Why do Catholics Use Holy Water? *
Second Kings tells how Naaman, an Aramean general, suffered from leprosy. When he sought help from the Israelite prophet Elisha, the prophet instructed him to bathe seven times in the Jordan river. Once the general complied, he was miraculously healed (see 5:1-14).
Did the muddy water possess some kind of magic? Of course not. Instead, it was a rather ordinary vehicle of God's extraordinary power. As on so many occasions recorded in Scripture, the Creator used a natural element of his creation to work a supernatural result.
This divine principle lies at the heart of the Catholic Church's sacraments (see "Why Do Catholics Believe that the Sacraments are So Special?"). It also gives rise to the use of "sacramentals," which are, as the Catechism (1667) explains, " 'sacred signs which bear a resemblance to sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy' (SC 60; cf. CIC, can. 1166; CCEO, can. 867)."
Some sacramentals are actions, such as blessings, exorcisms, or the Sign of the Cross (see also "Why Do Catholics Make the Sign of the Cross?"). Others are objects that have been blessed, such as ashes, palm branches, or crucifixes (see also "Why Do Catholics Put Ashes on Their Foreheads?" and "Why do Catholics Have Crucifixes?". "Sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church's prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it (Catechism 1670). While the number of sacraments instituted by Christ is fixed (seven), the number of sacramentals varies according to the pastoral judgment of the Church.
Water is an ancient symbol of life and purity, used in many scriptural rituals and analogies (see Ex 40:12; Is 12:3). Holy water is thus a sacramental that recalls the sacrament of Baptism and its cleansing effects. Catholics bless themselves with it while making the Sign of the Cross whenever they enter or exit a church. It may also be sprinkled on objects when they are being blessed.
Do Catholics think there is some kind of magic in holy water? Of course not. But they know that even ordinary water, when joined to the prayers of the Church, can be a powerful source of divine blessing, just as God healed Naaman in the Jordan waters.
Other related scriptures: Ex 23:25; Lv 14:5-7; Nm 5:17; 8:7; Ps 1:1-3; Is 55:1; Mt 3:13-17; Jn 7:37-39; Eph 5:25-27; Rv 21:6; 22:1-2, 17.
Catechism of the Catholic Church: 1667-1673; 1677-1678.
*Quoted from The New Catholic Answer Bible. Wichita, Kansas, Fireside Catholic Publishing, 2005. www.firesidecatholic.com
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