The question naturally presents itself: whence come the effects of holy water? For the effects of holy water we are indebted principally to our divine Savior. He merited for us the graces we obtain through its usage by His bitter Passion and death. Holy Church, however, who is the custodian of these precious and infinite treasures of grace merited by our Lord, has, in view of these merits, attached these effects to holy water. The power for doing this she has from Christ Himself; hence we owe the effects of holy water primarily to Christ, and secondarily to the will and the prayers of the Church.
Concerning the effects, it is to be noted that, by holy water, sanctifying grace is not conferred, but actual grace is obtained, such grace, for instance, through which the intellect is enlightened and the will is moved to avoid evil and to do good. Corporal benefits also are obtained by holy water.
But if we wish to obtain great effects from the use of Holy Water, must we be correspondingly well prepared. To be thus prepared, we must above all be in the state of grace and have firm faith in and submission to Christ and His Holy Church. By this it must not be understood that to one even thus disposed, all the effects attached to the use of holy water will be granted, but we know that graces will be accorded to whoever takes holy water in the proper disposition. How many graces or favors one obtains cannot be determined.
Nor will one invariably obtain the good or the grace that he seeks to obtain through holy water however well he may be prepared.
For instance, holy water may be taken to relieve the subject from sickness. He takes it with firm faith and great confidence. Will he be cured without fail? No. On the contrary, however, he will invariably obtain some other grace that is equally as important to him, or more so.
But why does holy water not infallibly bring the desired effect, even though used with a proper disposition?
The Catechism teaches that the sacramentals, consequently holy water, operate principally by means of the Church’s intercession (CCC 1667). The Church is the bride of the Divine Savior, and hence her prayers are always pleasing to God. When the Church prays, the divine bridegroom prays with her, and for this reason her prayer is powerful with God.
Thus it may happen that a lukewarm Christian may derive great benefit from the use of holy water. The reason for this is that God looks not on the unworthiness of mankind but rather on the prayer of the Church, so pleasing to Him. Especially, though, will the loyal children of the Church, who seek to coordinate their ideas to those of the divine Savior and of the Church, participate in the blissful effects of holy water.
Thus far, the effects of holy water have been considered in a general way; they shall now be treated of in detail.
These are, as previously stated, of a twofold nature: the effects of grace for the body and the effects of grace for the soul. Words used in the first prayer that the Church pronounces in blessing the salt are “that thou be to all who take thee salvation of soul and body,” and in the second prayer, “let it be to all who take it, health of mind and body.” Inasmuch as harmful influences, and sometimes sickness, originate largely with the devil, the prayer of the Church in the blessing of the water directs herself principally against the evil spirit, and consequently holy water is in an especial manner a means of protection against this evil spirit.
As we learn from these same prayers of the Church, holy water is a special remedy against ills of the body. This effect is contained in the second prayer pronounced over the water. Therein the Church thus addresses herself to God:
Graciously give ear when we call upon Thee, and pour upon this element . . . the power of Thy blessing; let Thy creature salt . . . by divine grace be effectual for driving away diseases, that on whatsoever in the houses or places of the faithful this water shall be sprinkled, it may be freed from all uncleanness and be delivered from hurt.
From these words it is plain that holy water is not only a means to drive away sickness but is likewise a protection against sickness.
But Holy Church, in her prayer for the bodily welfare of her children, shows still more foresight. She knows well that not only corporal sufferings, but misfortune in temporal possessions as well, are painful to mankind.
Holy Church consequently offers a means of protection against such mishaps, when she implores in the second prayer over the water, “let not the blast of pestilence nor disease remain” where this water is sprinkled. All harmful influence of the elements, and the powers of the enemy, the Church wishes to keep from mankind, and hence she prays: “and if there be aught which hath ill will to the safety and quietness of the inhabitants, let it flee away at the sprinkling of this water.”
“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, a joy with which my soul was quite refreshed. This is not merely an effect of the imagination, nor a rare occurrence. I have experienced it frequently and paid special attention to it. On these occasions I feel like one who, suffering intense thirst, takes a glass of water and is quite refreshed. From this we can see how important everything instituted by the Church is; it comforts me to see the great power which her blessing imparts to water, so great is the difference between blessed and unblessed water.”
-St. Teresa of Avila
Thus holy water advances the bodily welfare of the faithful. A brief narrative will show us that it also achieves the advancement of the soul’s welfare.
As the soul is far superior to the body, so too are the spiritual effects of holy water superior to the corporal effects. The prayers used in the blessing do not specify these spiritual effects; they speak only in general of the advancement of our soul’s salvation through this holy water. For example, in the prayers that are said over the salt, the words occur, “be to all who take thee salvation of soul and body,” and “health of mind and body.”
In like manner the spiritual effect is expressed only in a general way in the concluding prayer, when the Church directs her petition to God that He may illumine and sanctify the salt and the water, that wheresoever it shall be sprinkled, by the invocation of Thy holy name all troubling of unclean spirits may be cast out, and the dread of the poisonous serpent be chased far away; and let the presence of the Holy Spirit vouchsafe to be with us, who ask Thy mercy, in every place.
In these words the petition is that holy water may shield us against the influence of the evil one — hence the purifying effect — and secure for us assistance in the grace of the Holy Spirit, wherein is expressed the sanctifying effect.
That holy water possesses this purifying and sanctifying effect is indicated in the following prayer used by the Church in its distribution: “Thou shalt sprinkle me, O Lord, with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed : Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow . . . and all unto whom that water came were saved.” These words clearly point to a purifying and sanctifying effect of holy water. We may not, however, conclude from this that any purifying from mortal sin takes place, because none of the sacramentals cleanses from such sin; but we are correct in assuming a purifying from venial sin and from temporal punishments due to sin.
Doctors of the Church agree that holy water causes the remission of venial sin and of temporal punishment due to sin. I quote St. Thomas Aquinas:
“By the sprinkling of holy water the debt of venial sin is wiped out; but not always, however, are all temporal punishments relinquished; this takes place in proportion to the disposition of the person using it, depending on the less or greater degree of ardor in the love for God on the part of the person using it.”
Again the same holy Doctor says that “the sprinkling of holy water brings about the remission of venial sin in the measure of which it excites to contrition.” In accord with the advice of St. Alphonsus, one should strive when using holy water to rise to contrition, that it may prove its purifying effects.
Holy water not only possesses the power of cleansing us from venial sin and temporal punishments but also helps us to overcome the temptations of the devil. To bring about this effect, Holy Church asks in the first prayer pronounced over the salt that Almighty God may effect that it serve for the preservation of the people, that “every delusion and wickedness of the devil, and all unclean spirits, may fly and depart.” Still more: in the second prayer over the salt, it shall even shield us against all assaults of spiritual wickedness; hence thus to protect us against temptation, that the devil may have even less power to tempt us.
Holy water also has sanctifying effects. These consist in the actual graces that may be obtained. These are illuminations of the intellect and inspirations of the Holy Spirit that aid the faithful to perform loyally the duties of their state of life, to pray devoutly, to hear a sermon with profit, and especially to assist with recollection and devotion at the Holy Sacrifice of Mass, and thus richly participate in its precious treasures. An illumination, for instance, may be involved when one comes to comprehend, better than he has known before, his faults and particularly his prevailing sin. An inspiration, however, is when an inward voice admonishes him to resolve finally to avoid the occasion of sin, to give up a sinful acquaintance, to shun bad associations or dangerous occasions, with greater determination, and to seek after, with a special devotion and earnestness, the virtue that is in opposition to his prevailing vice. These are effects of the actual graces, effects that holy water can bring about.
I do not maintain that the above-named or similar effects of grace must necessarily be attributed to the use of holy water, because we cannot know what and how much it has effected in us. But we do know that it can produce these effects, and we may without doubt have occasion to attribute much of our knowledge and inspiration to the use of holy water.
This article is an excerpt from Holy Water and Its Significance for Catholics by Rev. Henry Theiler, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.
Art for this post on holy water: Holy Water Basin and Sprinkler, Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, 1911, PD-US because it was in the public domain in its home country (Russia) on the URAA date (January 1, 1996). Cover of Holy Water and Its Significance for Catholics used with permission.