QUAERITUR: removing holy water during Lent

I have had a couple questions via e-mail already about dopey plans in some parishes to empty holy water fonts during Lent and even dopier plans to replace the holy water with sand or dirt.

Anyway, some time ago I wrote an Ask Father response to this which I now repost.


Lately I have read some items about the blogosphere that the , persists in some places. 

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 emphases are 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 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 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 liturgists and priests REMOVE a tool of spiritual warfare precisely during 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. My local N.O. parish does this and puts old-style square headed nails in the holy water fonts.

    Why is exorcism both simple and solemn largely ignored today –is it that we’re too “smart” to believe in the existence of evil (because we’re so enlightened because of the “soft science” of psychology)?

    Our enemies exist, both visible and invisible. May God preserve us.

  2. Ken STL says:

    I’m sure my parish will do it again this year. I am considering sneaking in my holy water bottle and filling the font in the adoration room myself when I visit for my appointed hour each week.

  3. Terth says:

    Why don’t you two get a legit copy of this response from the CDW and give it to your pastor? If nothing changes, inform the bishop and give him a copy of the letter, too.

  4. LCB says:

    Ugh, I’d forgotten that my Lenten Penance is to battle this every year. It’s gone on so long now that I have begun to hear, “but this is what we’ve always done! We can’t change what we’ve been doing for years!”

    To which I reply by beating my head against a brick will.

  5. Thank you for posting this. Our church here at school does the same thing every year. I’ve asked in the past that they not. This year we have a new head of our liturgical council, so I’ve just passed this letter along to him and requested that we leave the holy water fonts full until the Triduum. We’ll see what happens. I have some faith in this guy, he recently replaced all of our glass chalices and ciboriums (though unfortunately the replacements, while better, are not perfect, because they pewter but not gilded. Baby steps, I suppose).

  6. Xavier says:

    I wish that the priests of the Diocese of Winona (specifically, Rochester, MN) would read this answer of yours…Actually, I wish that they would regularly follow your blog, but I am not going to hold my breath on that one. What a place! Orthodoxy and Tradition suffer here. Is it something with MN?

  7. Willebrord says:

    I’ve never been in a parish where they removed the holy water all through Lent, luckily.

    Though I do remember a story one man told about the sand in the holy water font on Good Friday…

    This thing about removing holy water during Lent reminds me of the cases of people giving up Holy Communion during Lent… definately a way to make your season counter-productive.

  8. Ken STL says:

    My pastor would not care about the CDW (he looks at the GIRM as a nice little set of recommendations to be ignored) and the archdiocese’s office of worship does not believe in enforcing rules such as these.

  9. ckdexterhaven says:

    Unfortunately, St. Luke’s in Raleigh forces us to live in the “desert” during lent with no water. :(

  10. Paul Stokell says:

    A nice article on this also comes from the San Jose (CA) Diocese’s worship office. Just print & serve, like this one.

  11. Baron Korf says:

    Rather than going into the desert for Lent, I would say that in Lent we realize that we are in the desert in this life. The Church is our oasis, a source of water, rest, and refreshment for us pilgrims.

  12. CB says:

    This might be a rabbit hole you don’t want to go down, but an even graver “Lenten sacrifice” is when they take the no-Holy Water stance to the next level: some churches that I know of don’t even permit baptisms during Lent. One of my children was born two days before Lent. Luckily, my parish still allowed the baptism, even though my previous one did not.

  13. Nick says:

    I sent the Congregation\’s letter to my Archdiocese, and they said they\’d send it to every parish. I hope my home parish obeys the Church. I pray they will no longer be deluded by persons who think they know better than the Church.

  14. Just in case a parish decides for the “desert experience” I bring my own holy water just in case.

  15. Is there any support in the liturgical norms of the Church for “fasting from Baptism” (as one parish calls it)? In Cincinnati, parishioners are discouraged by pastors and liturgists from baptizing adults or infants.

  16. MargaretC says:

    I am happy to report that my N.O. parish keeps the holy water fonts full through Lent.

    We also have a large holy water dispenser located in the lobby by the front entrance. It has occasionally run dry when too many of us have stopped in to replenish our own supplies.

    Keep blogging, Father, you’re doing good work.

  17. Deo volente says:


    I filed this under “Leave the Holy Water. Take the cannolis.” This is a marvelous annual bit of common sense!


  18. JC says:

    Assuming that so many priests are not just trying their best to go against what the Church says about this, where may I ask did they ever get the mistaken idea that the holy water should be removed during Lent? It is always removed in our parish. Last year as I recall the holy water font in the narthex was filled with stones covered with glass. It actually was quite attractive. I would compare removing the water to hand holding during the Our Father which as I understand it, is not in the rubrics but happens in every parish I’ve visited recently. (An exception was a Traditional Latin Mass where I was also told that non-Catholics should remain in the pew and not come forward with arms crossed for a blessing. All very confusing… especially when you’ve been taught that it is the proper thing to do and you see it all the time.)

  19. Patrick says:

    They removed the Holy Water in my old parish. Not so in my present, more traditional parish.

    When they did remove the Holy Water and replace it with rocks (they should have played ‘Horse with no name’ as a hymn) a lot of us were very upset.

    I noticed that the vessel that held the Holy Water had a spigot almost two inches above its bottome. Being an old timey chemical operator an pumper I figured that whoever drained it had not counted on the lees. Eureka! Holy Water, enough for we few faithful to use throughout Lent.

    You can’t keep a good Catholic down.

  20. TomW says:

    Here’s a response from the Catholic Answers apologist weblog.
    The link at the bottom of the apologists response takes you to the letter from Mons. Marini.


  21. It would be good to give this letter to your pastor as needed.

  22. Bos Mutissimus says:

    TV? Chocolate? Well, OK — as long as we don’t have to give up beer or Single Malt Scotch.

    Say, we don’t have to give up visiting WDTPRS, do we?….

  23. Not till the Triduum at my parishes.

    In fact, we plan to bless a “new” baptismal font on the Third Sunday of Lent (“the woman at the well” in the scrutiny), so I think everyone should be sprinkled, what do y’all think?

    My former pastor used to refer to the “baptismal-penitential season of Lent.”

  24. Nan says:

    Xavier, no, not all churches in MN are like that. In the cities it can go either way and they’re no doubt most concerned with the ones that deviate furthest from the norm.

    Isn’t there safe church anywhere in Rochester?

  25. RichR says:

    The silly thing is, just about no one sees the sandy fonts and thinks, “ah yes, we are wandering through a spiritual desert in Lent.”. They’re all thinking, “where’s the Holy Water? Oh well.”

  26. TomB says:

    I live in the desert. I have water.

  27. Daniel K. says:

    This is probably a common sense question, but is water from places like Lourdes blessed? I have no idea why it would not be, but still…

  28. Claire Traas says:

    When I was very young, our local parish had a big giant punchbowl-style baptismal font right in the middle of the church. During Lent, they replaced the water with a huge pile of sand and some fake tumbleweeds. I distinctly remember walking into the church with my mother on Ash Wednesday and upon seeing the spectacle, I exclaimed “Mommy! there’s a SANDBOX in the middle of the CHURCH!” What kind of kindergartener wouldn’t get excited about that sort of thing? I had no idea that removing holy water wasn’t part of the tradition of the Church until college.

  29. Ygnacia says:

    I have seen this many times before in my Diocese. One year someone put sand in our holy water fonts, but Father came by the next day, cleaned out the sand and put the holy water back in. If I understand it right, blessing ourselves with holy water as we enter the Church is a mini-exorcism, so removing the holy water seems almost diabolical.

  30. Martin T. says:

    There was a big insert in my parish newsletter that make a joke about this. I had never seen such a thing so I missed the joke.

  31. Xavier says:


    Rochester, MN is a disaster. I have been to every parish in the town. I do recognize that there are good parishes in the St. Paul area (St. Augustine and St. Agnes), but it is not always convenient to travel there in bad weather. Rochester is full of feel-good, happy-clappy, “you are all such wonderful people” parishes….The priests do not want to lose monetary support so they never say anything controversial or “traditional” that may disturb wealthy, liberal “sophisticates” in the pews. Yes..after more than ten years I am sick of this place.

  32. Crusader says:

    If you klnow your parish will remove Holy Water during Lent, then store up Holy Water before Lent and keep pouring the water into the fonts all during Lent… make it available, because we need now more than ever to fight the devil with every means available. Do not let Satan drag your fellow parishioners into the desert where there is no water… And if there’s sand in the font, bring a small car vacuum next time (watch the noise, though!). Let’s all fight this ridiculous and dangerous “custom”!

  33. Nan says:

    Xavier, I’m sorry to hear that. Presumably you’ve checked for possibilities in outlying areas?

    I know someone who fled a suburban crazychurch for St. Augustine and recently someone recommended St. Agnes and the Cathedral of St. Paul to me as possibilities; I was already at the Cathedral.

  34. Momoften says:

    Question: Is it legit to ban baptisms during Lent? I’ve been in some parishes that do this, but it always seems to unfairly penalize those babies who happen to be born just before Easter.

  35. PNP, OP says:

    Most of these ridiculous innovations came about in the 80’s and 90’s when liturgists ignored tradition and tried to make seasonal liturgical practices “relevant to a modern church” In my seminary, we called these “Sr. Martha Stewart’s Liturgical Tips.” When proper liturgical practice was replaced with “art and environment,” anything was possible so long as it connected in some way with a theme prominent in the season. Sand in the holy water font is just one of the dumb ideas in Sr. Martha’s grab bag. You’ll find there as well: asymmetrical candle placement on the altar; altars placed off-center and balanced with an ambo; purificators and corporeals in liturgical colors; crucifixes replaced by banners that change with the seasons; sanctuaries decorated for secular holidays (Halloween, Fourth of July); among many others. The real purpose for these changes, of course, is the destruction of memory; that is, the destruction of the parish’s Catholic culture as it expressed in the traditions of the ancient Church. One of these days, I’m going to write an article detailing the parallels btw the Chinese Cultural Revolution’s destruction of traditional Chinese culture and the destruction of the Church’s liturgical culture by the cadres of the post-Vatican 2 Permanent Liturgical Revolution. Think: destroying altars and altar rails; tossing statues, images, liturgical books; purging the sacristy of sacred vessels and vestments…the goons of the CCR would have been proud. Fr. Philip, OP

  36. Nonny Maus says:

    Whenever during Lent I encounter dry sand in what ought to be a holy water font, I am sorely tempted to insert not a few cigarette butts and gum wads…

  37. Fr. Kowalski says:

    We don’t do that here in my parish. Holy water stays until it’s supposed to be removed and guess what? Nobody has clamored for the “desert experience”!

  38. Templar says:

    Hmmmmm, I know of at least one Parish in central Georgia which doesn’t have the problem because when it constructed it’s new Church building it simply left the Holy Water Fonts out. They simply don’t have them, and therefore nothing to fill with water, sand, glass or nails.

    The only Holy Water available in the place is in the full immersion baptismal tub in the center of the building (which is naturally constructed in the round). Uggghhh.

  39. Gail F says:

    Hmm, I thought baptisms weren\’t permitted during Lent. Our former pastor, who was much more traditional than our current one, didn\’t allow them, so I figured that was the \”real\” rule.

  40. Gail,

    I don’t believe it is a “‘real’ rule.” And paragraph 867 of the Code of Canon Law is clear: “Parents are obliged to see that their infants are baptised within the first few weeks.”

  41. Scott W. says:

    For more info on the origins on this odious practice, it is promoted in The Three Days: Parish Prayer in the Paschal Triduum by Gabe Huck, which is a guide used by many parishes.

    I’ve started the practice of every year begining in Feb. of hitting major Catholic forums and urging people to take steps to eliminate this practice before Lent starts.

  42. Sam Schmitt says:

    “Sr. Martha Stewart’s Liturgical Tips.”


  43. All you people whose parishes remove the holy water: carry your own, and fill the empty fonts wherever you find them!

  44. FT says:

    Rich Leonardi: I don’t believe it is a “’real’ rule.” And paragraph 867 of the Code of Canon Law is clear: “Parents are obliged to see that their infants are baptised within the first few weeks.”

    Can. 856 Although baptism can be celebrated on any day, it is nevertheless recommended that it be celebrated ordinarily on Sunday or, if possible, at the Easter Vigil.

    While there is no rule forbidding Lenten baptism, there is a preference for conferring the sacrament, if possible, at the Easter Vigil. The practicalities of this probably boil down to not having baptisms during Lent, unless there are exceptional circumstances.

  45. FT,

    You are mistaken. Canon 867 imposes an obligation for baptism within the first few weeks, and canon 856 recommends Sunday or the Vigil (while also saying it can be done any day.) Nothing in those two canons supports the notion that baptism in Lent is for exceptional circumstances.

  46. CB says:

    FT — While it would be nice for babies born late in Lent to be baptized on the Easter Vigil, the churches in my area do not do that. Easter Vigil baptisms are exclusively for converts. Most churches have infant baptism only on the first (or second depending on the church) Saturday of the month. If that falls during Lent, all the baptisms are moved to the next first Saturday. If the first Saturday happens to be Holy Saturday, they are moved to the next month as well. As I understood it, before VII, babies were almost always baptized during the first ten days of their life, regardless of Lent. Because sudden things like SIDS or car accidents do happen, albeit seldomly, I don’t think it is good to wait six weeks to baptize babies.

  47. FT highlights a real detail of Church norms, and illustrates how the Church, particularly in liturgy, often lifts up an ideal, and then makes allowance for less-than-ideal practices.

    The way I understand the relevant portions of church norms, if a family told me they had a baby to baptize, and Easter was near, I’d encourage them to have the baptism that night, if that were desirable to them and they really wanted to. Then, when they blanched at the late hour, and the Mass going 2-3 hours, and at the thought of keeping their other children under control all that time, and also thinking of how others in the family would not want to do it that way, I’d say, “but of course, if you’d rather, we can do it at this time, or this time…”

    Same thing with the preference for baptisms during Mass as opposed to outside Mass.

  48. dcs says:

    I wonder if any pastors forbid weddings during Lent?

  49. David says:

    If we have to endure ONE MORE Lent with no holy water, could the pastor
    at least fill the font with gin? At least this way we can take a sip when
    entering the church and make his sermons WAY more endurable. :)

  50. Catherine says:

    There’s no excuse for doing without holy water during Lent at our parish: we have a jacuzzi in the main foyer. But I suppose they could make a life-size rock garden out of it….a regular garden of Gethsemane (not to be irreverent.)

    Refuses to give up WDTPRS for Lent!

  51. I’m curious as to why there are so many hostile words directed to the pastors and liturgists who mistakenly adhere to this practice. Surely the thing to do would be to respectfully approach the pastor and express your concerns? Aren’t people who think they know better than their priests called Protestants?

  52. Delores says:

    Well, now I am somewhat concerned about what to do. I am the sacristan for our church. Our priest just removes the water for Ash Wednesday. Is that okay? And do I tell him, politely and discreetly, that we are not supposed to remove the holy water? Or do I just let it go? Help, please.

  53. Alice says:

    Weddings are not forbidden during Lent, but even in the OF, a lot of the pomp we associate with them is. In my area, even the “liberal” pastors strongly discourage weddings during Lent. There are exceptions, of course, such as when the couple is working with a military schedule, but as a rule, it’s just not done.

    I haven’t seen empty Holy Water fonts during Lent in years, thank God. I don’t know about Baptisms during Lent since my currently only child was a summer baby.

  54. Flambeaux says:

    Weddings are prohibited during Lent by the Church.

    Only the local ordinary can rule otherwise, and then only for grave reason.

  55. dcs says:

    Weddings are prohibited during Lent by the Church.

    They were in the past but they aren’t now. I just think it’s interesting that some would seek to “ban” baptisms during Lent while weddings are permitted.

  56. Momoften says:

    Regarding marriages during Lent. My husband and I were both active duty naval officers, stationed overseas when we were married ON A FRIDAY IN LENT! I wasn’t a Catholic at the time, though I am now, and how I wish the priest/Navy Chaplain had recommended we move our wedding up just two days, so that we could have been married on the Solemnity of the Annunciation. We’ve now been married nearly 22 years, but with the exception of last year, our anniversary has always been during Lent, and sometimes even during Holy Week. We had reasons for getting married when we did, but looking back, I think the priest was a bit too lenient and quick to acquiesce to our request.

  57. GerryS says:

    I attended Mass this am at a former parish and they had removed the holy water from the fonts–to remind us we are in the desert. I mentioned to the pastor years ago he wasnt supposed to be doing this and even returned the holy water the following Lent, but now…

    They also have lay people–he addressed as ‘ministers’ distributed ashes???

  58. Good news to report. As I said above, I passed this letter on to the new director of our liturgical council, and for the first time since I’ve been a student at Villanova (this is my fourth Lent), the holy water fonts are full during Lent! Thanks, Father.

  59. Lynne says:

    Go guerrilla… Keep at least one holy water font filled in your domestic church. That might an interesting poll, Father, i.e. how many folks have a font in their house…

  60. Robert says:

    No holy water at my NO parish. We do get black pebbles, though. I may empty my stash of holy water I keep at home into a font – our parochial vicar told me he will bless more for me if I need it. :)

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