Rite of Sprinkling with Holy Water

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Rite of Sprinkling With Holy Water

ROME, 13 FEB. 2007 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Is it OK to do the traditional asperges before Mass, blessing the people with that beautiful music and prayer, and then simply using the normal penitential rite without sprinkling during Mass? The asperges is mentioned in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal under the sprinkling rite, but the new prayer is very shallow compared to the older prayer. We would love to restore that beautiful experience for our people. — D.P., New Orleans, Louisiana

A: Before the present reform the asperges, or rite of sprinkling with holy water, was done before the principal Mass every Sunday. It was not considered as being part of the Mass in any way.

The priest would enter dressed in alb, stole and cope. He would intone the antiphon "Asperges me" or during Eastertide the "Vidi acquam" and would sprinkle the altar, the clergy and the assembly with holy water while the choir continued the antiphon. After this he would conclude with a prayer that implored the Father to send his holy angel to protect and defend those present at the Mass.

Having concluded this rite the priest would then go to the "sedilia," or seats at the south side of the sanctuary, remove the cope and vest with the maniple and chasuble for Mass.

The present rite is more closely tied to the Mass itself as well as designedly recalling baptism. Its full title is the "Rite of Blessing and Sprinkling Holy Water." As the title indicates, it does not just involve sprinkling with previously blessed water but the actual rite of blessing itself.

The poverty of the prayers lamented by our correspondent is probably due to a singularly inadequate English translation that greatly impoverishes the Latin original. We can hope that this will be remedied in the new translation currently being prepared.

In this revised rite the priest enters vested for Mass and greets the people in the usual way. After this he introduces the rite with a brief formula and after a brief silence blesses the holy water using one of the formulas proposed in the missal. Where customary, salt may also be added to the newly blessed water, and a brief prayer said.

The priest then sprinkles himself, the ministers and the assembly while an antiphon or other appropriate song is sung.

When he returns to his place the priest says the following prayer: "May almighty God cleanse us of our sins, and through the Eucharist we celebrate make us worthy to sit at his table in his heavenly kingdom." The people respond "Amen."

This prayer suits the new setting of the ceremony, which substitutes the penitential rite, more than the former prayer. The prayer is followed by either the Gloria or the collect of the Mass.

Can the old rite still be used? Even though the asperges was not formally part of the Mass, it was mandated to be held in association with Mass and formed part of the missal. It cannot, therefore, be considered as a simple pious practice.

The fact that it was not continued in that form but rather replaced by the new optional rite is clearly the result of a deliberated choice by Church authority.

For this reason I do not believe that it is a legitimate possibility to simply restore the old rite before the principal Mass every Sunday.

While most parishes would probably not want to hold the new rite of sprinkling every Sunday, it could be done once a month or so, either at the principal Mass or all Masses, or rotating between different Masses on a weekly basis so that the whole parish may experience this rite.

Also, the choir can freely sing the beautiful music of the Latin antiphons that traditionally accompanied the sprinkling rite. ZE02071328

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Follow-up: Rite of Sprinkling With Holy Water [2-27-2007]

After our comments on the rite of sprinkling (Feb. 13) a couple of readers suggested some possible exceptions.

One quoted the ceremonial of bishops: "79. ... At the door of the church the senior of the presbyters hands the bishop the sprinkler, unless the blessing and sprinkling of water is to replace the penitential rite. With head uncovered, the bishop sprinkles himself and those around him, then returns the sprinkler. ...

"111. If holy water is to be offered to the bishop as he enters the church, a senior clerical of the local Church offers it to him, presenting a sprinkler, with which the bishop sprinkles himself and those accompanying him. Then the bishop hands back the sprinkler.

"112. All this is omitted if the bishop enters the church already vested, as well as on Sunday whenever the blessing and sprinkling of water replace the penitential rite."

Our reader was concerned that "If the bishop did this, I think those who read your answer may believe he was incorrectly restoring the old rite."

I don't believe that there would be confusion. In fact the aspersion described here is simply a different rite of sprinkling holy water which already existed in the former rite for such occasions as the bishop's pastoral visit. It is thus a sign of veneration toward the bishop when he formally visits a church.

The ceremonial clearly states that this rite is only carried out if the bishop is vested in choir dress, not the formal liturgical cope used for the asperges. Likewise, he sprinkles only those accompanying him, without music, and does not pass through the church sprinkling the faithful.

Another correspondent described the continuation of the asperges ceremony in a Trappist monastery. This is quite probable as many religious orders, especially those with ancient roots, legitimately maintain particular customs and traditions. ZE02072713

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