LITURGY MATTERS: Cleanliness mistaken for Godliness?

By Michael McKenna

Sprinkled, poured on, or immersed in; water plays an almost central role in the Christian Faith. For most Catholics, entering God’s house is traditionally marked by dipping the fingers of the right hand lightly in the available holy water font before making the Sign of the Cross.

St John Chrysostom (Hom. LXXI on St John) prompts us that when we bless ourselves with holy water, apart from recalling our Baptismal covenant, we purify our minds and hearts as we are refreshed inwardly by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Rich in history, purpose and meaning, the ritual action can be found in the book of Exodus (Ex 30:18-20) where God commands that those engaging in the spiritual functions of worship should wash with water first to be purified.

The practice was adopted by the early Church and has evolved over time. In the sixteenth century the Archbishop of Milan, St Charles Borromeo, issued norms governing the design of holy water fountains, directing they be placed immediately inside Churches and, “insofar as possible, to the right of those who enter.”

Sadly, with the onset of COVID, our holy water fonts have mostly stood empty for near on two years. Most recently, necessity and entrepreneurship have collaborated on a somewhat dubious evolution to what hand sanitiser station vendors have promoted as an “Automatic and Touch Free Holy Water” station.

Setting aside the issue of additional clutter in church entryways, and the almost delicious confusion as the faithful bless themselves with sanitiser and sanitise themselves with the new sacramental mist, the idea of a holy water “atomiser” delivering a measure of “touch free water” seems somewhat detached, even incongruous, with the custom and tradition it seeks to oblige.  

Interestingly, in the 9th century Pope Leo IV instructed priests to observe the established custom of blessing and sprinkling the people with holy water each Sunday before Mass. Called the “Asperges”, from the opening word of a verse of Psalm 50 (51) used in the rite’s Latin antiphon, today the now optional rite in the Roman Missal may be inserted in place of the Penitential Act on any Sunday, and especially during Easter.

While parishes generally might not use the rite for blessing and sprinkling of water, in the current context it provides a rich liturgical response to the COVID imposed estrangement from a sacramental so central to the Faith as holy water. To overlook it could result in a ‘mist’ opportunity!

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