|ROME, 29 JUNE 2004 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: I would want to know the reason why the priest pours water into wine
during the preparation of the gifts.
Bo, Sierra Leone
A: The brief rite of pouring water into the wine used for consecration is
very ancient. Indeed, it is believed that Our Lord himself used wine
tempered with water at the Last Supper as this was the common practice
among the Jews and in Mediterranean culture in general.
Some form of this is found in practically every rite of the Church both
Western and Eastern, except for a group of Armenian Monophysites.
Although the water is not essential for the validity of the sacrament, the
Church holds it in great importance and it must never be omitted. The
Council of Trent even went so far as to excommunicate whoever denied the
need for this mixture (see Canon 9, Session XXII).
Historically, St. Justin Martyr already mentions this practice in his
Apology around the year 150. About a century later St. Cyprian wrote on
this theme in an epistle against a splinter group that used only water in
their celebrations, and this has become the accepted interpretation:
"For because Christ bore us all, in that He also bore our sins, we see
that in the water is understood the people, but in the wine is showed the
blood of Christ. But when the water is mingled in the cup with wine, the
people [are] made one with Christ, and the assembly of believers is
associated and conjoined with Him on whom it believes; which association
and conjunction of water and wine is so mingled in the Lord's cup, that
that mixture cannot any more be separated.
"Whence, moreover, nothing can separate the Church
that is, the people established in the Church, faithfully and firmly
persevering in that which they have believed
from Christ, in such a way as to prevent their undivided love from always
abiding and adhering. Thus, therefore, in consecrating the cup of the
Lord, water alone cannot be offered, even as wine alone cannot be offered.
For if any one offer wine only, the blood of Christ is dissociated from
us; but if the water be alone, the people are dissociated from Christ; but
when both are mingled, and are joined with one another by a close union,
there is completed a spiritual and heavenly sacrament.
"Thus the cup of the Lord is not indeed water alone, nor wine alone,
unless each be mingled with the other; just as, on the other hand, the
body of the Lord cannot be flour alone or water alone, unless both should
be united and joined together and compacted in the mass of one bread; in
which very sacrament our people are shown to be made one, so that in like
manner as many grains, collected, and ground, and mixed together into one
mass, make one bread; so in Christ, who is the heavenly bread, we may know
that there is one body, with which our number is joined and united" ("On
the Sacrament of the Cup of the Lord," No 13).
Another important symbolic explanation for this rite is given in St.
Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, III pars q 74, 6-8:
"Water ought to be mingled with the wine which is offered in this
"First of all, on account of its institution: for it is believed with
probability that our Lord instituted this sacrament in wine tempered with
water according to the custom of that country: hence it is written
(Proverbs 9:5): 'Drink the wine which I have mixed for you.'
"Secondly, because it harmonizes with the representation of our Lord's
Passion: hence Pope Alexander I says (Ep. 1 ad omnes orth.): 'In the
Lord's chalice neither wine only nor water only ought to be offered, but
both mixed because we read that both flowed from His side in the Passion.'
"Thirdly, because this is adapted for signifying the effect of this
sacrament, since as Pope Julius says (Concil. Bracarens iii, Can. 1): 'We
see that the people are signified by the water, but Christ's blood by the
wine. Therefore when water is mixed with the wine in the chalice, the
people [are] made one with Christ.'
"Fourthly, because this is appropriate to the fourth effect of this
sacrament, which is the entering into everlasting life: hence Ambrose says
(De Sacram. v): 'The water flows into the chalice, and springs forth unto
These different explanations form the basis for the Church's understanding
of the importance of this rite. This understanding is at the root of the
sentiment expressed by the prayer which the priest recites in a low voice
as he pours the water into the chalice:
"By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the
divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity."
* * *
Follow-up: Why Water With Wine
In line with the June 29 column on why water is mixed with the wine at
Mass, some readers asked if water should be placed in all of the chalices
when more than one is used for the Eucharistic celebration.
The norms are not very precise on this question. It appears that this is
the preferred option and the one that best corresponds to the tradition
that water be added to the wine used for consecration. Yet, this is not
Several liturgists suggest that adding water to the principal chalice
alone sufficiently fulfills the symbolic meaning of the rite and the
liturgical norms. They argue that the several chalices are in an analogous
situation to that of the small hosts present in additional ciboria and
adding water to one is symbolically adding it to all.
Both options are probably legitimate unless the Holy See states otherwise.
Preparing extra chalices may be done in several ways. If only one or two
extra chalices are needed, they may be prepared in the usual way at the
altar during the preparation of the gifts. If more are needed, they may be
prepared at this time at the credence table by a deacon and brought to the
In situations were a rather large number of chalices are required, or due
to some other circumstance such as a shortage of proper ministers, then
chalices with wine (and water) may be prepared before Mass at the credence
table and brought to the altar during the preparation of gifts.
This is the usual practice at large papal concelebrations.
A reader from New York asks if the wine left unconsecrated in the cruet
should be discarded or may be used or added to for a later Mass.
In principle there is no reason why this wine should not be reused. But
great care must be taken, lest exposure during hot weather causes it to go
sour rendering it unsuitable for consecration.
Another reader asked a rather technical question regarding proper matter
for the sacrament.
"Some will argue that sacramental wine may not contain sulfites," the
reader wrote. "Others explain that the sulfites are not added as part of
the end of the final product, but that the sulfites in sacramental wine
are present because they were added while the grapes were still on the
vine. Also, what is the current regulation on the percentage amount of
alcohol that needs to be present in sacramental wine? Is the 11-18%
alcohol regulation still in effect?"
Regarding the necessary qualities of sacramental wine, No. 50 of the
instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum" states:
"The wine that is used in the most sacred celebration of the Eucharistic
Sacrifice must be natural, from the fruit of the grape, pure and
incorrupt, not mixed with other substances. ... It is altogether forbidden
to use wine of doubtful authenticity or provenance, for the Church
requires certainty regarding the conditions necessary for the validity of
the sacraments. Nor are other drinks of any kind to be admitted for any
reason, as they do not constitute valid matter."
Therefore if there is any positive doubt about the validity of any
particular wine as proper sacramental matter, then it should not be used
until the doubt is cleared up.
Resolving these doubts is the competence of the Pope acting through the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The crux of the question posed is whether sulfites fall under the heading
of "not mixed with other substances."
Having only a basic knowledge of the chemical processes involved I can
only give a tentative opinion based on the information received. (I will
also leave aside any discussion of special provisions made for priests
unable to take alcohol.)
Official replies from the Holy See stating the criteria for the validity
of sacramental wine say simply that it should be natural grape wine with
no added substances. But they do not specify what these other substances
might be, mentioning only mixing in extra sugars or alcohol derived from
Grape alcohol is sometimes added to some weak wines during the fermenting
process so that it keeps longer. In this case the alcohol level must be
between 12% and 18%. (See Denzinger, Nos. 3312-3313. Denzinger is a
standard theological reference book that collects authoritative
magisterial statements in one volume.)
Because of this, wine specially prepared for Mass should generally be
used. Commercial wines often contain additives or mixtures of other
substances which give them their particular qualities but which may render
them doubtful matter.
However if other elements enter the wine naturally, without changing its
nature, it would not appear that this affects the wine's suitability as
Many wines have traces of particular minerals due to factors such as soil
and water composition, or from other natural sources during the fermenting
process, and this has never been considered as a condition of invalidity.
Otherwise a chemical analysis would have to be made of every wine. And
that would cast doubt on the validity of every Mass celebrated over the
last 2,000 years before such a chemical analysis was possible.
As the case is presented, it would appear that sulfites fall into this
category. But if doubt persists, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith should be formally consulted through the local bishop.
Finally, a reader asked if only red colored wine should be used at Mass in
order to better convey the sign of Christ's blood.
While the use of red wine might appear better from an external point of
view, especially in countries were Communion under both species is common,
it has nothing to do with the validity of the sacrament. Hence, white wine
may be legitimately used.
In fact, many older liturgical manuals preferred white wine for
cleanliness' sake, as red wine often left permanent stains when wiping the
lips of cruets or from accidental spillage.
No matter what color the wine is, the Eucharist will always remain as a
mystery of faith which goes beyond the senses.
As St. Thomas Aquinas says in his magnificent sequence of the Mass of
"Sight has fail'd, nor thought conceives
But a dauntless faith believes,
Resting on a pow'r divine.
Here beneath these signs are hidden
Priceless things to sense forbidden;
Signs, not things are all we see:
Blood is poured and flesh is broken
Yet in either wondrous token
Christ entire we know to be."