Q: The third typical edition of the Roman Missal does not appear to include the addition of blessed salt. Is this something that will be included as the Book of Blessings and the Rites are revised? Also, is it appropriate to use the Blessing of Salt from the sacramentary prior to adding it to newly blessed water? -- J.B., Neillsville, Wisconsin
A: Actually, the third edition does retain the possibility of adding salt to blessed water. It is found toward the end of the missal as the second appendix. The adding of salt is not obligatory, however, and is left to local custom.
The ritual says:
"3. Where the circumstances of the place or the custom of the people suggest that the mixing of salt be preserved in the blessing of water, the Priest may bless salt, saying:
"We humbly ask you, almighty God: be pleased in your faithful love to bless this salt you have created, for it was you who commanded the prophet Elisha to cast salt into water, that impure water might be purified. Grant, O Lord, we pray, that, wherever this mixture of salt and water is sprinkled, every attack of the enemy may be repulsed and your Holy Spirit may be present to keep us safe at all times. Through Christ our Lord. R. Amen.
"Then he pours the salt into the water, without saying anything.
"4. Afterward, taking the aspergillum, the Priest sprinkles himself and the ministers, then the clergy and people, moving through the church, if appropriate.
"Meanwhile, one of the following chants, or another appropriate chant is sung."
The reference to the prophet Elisha comes from his curing the poisoned waters with salt in 2 Kings 2:19-21.
The use of blessed salt with blessed water is particular to the Latin tradition. At first, blessed salt was tasted by those preparing for baptism, as testified by St. Augustine among others. The meaning was probably related to the allegorical significance of salt as a symbol of divine wisdom to those destined to be formed as "the salt of the earth." It was also used in the rite of baptism itself.
One of the earliest mentions of the use of blessed, or holy, water is found in a letter written in 538 by Pope Vigilius to Procuro of Braga in Portugal. Since the context of this letter suggests an established practice, it is possible to surmise that holy water was first used at Rome about a century earlier. There is evidence of people taking blessed water home and conserving it in vessels from the year 590, even though the practice of sprinkling the congregation at Mass is from the ninth century and the presence of fixed holy water fonts in churches did not appear until the 11th century.
The practice of mixing salt with this water is probably related to the fact that this custom was already widespread in pagan Rome; for salt was perceived as being effective in repelling evil spirits. This custom was simply carried into Christian practice once the pagan use had diminished to the point that there was no longer any danger of religious syncretism.
Therefore, even though the actions of the prophet Elisha are mentioned in the blessing prayer it is unlikely that this episode was a direct influence in forming the custom.
The earliest extant prayers of blessing of salt and water hail from Merovingian France sometime between the years 600 and 751. Most of the current prayers were composed in the early ninth century.
Although, as mentioned above, the origin of fixed holy water fonts is not historically related to the baptismal font, liturgical practice and private devotion have established such a relationship over the centuries.
Thus, the use of holy water is a reminder of baptism, the faith in the Trinity, and redemption through the cross. When water is blessed and sprinkled on a Sunday it reminds us that every Sunday is a little Easter and baptism is renewed in a symbolic manner.
Finally, the extraordinary form of the rite of blessing salt and water may be used but not in such a way that the two forms of the Roman rite are joined in a single celebration. Nor is it necessary as the rite is still found in the ordinary-form missal.
* * *
Readers may send questions to email@example.com. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.