holy water might be used: the blessing of ground for a new church, the dedication of a new building. Holy water connects all these things to the memory and mystery of our involvement in the life of the Church.”
The modern practice of keeping holy water in the home—often in a designated font near the front door or in vials throughout the house—“harkens back to that old monastic custom,” says Father Gerald, particularly when parents use holy water to bless their children before leaving for school in the morning or, particularly, at bedtime.
The use of holy water is believed to date to the first century, writes Father David O’Connor, the pastor and founder of the St. Mary Basilica Archives in Natchez, Miss., and some accounts relate its early use to Saint Matthew.
Water in general was “a practical necessity of daily life in the ancient world,” says Father Gerald, and “there was a kind of overlap between physical washing and spiritual washing. It was such a basic element.”
Then there is the famous water of Lourdes. According to the story of Saint Bernadette Soubirous, to whom a vision of the Blessed Virgin is said to have appeared at the grotto of Lourdes in 1858, Mary asked her to “Go drink at the spring and wash yourself there.” For more than a century and a half, pilgrims have come to the small town of Lourdes in southern France to bathe in the water at the grotto or drink it in hopes of a miraculous cure for a variety of ailments.
“The water of Lourdes is not to be confused with holy water,” according to the website dedicated to the shrine. “It’s normal water, slightly calcareous, comparable to any other water from similar springs.
“The water of Lourdes has become popular because of the miracles. [A total of] 50 official miracles are apparently linked to the use of this water… In the Catholic faith, God heals through the natural elements and the sacraments, with the help of the Virgin Mary and the prayer of the Christians. Consequently the water is a sign and not a fetish. Bernadette Soubirous has said: ‘This water is considered as a drug…but you have to keep the faith and pray. This water couldn’t do anything without faith.’”
Bishop Kevin Vann recently visited Lourdes with a group of Knights and Dames of Malta from the Diocese of Orange and, he says, “we blessed with holy water the hands of the caregivers of the sick who accompanied us in one of our first liturgical celebrations. This was followed by the communal celebration of the Sacrament of the Sick.
“The powerful symbol of water is ever-present in Lourdes. The visits to this spring over the years are always accompanied by the faith and prayers of millions. The visit to the baths are always accompanied by prayer and a ritual that mirrors the liturgical rite of the Sacrament of Baptism and rites of Penance.
“The use of Lourdes water here, and the taking of it home, is not a superstition, but a clear reminder that the prayer of those on pilgrimage to Lourdes, seeking the intercession of the Mother of God for interior and physical healing, extends to all whom we love and pray for.”