From ancient times, water has always played an important symbolic role in biblical faith
Holy water is one of many sacramentals — aids to devotion — which include objects such as holy water, scapulars, statues, medals and rosaries. Sacramentals are also actions such as blessings, exorcisms and the sign of the cross.
While sacraments objectively confer grace, the value of a sacramental depends on the disposition and openness of the believer to receive grace from God. Sacramentals can be established or abolished by the pastoral judgment of the Church. The sacraments, on the other hand, were instituted by Christ and cannot be added to or taken from.
Now let’s dive into holy water in particular. Water has always played an important symbolic role in biblical faith. Ancient Israel used to purify people and places by sprinkling them with water (see Lev 14:49-52; Num 19:18). Israelite priests ritually washed their hands before and after offering sacrifice. The temple in Jerusalem had fonts for worshippers to cleanse themselves.
Today, Catholic priests wash their hands at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In the sacrament of Baptism, a sacramental (holy water) becomes the material substance used by God to effect the remission of sins.
Plain water becomes holy water through the blessing of a priest. For instance, water is blessed at the Easter Vigil for the baptism of those being received into the Church that night. This holy water used to be retained for the entire liturgical year. For hygienic (as well as theological) reasons, we now use fresh water for baptisms outside of the Easter season.
After being blessed, the holy water is placed in a receptacle accessible to worshippers. Some churches now have large baptismal fonts that sit in the vestibule. Worshippers can dip their fingers into the font and then make the sign of the cross as a preparation to enter the sacred mysteries.
With this sacramental we’re reminded of our baptism and union with Christ in his death and resurrection, and we pray to be cleansed and forgiven of any venial sins that have stained us on our journey through the world.
Al Kresta is CEO of Ave Maria Communications and host of Kresta in the Afternoon. This column is taken from his book “Why Do Catholics Genuflect?” © 2001. Used with permission of St. Anthony Messenger Press. To order copies, call 1-800-488-0488 or visit servantbooks.org