Monday, September 07, 2020

The Sunday Asperges: Holy Water in a Time of Drought

“…My flesh faints for thee, as in a dry and weary land where no water is…”

It is not difficult to understand why it has been thought best to remove holy water from the stoups in our churches. Having lots of people dip their fingers into a common bowl at a time when germs are a bigger problem than usual is not a great idea. The same line of reasoning should also have led to a suspension of giving Communion from hand to hand, but logical consistency has never been a strength of the postconciliar Church. I cannot refrain from adding that those who maintain that if we just have “enough faith” (however this is to be measured), no amount of germs can ever get us sick, need a crash course on the concept of superstition in St. Thomas. Our baptism equipped us with marvelous supernatural powers, not Marvel superpowers.

All the same, the flip side is true: holy water has been and should be such an important sacramental in Catholic life that its removal ought to strike us as extremely regrettable, and steps should be taken to remedy its absence from churches. I’ve seen almost no indications that this is a feeling shared by most pastors and people, and I’m afraid that the explanation is obvious: holy water just ain’t what it used to be. Or to put it more simply, the only way you can get holy water is to use the old rite of blessing it, which really blesses it; the new rite doesn’t, as we learned at the last Sacred Liturgy Conference in a challenging talk given by Archbishop Cordileone, contrasting the old and new rites for the blessing of water (text; video). Fr. Zuhlsdorf presents the two rites side by side, where the difference becomes painfully, even scandalously, evident. (Here's a more recent article that does the same.)

Excerpts from the old prayer of exorcising and blessing holy water:
O water, creature of God, I exorcise you in the name of God the Father + Almighty, and in the name of Jesus + Christ His Son, our Lord, and in the power of the Holy + Spirit. I exorcise you so that you may put to flight all the power of the enemy, and be able to root out and supplant that enemy with his apostate angels, through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will come to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire…. May this, your creature, become an agent of divine grace in the service of your mysteries, to drive away evil spirits and dispel sickness… May the wiles of the lurking enemy prove of no avail. Let whatever might menace the safety and peace of those who live here be put to flight by the sprinkling of this water, so that the health obtained by calling upon your holy name, may be made secure against all attack…. Humbly and fearfully do we pray to you, O Lord, and we ask you to look with favor on this salt and water which you created. Shine on it with the light of your kindness. Sanctify it by the dew of your love, so that, through the invocation of your holy name, wherever this water and salt is sprinkled, it may turn aside every attack of the unclean spirit, and dispel the terrors of the poisonous serpent.
Now that’s how the Catholic Church used to pray — and still does, where the Faith survives.

The new rite reads like this:
Blessed are you, Lord, all-powerful God, who in Christ, the living water of salvation, blessed and transformed us. Grant that, when we are sprinkled with this water or make use of it, we will be refreshed inwardly by the power of the Holy Spirit… (etc.)
But nowhere an actual blessing of the water. Consequently, most Catholic churches for the past fifty years have had the equivalent of birdbaths, which has not allowed the demon-dispelling and passion-quelling power of this potent sacramental to impress itself on us. The replacement of this water with sand during Lent or with nothing at the present moment is not likely to cause a furor.

Have a squirt!
However, there is still a deep association for many between going to church and taking holy water. We want to do something when we enter a church to show that we are preparing ourselves for our purpose there. The water does remind us of our baptism and, if it is actually blessed water, it is an occasion of grace and the remission of venial sins, as St. Thomas argues. It seems most fitting that we make the sign of the Cross with water that is reminiscent of the water flowing, with blood, from the side of Christ. If our spirits are troubled from within or vexed from without, real holy water puts demons to flight, as St Teresa of Jesus says in her Autobiography: “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.” The language of the old prayer cited above perfectly explains why it has such power.

There are, then, multiple causes of regret. First, that the blessing of holy water was effectively abandoned. Second, that holy water is so readily and unobjectionably removed from churches. Third, that the habit of using holy water has diminished among Catholics to such an extent that most would not think of keeping a bottle of it on hand at home to sprinkle regularly in the home and on one another. Fourth, that the glorious ceremony of the Asperges, a regular feature before Sunday High Mass in the usus antiquior, has become a rarely-used and much-altered feature of the Novus Ordo Missae (bizarrely enough supplanting its penitential rite, because, after all, one can never pray too little for mercy).

Now is a good time to reverse all this.
  • Ghostly fathers, use the real rite of blessing of holy water from the Rituale Romanum. Fr. Jerabek has conveniently formatted it on a single sheet of paper. You are allowed to do so by Summorum Pontificum; indeed, you are allowed to do so because what was sacred in ages past is and remains sacred and great for us and can never be considered harmful or be prohibited. 
  • Put the Book of Blessings in a safe place, where no one will ever find it again.
  • Use the Asperges with the High Mass whenever you can, and give the people a good dousing, with the follow-through of a tennis arm.
  • Teach about the value of holy water and make small containers of it available at the back of the church for free.
  • Fathers of families, get hold of real holy water and sprinkle it before bedtime, perhaps right after the evening rosary, on your wife and children. Or before the rosary, if it looks like some are too sleepy!
The faster we got rid of our distinctively Catholic items and practices during Covidtide, the more obvious it is that we no longer believe in their efficacy (this holds as much for sacraments as for sacramentals); the sooner we take them up again, or find ways to keep using them, the more evident it is that we are profiting from the trials willed by Divine Providence.

“...until the Eschaton, Parousia, or whatever the government decides.”
This, at least, is better: the faithful are offered alternative access

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