Blessing of Salt

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Blessing of Salt

By Father Edward McNamara, LC

ROME, 22 October 2013 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: The third typical edition of the Roman Missal does not appear to include the addition of blessed salt. Is this something that will be included as the Book of Blessings and the Rites are revised? Also, is it appropriate to use the Blessing of Salt from the sacramentary prior to adding it to newly blessed water? — J.B., Neillsville, Wisconsin

A: Actually, the third edition does retain the possibility of adding salt to blessed water. It is found toward the end of the missal as the second appendix. The adding of salt is not obligatory, however, and is left to local custom.

The ritual says:

"3. Where the circumstances of the place or the custom of the people suggest that the mixing of salt be preserved in the blessing of water, the Priest may bless salt, saying:

"We humbly ask you, almighty God: be pleased in your faithful love to bless this salt you have created, for it was you who commanded the prophet Elisha to cast salt into water, that impure water might be purified. Grant, O Lord, we pray, that, wherever this mixture of salt and water is sprinkled, every attack of the enemy may be repulsed and your Holy Spirit may be present to keep us safe at all times. Through Christ our Lord. R. Amen.

"Then he pours the salt into the water, without saying anything.

"4. Afterward, taking the aspergillum, the Priest sprinkles himself and the ministers, then the clergy and people, moving through the church, if appropriate.

"Meanwhile, one of the following chants, or another appropriate chant is sung."

The reference to the prophet Elisha comes from his curing the poisoned waters with salt in 2 Kings 2:19-21.

The use of blessed salt with blessed water is particular to the Latin tradition. At first, blessed salt was tasted by those preparing for baptism, as testified by St. Augustine among others. The meaning was probably related to the allegorical significance of salt as a symbol of divine wisdom to those destined to be formed as "the salt of the earth." It was also used in the rite of baptism itself.

One of the earliest mentions of the use of blessed, or holy, water is found in a letter written in 538 by Pope Vigilius to Procuro of Braga in Portugal. Since the context of this letter suggests an established practice, it is possible to surmise that holy water was first used at Rome about a century earlier. There is evidence of people taking blessed water home and conserving it in vessels from the year 590, even though the practice of sprinkling the congregation at Mass is from the ninth century and the presence of fixed holy water fonts in churches did not appear until the 11th century.

The practice of mixing salt with this water is probably related to the fact that this custom was already widespread in pagan Rome; for salt was perceived as being effective in repelling evil spirits. This custom was simply carried into Christian practice once the pagan use had diminished to the point that there was no longer any danger of religious syncretism.

Therefore, even though the actions of the prophet Elisha are mentioned in the blessing prayer it is unlikely that this episode was a direct influence in forming the custom.

The earliest extant prayers of blessing of salt and water hail from Merovingian France sometime between the years 600 and 751. Most of the current prayers were composed in the early ninth century.

Although, as mentioned above, the origin of fixed holy water fonts is not historically related to the baptismal font, liturgical practice and private devotion have established such a relationship over the centuries.

Thus, the use of holy water is a reminder of baptism, the faith in the Trinity, and redemption through the cross. When water is blessed and sprinkled on a Sunday it reminds us that every Sunday is a little Easter and baptism is renewed in a symbolic manner.

Finally, the extraordinary form of the rite of blessing salt and water may be used but not in such a way that the two forms of the Roman rite are joined in a single celebration. Nor is it necessary as the rite is still found in the ordinary-form missal.

* * *

Follow-up: Blessing of Salt [05-11-2013]

An attentive reader made the following observation to our Oct. 22 comments on the rite of Blessing of Salt:

"I was left confused by the last paragraph […]: 'Finally, the extraordinary form of the rite of blessing salt and water may be used but not in such a way that the two forms of the Roman rite are joined in a single celebration. Nor is it necessary as the rite is still found in the ordinary-form missal.' I was not sure whether you were referring to the asperges we were used to as altar servers in the 1960s and the blessing of water which was done in the sacristy. In the rite of exorcism which I was recently reading in the ICEL Green Book stage of translation, I again saw the beautiful prayers for exorcism and blessing of salt and water which I have used for many years in preparing blessed water for people who ask for it. But I have never thought of that as belonging to the extraordinary form. But when I came to the diocese I did find priests who were using the asperges as in the old form, as part of the entrance procession on Sundays. With a bit of time they were weaned off it. In short, is the blessing of water and salt, as found in the Missal of Paul VI, now in its third edition, considered the ordinary form of blessing?"

I referred above all to not mixing the two rites, as mentioned by our reader, regarding the use of the asperges at the entrance procession.

That said, I would say that the rite as found in the third edition of the missal is the ordinary form for the situations described in the missal. That is at the beginning of Mass.

Other approved rites for blessing water outside of Mass, such as that of the Book of Exorcisms, are also the ordinary form in their proper contexts.

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