Empty holy water fonts during Lent… GRRRRRR!

Lately I have read some items about the blogosphere that the dopey practice of removing holy water from stoups during Lent, and even dopier practice of replacing holy water with sand or dirt, persists in some places.  I once had a question about this in the now dormant ASK FATHER Question Box.  Here was one of my answers:

Q:  Our Sunday bulletin states that Holy Water will be removed from Ash Wednesday on during Lent to remind us that we are in a desert. What is the latest rule for removing Holy Water? It used to be done on Good Friday.

A: Good question! Thanks for asking this. No doubt thousands.. maybe millions of people will be subjected to all kinds of rubbish during Lent. One day I should relate the stupid things we had to endure in seminary about this very thing of sand in the holy water stoup.

Any way… This is a response from the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments about this question. Enjoy. The emphasis is mine:


    Prot. N. 569/00/L

    March 14, 2000

    Dear Father:

    This Congregation for Divine Worship has received your letter sent by fax in which you ask whether it is in accord with liturgical law to remove the Holy Water from the fonts for the duration of the season of Lent.

    This Dicastery is able to respond that the removing of Holy Water from the fonts during the season of Lent is not permitted, in particular, for two reasons:

    1. The liturgical legislation in force does not foresee this innovation, which in addition to being praeter legem is contrary to a balanced understanding of the season of Lent, which though truly being a season of penance, is also a season rich in the symbolism of water and baptism, constantly evoked in liturgical texts.

    2. The encouragement of the Church that the faithful avail themselves frequently of the [sic] of her sacraments and sacramentals is to be understood to apply also to the season of Lent. The "fast" and "abstinence" which the faithful embrace in this season does not extend to abstaining from the sacraments or sacramentals of the Church. The practice of the Church has been to empty the Holy Water fonts on the days of the Sacred Triduum in preparation of the blessing of the water at the Easter Vigil, and it corresponds to those days on which the Eucharist is not celebrated (i.e., Good Friday and Holy Saturday).

    Hoping that this resolves the question and with every good wish and kind regard, I am,

    Sincerely yours in Christ,
    Mons. Mario Marini [Now the Adjunct Secretary of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei]

One of these days I will tell you about the hijinx over holy water in Lent we had in seminary, the infamous Saint Paul Seminary, in Minnesota, where I did a couple years of hard time. But that’s another story.

About the holy water thing.  Holy water is a sacramental.  We get the powerful theology of its use in the older ritual in the prayers for exorcism of the water and salt used and then the blessing itself.  I wrote about this in an article for the WDTPRS series and it is on this blog.  The rite of blessing holy water, in the older ritual, is scary, powerful stuff.  It sounds odd, nearly foreign to our modern ears, especially after over 30 years of being force fed ICEL pabulum.

Holy Water is a power weapon of the spiritual life against the attacks of the devil. 

You do believe in the existence of the Enemy, right? 


You know you are a soldier and pilgrim in a dangerous world, right? 

So why… why… why would these dopey liturgists and priests REMOVE a tool of spiritual warfare precisely duing the season of LENT when we need it the most?? 

Holy water is a sacramental. 

It is for our benefit. 

It is not a toy, or something to be abtained from, like chocolate or television. 

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Pelicanus says:

    Last week I left the comforts of university to go back to Scotland for the weekend. Some practices, such as kneeling from the start of the preface, made me happy to be home. (Are there instructions about when to kneel, incedentally?)

    However, I went to a parish in central Edinburgh – where one has the choice of Jesuit liturgy or Redemptorist liturgy. Not only did the faithful have to put up with being told to sit during the gospel – so we could concentrate (aparently the Gospel on Laetare Sunday is particularly long)- and a distinct lack of rose vestments: I scoured the church before and after Mass looking for some source of holy water, but could only find dishes of ash with instructions to say something like “Remember, man…” (although it was probably trendy and inclusive). The instruction to ignore the Trinity as we enter church strikes me as yet another bad idea.

    I’ve also found that some priests are willing to embrace the notion that Lent has to mean Solemn Masses with two candles, no torches and altar frontals made of cheap purple nylon. Does Lent really demand this sort of austerity/cheap and nasty bad taste?

    I can see why you say Grrr… Fr.

  2. Julie says:


    Let’s not defile the current and deservedly excellent reputation of Saint Paul Seminary -there have been a LOT of changes under Monsignor Callaghan and vice rector Father Peter Laird since you were there. Providing you make this caveat, it would be fun to hear your stories!

    This blog might be interesting to some as a means of displaying the excellent new seminarians and much improved seminary: http://spsseminarians.blogspot.com/

  3. Ernie Bragiel says:

    Dear Fr. John,
    It is odd that you mention the virtues of Holy Water. Just this evening I was instructing fifth graders in CCD on the Holy Rosary and I made a sidebar on the practice of using Holy Water and having a font in their homes. I told them that the Church places high value on Sacramentals in daily life.
    Our previous Director of Liturgy would have the fonts emptied on Ash Wednesday, then filled with sand, and finally replenished during Easter Vigil. Our present pastor (with little instruction on the why) removed this practice with a simple it is prohibited. Problematic in this is the “little instruction” that all the faithful receive. Most of us basically believe what somebody does or tells us. I.E. holding hands during the “Our Father”. Father Mark over at Vultus Christi had a very good teaching on Holy Water from February 25th (http://vultus.stblogs.org/2008/02/wash_me_clean.html). Taking Holy Water is just good sense to keep the devil away. I appreciate all you do to teach us correctly. God bless you and all you do. I will continue to keep you in my prayers.

  4. giovanni viani says:


    Things have improved at the St. Paul Seminary, but it’s exaggeration to say that SPS has an ‘excellent’ reputation. Seminarians continue to be (re)educated by Sister Schuth (the recipient of UST’s highest teaching award this year), and the Gregorian Chant and Latin continue to be anathema. I have attended some truly dreadful liturgies at the St. Mary chapel, complete with Joncasesque broadway-style musical settings. I’m afraid that the St. Paul Seminary continues to be Haugen-Haas central.

  5. Ottaviani says:

    So why… why… why would these dopey liturgists and priests REMOVE a tool of spiritual warfare precisely duing the season of LENT when we need it the most??

    Because modern liturgists and priests do not believe in the devil or Hell.

  6. Theodorus says:


    I have a question which has puzzled me for long time. The current formula of blessing of holy water is so different than the traditional one; wheras the traditional formula includes an exorcism prayer and the blessing specifically prays for driving away evil spirits and dispeling sickness and so forth, the current formula treats the blessed water as merely a symbol of our baptism and the use of holy water as merely a memory of baptism. So, does the holy water blessed with the current formula still contain the spiritual benefits bestowed in the traditional formula?

  7. Eric Evander says:

    Dear Fr. John,
    A friend informed me of your website and about this topic in particular. I had been disussing via e-mail the lack of Holy water with our deacon and sent him the very letter from Mons. Marini that you have posted. Below are the two applicapable sections of two e-mails I recieved in reply with names removed. My question is how can I reply to this? I have already brought up the fact that Holy water is a powerful sacramental used in exorcisms and that we are removing this in favor of something that is only a symbol. I can’t seem to make any kind of headway with this nor other issues I have charitably brought up. Perhaps you can use your pull to obtain this letter on official parchment with the Papal seal… and have it hand delivered by the former Cardinal Ratzinger.

    Frustrated faithful Minnesota Catholic

    Just following up on my interim reply of last week, I wanted to let you know I’ve continued researching your inquiry regarding the propriety of removing holy water from the baptismal font during Lent. Actually, it is a fascinating question and brings up all sorts of ancillary questions about canon law and levels of magisterial authority. Here are my findings, in a nutshell: the practice of emptying the font throughout all of Lent is neither specifically required nor prohibited in any authoritative liturgical texts. Over time, the custom has arisen in many parishes throughout this archdiocese (including our own), and beyond, to symbolize the season of Lent as a season of wandering in the desert (i.e. a dry place – characterized by scarcity of water) (e.g. people of Israel after liberation from Egypt prior to “baptism” in crossing Jordan into Promised Land; Jesus as he prepared to begin his ministry, prior to his baptism in the Jordan; fasting from food and water that the Ninevites did for 40-day period of repentance, etc.). We are experiencing a spiritual dryness in Lent in preparation for the sacrament of Baptism (and renewal and new life) which we celebrate at the Easter Vigil (including the renewal of our own baptismal promises). A liturgical practice which achieves the status of custom is often seen in a special zone in canon law, being permitted unless it is specifically prohibited.

    The 2000 letter that your materials cite from the Congregation of Divine Worship to an unnamed “Father” is — I am told – analogous in authority to a Private Letter Ruling from an administrative agency in the law. It is helpful and may be relied upon, especially by the specific person to whom addressed, but is not intended to be dispositive or normative in such manner as, say, a legislative enactment or even as promulgation of a formal regulation would be. (This view was essentially confirmed by _______ in the Archdiocese Worship Office.)

    Moreover, here at St. _______, we are in the unique position of being able also to claim to be in substantial compliance with the concerns which apparently underlay the aforesaid 2000 letter: namely, we do not wholly deprive the faithful of either baptism or holy water during Lent. Although baptisms are not regularly scheduled in Lent, they are available on an emergency basis or where pastoral considerations otherwise require. Further, although our main holy water font (which is the baptismal font in the New Worship Space) is emptied of water during Lent, a reservoir of holy water is available for use of the faithful at the rear of the historic church. According to __________ at the Archdiocese Worship Office, our practice of emptying the main font while keeping holy water available in the auxiliary font is a good solution and strikes an appropriate balance between evoking the desert imagery for Lent and Lent as a period of anticipation of baptism, on one hand, with the needs and desires of the people to be able to avail themselves of Holy Water throughout the year, on the other.

    Thank you again for your thoughtful e-mail and for your prayers. Perhaps I should have added in my last post that we found the topic of holy water that you raised to be so interesting that Fr. ____ intends to a do some further catechesis (live and in the bulletin) about it. Hopefully that will help to draw attention to this important sign and symbol of our faith and baptism. With regard to the coming weeks’ readings, I agree that they are baptismal in nature (part of what I said about Lent anticipating baptism in the Easter season. But if I may borrow from the readings, in neither case is the water immediately accessible. This weekend’s reading has the source of water being in a very deep cistern (literally), and the following weekend’s reading has the water in the Pool of Siloam (meaning “sent”) to which the blind man must travel to wash in. The OT reading from Exodus this weekend further emphasizes the need for a divine intervention to make the water accessible for us (compare striking the “rock” at Horeb to piercing Christ’s side on Good Friday, from which both blood and water flow). In short, whether it is God’s work or our work (or both), the readings can be seen as both emphasizing the scarcity/seeming inaccessibility of water in our (desert) lives just as much as its abundance (or superabundance) in Christ. That’s why I again would suggest that our blended liturgical approach (as outlined in my last post) strikes the appropriate balance.

  8. I was always under the impression that the correct practice is to remove it for the duration of the Triduum until the Blessing of the Font at the Easter Vigil?

    As well, don’t disparage all sand in the Holy Water stoup. the Santuario de Chimayó (the “Lourdes of America”) in New Mexico has sand in the Holy Water stoup all year round from the miraculous sand well.


  9. According to Fortescue (in Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described, Seventh Edition, 1943):

    “From now [after the stripping of the altars on Maundy Thursday] till Saturday no lamps in the church are lit. No bells are rung. Holy Water should be removed from all stoups and thrown into the sacrarium. A small quantity is kept for blessing the fire on Holy Saturday or for a sick call.”

    The footnote gives the source for this: S.R.C. 2682.

  10. Garrett says:

    Try seeing dried wheat stalks, or some kind of dried grass or SOMETHING, put in the fonts like at the disastrous Catholic Center here at the University of Georgia. Yikes. We also have blue for Advent and don’t cover the crucifix behind the altar during Lent; only some purple linen is draped around the edges of the cross itself.

  11. Braadwijk says:

    You think dirt and sand are bad? There are rocks in the holy water fonts here! Every time I see them I am reminded of Charlie Brown.

  12. TNCath says:

    How about ladders and paint cans and toolboxes in the church during Lent as the people sing “Let us build the city of God”?

  13. Tom says:

    Since sand is not a sacramental, would there be anything wrong with sticking a few cigarette butts in it to make a point?

  14. Michael says:

    Our Pastoral Associate decided to decorate the sanctuary with cactus plants for Lent.

  15. mary martha says:

    My response when a church empties their holy water fonts for Lent is to make a point of finding the baptismal font and using that.

    Of course, it’s never that hard to find. In my experiences the parishes that have no water in the holy water fonts have GIANT ridiculous baptismal water features that bubble along during all of Mass.

  16. Tom says:

    There are Dallas parishes that don’t even have Holy Water fonts.

  17. Maria S. says:

    To MJ Sandoval: Shhh! don’t tell them that they replace the dirt at the Santuario.
    We have holy water in our fonts and there was a nice explanation in the bulletin as to why the water wasn’t removed during Lent.

  18. Braadwijk says:

    Come to think of it, I did have a teacher in high school who tried to argue that sand was just as good as water when it came to baptism. She was arguing it was valid as long as we used “anything that flows”. If it didn’t look so laughably stupid I would be more offended at seeing sand where holy water should be.

  19. Braadwijk says:

    I also forgot to mention the fake plastic cactus on the Altar.

  20. Patrick says:

    In my former parish the priest would remove the Holy Water during Lent and have it replaced with the white gravel, the sort which one can buy at Home Depot for edging the garden.

    They even went so far as to drain the vessel in the Narthex that would usually be filled with Holy Water so that the faithful could secure a supply when they needed it.

    However, being the old former chemical worker and pumper that I am, I knew that unless they tilted it to drain it all, there would still be a two inches or so below the spigot. My friends and I had Holy Water all during Lent, and the good padre and the progressives could never quite figure it out. We used to pass flasks of it about so that all who wished could bless themselves before and after Mass.

    None of that anymore. Am at a parish where the G.I.R.M. is a good four letter word, Mass is reverential and awe inspiring, and we are training the Faithful to assist at the Tridentine Mass.

    And Holy Water is where it is supposed to be during Lent, in the fonts and on our foreheads.

  21. Matt Robinson says:

    I avoid any church that has “ashtray” Lenten fonts.

  22. Fr. Anselm says:

    Father, This is an excellent post. Now, is there anything to prohibit baptisms during Lent ??? This is done in a number of places – I can think of at least one parish in the dicoese of Plymouth in England. I think the practice – done on ‘liturgical grounds’ probably – is monstrous.

  23. Fr. Anselm says:

    PS. I’m referring to priests not conducting infant baptisms during Lent in the comment above. I wonder what happened to the necessity of baptism for salvation ? If logical conclusions were drawn from this lenten policy, then the said parish priest should go on holiday for the whole of Lent and return at Easter !

  24. David Andrew says:

    Hmmm. Sand in the fonts for the “desert” experience. How about jelly beans at Easter?

    We are a resurrection people. Alleluia is our song.

  25. Tom says:

    Since sand isn’t a sacramental, would there be anything wrong
    with sticking a few cigarette butts in it to make a point?

  26. giovanni viani says:

    Tom asks, for the second time:

    “Since sand isn’t a sacramental, would there be anything wrong
    with sticking a few cigarette butts in it to make a point?”


    I wouldn’t put a cigarette out in my great aunt Esther’s favorite doily either, but I’m quite sure that it’s not a sacramental. Not everything that we would hesitate to burn with a cigarette is a sacramental.

  27. Part of the letter I am uneasy about: “The practice of the Church has been to empty the Holy Water fonts on the days of the Sacred Triduum in preparation of the blessing of the water at the Easter Vigil, and it corresponds to those days on which the Eucharist is not celebrated (i.e., Good Friday and Holy Saturday).” I am fairly sure there are no such directions in the Roman Missal. I do not see the justification for not following the Ceremonial of Bishops on these days:
    “110 It is an old and honored practice for all who enter a church to dip their hand in a font (stoup) of holy water and sign themselves with the sign of the cross as a reminder of their baptism.”

  28. David Andrew says:

    According to the Ordo for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, we read at pg. 79, “Holy water may be removed from all fonts. They are filled with the water blessed at the Easter Vigil.”

  29. David Andrew says:

    (The above is under the section for the Triduum, specifically Holy Thursday).

  30. Julie says:



    It’s not perfect, but SPS, is as I said, “Much Improved”. Perhaps my enthusiasm for the many good changes was overstated by the word “excellent” but there is MUCH to be pleased with and very good reason for hope -especially with Archbishop Nienstedt around. (We won’t get into the mess at Saint Thomas in general -yuk!) While remnants remain at the Seminary herself, the leadership and new faculty – Fr.s Cozzens, Beaudet, Laird, Callaghan, Sirba, not to mention Dr. Thompson as Academic Dean – are essentially irreproachable. They’re bringing the tabernacle back into the main church, have a first class relic of Mother Teresa now in the church, as well as new statues of Our Lady and Saint Joseph, as well as their weekly community Mass in Latin (NO) once a month. You are right, some hangers on from previous leadership we can only pray will retire early, but since Callaghan, things are SOLID.

  31. RonR says:

    I used the info from this post about the CDW document and politely and respectfully wrote to the Pastor of our local Jesuit church this morning after going there for confession. I questioned him on the absence of Holy Water mentioning the CDW document and got a reply within a few hours that he was not aware of the document and that he did his own research and concluded that removing the Holy Water was not consistent with the church’s teaching and that he would be RETURNING THE HOLY WATER TO THE FONTS!!!
    Praise the Lord! My lesson is that if you are going to complain about this here make sure that you also take appropriate action and bring it up to the people in charge, they are not always doing these things just to irritate you but they are actually ignorant of the actual regulations in effect. Just make sure you do it with a humble heart. I mean what are they going to say when you show them the CDW document. They either have to plead ignorance and fix the situation or they have to say that they really don’t give a d–n about what the Church says. If the latter is the case then, well, I guess it’s hopeless and time to move on or write a letter to the Bishop, which you might want to do anyway.
    Never assume the worst but give them the benefit if the doubt until they PROVE otherwise.

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