home events current issue resources
  around the church archive marketplace subscribe
Title of Article  
Paul Turner  

The sprinkling of holy water at the start of Mass has become a hallmark of the Easter season. Typically, the priest offers a prayer of blessing, dips a sprinkler into a bucket, and processes through the church. His arm sweeps up, his fist punches the air, water flies in all directions, and everyone sings.

The blessing and sprinkling of holy water has evolved this way because of its connections with Baptism, the renewal of baptismal promises, and the custom of performing purification rites prior to prayer. Although the ritual may take place on any Sunday, it is especially fitting during the Easter season (Missale Romanum, third edition, appendix II:1).

From the beginning, Baptism was linked to a profession of faith. The renewal of baptismal promises gradually linked to the sprinkling of blessed water. Belief and water went together. On the first Pentecost Sunday, 3,000 people who heard the preaching of Peter were baptized (Acts 2:41). By the second century, a verse was inserted into the story of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch; just before Philip baptizes him, this version of the story has the eunuch say, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” (Acts 8:37).

At the turn of the third century, Tertullian expected those to be baptized to renounce the devil, his works, and his angels (The Crown 3), and to express belief in God and the Church (Baptism 2; 6; 13). These early examinations of the candidates for Baptism led to the formulations of the faith known as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. By reciting a creed, the faithful could renew their faith at any time. But in the early Church, they were asked about their faith, phrase by phrase, before they could be baptized.

The practice of renewing baptismal promises developed later. After the Reformation, several Protestant denominations began calling for the renewal at ceremonies such as Confirmation, but the renewal of baptismal promises did not become part of Catholic liturgical life until much later. Even the Catholic Rite of Infant Baptism originally did not call for parents and godparents to renew their baptismal promises. The priest asked the infant to renounce Satan and profess faith in the Trinity, and the godparent answered in the first person (“I believe”) as if the infant were speaking.

The renewal of baptismal promises first appeared in the Catholic liturgy for the Easter Vigil in 1951. After the water was blessed, the priest changed from violet to white vestments. While holding a lighted candle, the faithful renewed their baptismal promises, bringing their observance of Lent to a close. The priest sprinkled the people with blessed water, and the Eucharist followed.

At the time, it was customary for Sunday Mass to begin with a sprinkling rite. Approaching the altar with water he had blessed in the sacristy, the priest sprinkled the altar, himself, the ministers, and the people. Meanwhile, a choir would sing Psalm 50 (51), verse 9 in Latin, Asperges me. During the Easter season, the text changed to Ezekiel 47:1, 8, 9, Vidi aquam. The first text means “you sprinkle me” and comes from a prayer for purification. The second means “I saw water” and refers to a vision of Ezekiel, who saw water flowing from the Temple to give life to the earth. It served as a prophecy for the sacrament of Baptism. The ceremony took its name from the first word, asperges, and the sprinkler became known as the aspergillum.

Also at the time, sprinkling was one of the approved methods for baptizing. Immersion, pouring, and sprinkling were all acceptable practices. Baptism by sprinkling is no longer permitted, probably to avoid confusion with the many occasions on which Catholics sprinkle holy water at church and at home.

The prayers that blessed the water in the days before the Second Vatican Council were clearly exorcistic. When the priest went to the sacristy to bless water before Mass, he prayed that the water would be exorcised and that it would in turn drive away all the power of the enemy. By sprinkling the water on the altar and the people at the beginning of Sunday Mass, the priest performed a kind of exorcism, purifying the space for the holy ritual about to unfold. Catholics sometimes use holy water in a similar way, in times of storms or conflict, to drive away the powers of sin and calamity.

Today, the use of holy water emphasizes other points. It is a reminder of Baptism, and it stirs up baptismal grace. It calls us back to our central identity as Christians, and it strengthens us anew as disciples of Jesus Christ. We use it for occasions as diverse as the blessing of objects and the opening of the prayers for anointing the sick.

The Easter Vigil
The baptismal focus of holy water is clearest at the Easter Vigil, where the sprinkling is directly connected to the renewal of baptismal promises. The Easter Vigil is the most important night of the year for Christians, and the ceremony should be the annual spiritual highlight for every Catholic. In most parishes, Easter Sunday morning Masses enjoy better attendance than the Easter Vigil. Catholics do not yet exercise the understanding that the Easter Vigil celebrates something Easter Sunday morning does not: the presence of the risen Christ among us. The Easter Vigil not only proclaims our faith in the Resurrection, but also our belief that Christ is among us today. The new fire is struck. The new candle is lighted. The scriptures foreshadowing and explaining Baptism are proclaimed. Catechumens are baptized. And the first Eucharist of the Easter season is celebrated. This collection of symbols exists only at the Easter Vigil, not on Easter Sunday morning. Catholics who miss the Vigil are missing their single most brilliant opportunity to proclaim their faith in Christ and all that their Church holds dear.

The renewal of baptismal promises at the Easter Vigil is directly related to our observance of Lent. Lent has a twofold purpose. It prepares the unbaptized to celebrate the rites of initiation by immersing them in a period of spiritual preparation, and it engages the faithful in a period of repentance and renewal. The holy water of Easter, then, also performs a twofold purpose. It baptizes the catechumens, and it seals the period of renewal for the faithful. It brings to a head the spiritual journey of Lent. Throughout Lent, the faithful have undergone a period of repentance because they realize they have not been completely faithful to their baptismal covenant. They perform penance to repent of their sins and to strengthen their resolve to be better disciples. At the Easter Vigil, they refresh that covenant with God in Christ through the renewal of their baptismal promises and the sprinkling of baptismal water. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults says, “At the Easter Vigil, [the faithful] should attach great importance to renewing their own baptismal promises” (9/4).

During the Easter Vigil, after the proclamation of the readings, a procession to the font forms. There, the priest blesses the water. If there are catechumens or infants, the Rite of Baptism follows. The catechumens, as well as the parents and godparents of the infants, make the renunciations as a group (e.g., “Do you renounce . . . ?”). Parents and godparents of infants may also respond as a group to the questions professing faith (e.g. “Do you believe in God . . . ?”), but catechumens answer this second set of questions individually. The adults and infants are baptized and receive a white garment and a glowing candle. Adults and children of catechetical age are then confirmed on the forehead. Infants are anointed with chrism on the crown of the head, as they are when the Rite of Baptism for Children takes place at any other time of year. (If there are no catechumens or infants for Baptism, these ceremonies, obviously, are omitted.) After the anointing, the priest invites the people to renew their baptismal promises and sprinkles them with holy water.

If the number of those to be baptized is large, the third edition of the Roman Missal permits the renewal of baptismal promises to precede the Baptism of the catechumens and infants. After catechumens, parents, and godparents make their baptismal promises, the priest may invite all the faithful to renew theirs. After that, he conducts the Baptisms. It is not clear how this improves the situation, except that it places the faithful’s renewal of promises closer to the catechumens’ first making of them.

If the rite of reception of baptized Christians into the full communion of the Catholic Church takes place at the Easter Vigil, the faithful renew their baptismal promises together with the candidates just before they are confirmed.

Candles are relighted before promises are renewed. (At the beginning of the Easter Vigil, the faithful received candles lighted from the newly blessed fire.) As the fire spreads throughout the assembly, the good news of the Resurrection dawns, and the faithful realize that the light of Christ is strong enough to shatter any darkness. Once the lights of the church are switched on, the candles are extinguished. They are to be relighted at this time for the renewal of baptismal promises. All of the altar candles should be glowing. A group of people could enter the sanctuary, light their candles from the altar, and disperse throughout the assembly to pass the light to others. If it is planned beforehand, it need not take long.

The renunciations may take different forms. The wording is slightly different, but the meaning is essentially the same. However, a conference of bishops may adapt the renunciations. It could, for example, ask catechumens to renounce drug abuse, domestic violence, or consumerism. The episcopal conference in the United States has not exercised this option.

After all have professed their faith, the priest sprinkles them with water. Some parishes improvise with the ritual at this point, inviting the faithful to the font to sign themselves with water. This may strengthen the connection between the professed renewal and the renewing powers of the waters of Baptism.

Meanwhile, everyone sings a song. The Missal still recommends Vidi aquam, which may be sung in one of its translations, but any song of Baptism and new life may be used. This profession of faith and encounter with the baptismal water should be a highlight of the Vigil.

The Sundays of Easter
On Easter Sunday morning the assembly may renew baptismal promises at any Mass in place of reciting the Creed. This option is an adaptation approved for use in the United States. In other parts of the world, the only opportunity the faithful have this day for renewing baptismal promises in the question-and-answer format is to attend the Vigil. This adaptation helps everyone make the connection between Easter and Baptism. It would be less necessary if Catholics attended the Vigil in greater numbers.

On Easter Sunday, a sprinkling with holy water follows the renewal of baptismal promises. So even though the Rite of Blessing and Sprinkling Holy Water is recommended for the Sundays of Easter, it makes little sense to perform it on Easter Sunday in the United States. Doing so would create two sprinklings during the course of the Mass—one that replaces the act of penitence at the beginning and the other to conclude the renewal of baptismal promises when one normally expects the Creed. Most parishes would be advised to choose one of the usual options for the act of penitence at the beginning of Mass and reserve the sprinkling for later.

On the other Sundays of the Easter season, the Rite of Blessing and Sprinkling of Holy Water fittingly takes place. It is positioned at the start of Mass as a reminder of Baptism. Since Baptism is the beginning of our participation in the risen life of Christ, it is especially appropriate to celebrate Baptism at Easter, and to recall it on the Sundays of the season, when we especially celebrate the day of the week Christ rose from the dead. This is why the sprinkling rite may be used on any Sunday of the year and why it is never recommended for weekdays. Jesus rose on Sunday, and if possible, we celebrate Baptism on that day as well.

The Missal offers three texts for the blessing of water. The last is recommended for the Easter season, and it, too, includes a blessing. Before the Second Vatican Council, the font was blessed on Easter and Pentecost. On those two days the sprinkling rite did not include a blessing of water, since the water would be blessed at Mass. Throughout the Easter season, the Missal presumes that parishes will not use the water previously blessed at Easter but will bless fresh water on each occasion.

Salt may also be blessed. Prior to the Council, salt was always blessed—exorcized, really—even before the water was prayed over. Today it is optional. The prayer recalls an incident from the story of Elisha (2 Kings 2:19-22), when salt was thrown into a cistern of unhealthy water to purify it. The inclusion of salt emphasizes the exorcistic property of holy water, an interpretation from which the Church has somewhat distanced itself since the Council. Omitting salt stresses the water’s purpose as a reminder of the new birth of Baptism. Still, the use of salt in holy water is a legitimate option.

When conducting the sprinkling, the priest is to sprinkle himself, the other ministers, and the people, in that order. He no longer sprinkles the altar. Usually he dips a finger into the bucket and signs himself, rather than trying literally to sprinkle himself. The sequence of ministers was in the ritual even before the Council, so it bears the weight of tradition. At best, it shows the diversity of ways that people live out their baptismal calling, though it may be asked whether the sprinkling rite—which would otherwise celebrate the unity we share in Baptism—is the most opportune time to make this point about diversity.

The priest may walk through the church when he sprinkles on Sunday. In fact, he may begin the Mass at the door of the church and sprinkle the people on his way to the altar, combining the entrance procession with the reminder of Baptism. It expedites matters, though it imports a new meaning into the entrance procession, which otherwise serves as a general introduction to the celebration.

A song is sung during the sprinkling. There are many options here. The Roman Missal (Sacramentary) suggests the traditional two texts (Asperges me and Vidi aquam), as well as Ezekiel 36:25-26, one based on 1 Peter 1:3-5, 1 Peter 2:9, and a nonbiblical text that sings of the streams of water flowing from the wounded side of Jesus. The third edition of the Roman Missal repeats all of these options and adds one based on Wisdom 3:8 and Ezekiel 36:26, as well as one based on Daniel 3:77 and 79.

After the sprinkling, the priest offers a brief prayer to which all answer “Amen.” In the Sacramentary, the prayer does not end with a well-known cue, such as “for ever and ever,” so very few people realize they should say “Amen” when it is over. Singing it may better elicit the response.

The Gloria follows on all Sundays of the Easter season. In some parishes, the musicians sing the Gloria while the priest sprinkles the people, but that was not the design of this rite. Each part of the Mass has its function.

Other Points to Note
Catholics sometimes refer to “baptismal vows,” but the precise expression is “baptismal promises.” The vows of religious life are different; so is the “consent” given by a couple at marriage; so are the “promises” the priest makes when he is ordained. None of those celebrations is followed later by a precise “renewal” as we do with baptismal promises. A husband and wife give thanks to God and recommit to each other on the occasion of an anniversary. A priest recommits himself to service at the Mass of Chrism. But the renewal of baptismal promises, a fairly late addition to the Catholic liturgical vocabulary, takes place more commonly.

At Confirmation, for example, those to be confirmed are asked the traditional questions of belief before they receive the sacrament. The question about the Holy Spirit, in this case, is amplified: “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who came upon the apostles at Pentecost and today is given to you sacramentally in confirmation?” This renewal was added to the Rite of Confirmation in the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council to make clearer the connection between this sacrament and Baptism (Sacrosanctum Concilium, #71).

During the Rite of Baptism for Children, the parents and godparents are invited to renew their promises. Before the Council, the godparents answered questions addressed to the child. That practice was changed to a more meaningful one: the parents and godparents, and indeed the entire community, are invited to renew their baptismal promises on this occasion, for they are accepting the responsibility of raising this child in the practice of the faith.

When a faithful Catholic lies near death, he or she may also renew baptismal promises in the Celebration of Viaticum. Although most people still think Catholics should call a priest when death is near, the options are broader. It is still praiseworthy for a priest to come, but what the Catholic most needs is Holy Communion (which any extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may give), not necessarily an anointing, which only a priest can give. Only a priest may forgive sins in the sacrament of Penance, so his presence also would be required if the dying person desired the sacrament. But any extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may lead the Celebration of Viaticum—named after the food for the journey, Holy Communion. In this last Holy Communion, the one who is dying is invited to renew baptismal promises. Obviously, the best time to request Viaticum is when the dying person is still alert, when he or she can still swallow, and yet when death is near. Alternatively, family members and friends gathered at the bedside may renew baptismal promises on behalf of the one who is dying.

Catholics renew their baptismal promises less officially on many occasions. Whenever we enter a church, we dip our hands in the holy water, stop, and sign ourselves with the cross. The Ceremonial of Bishops describes this as a reminder of our Baptism (110), and thus forms part of the entrance rites of preparation. No official liturgical document ever recommends that the faithful sign themselves with water on their way out of church, but this is commonly the practice.

Each Sunday we profess the Creed. Although it does not take the question-and-answer form of the renewal of baptismal promises, the content is the same. Each time we receive Holy Communion, we say, “Amen,” to the Body and Blood of Christ. In many small and important ways, the Church invites us to recommit ourselves to the belief of our Baptism and to celebrate our life in Christ with promises and water.

Paul Turner
is the pastor of St. Munchin Parish, Cameron, Missouri, and its mission, St. Aloysius Church, Maysville. His doctorate in sacred theology is from Sant’Anselmo, Rome. He is the president of the North American Academy of Liturgy and the author of many pastoral resources. Those resources may be found at www.paulturner.org.
© Copyright 2006-2023
privacy  contact us  www.LTP.org