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
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
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 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 faithfuls 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
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.
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 Massone 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 blessedexorcized, reallyeven 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 waters 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 ritewhich
would otherwise celebrate the unity we share in Baptismis 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
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.
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
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 Viaticumnamed
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
is the pastor of St. Munchin Parish, Cameron, Missouri,
and its mission, St. Aloysius Church, Maysville. His doctorate in sacred
theology is from SantAnselmo, 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.