Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I was wondering about what instrument may be used for the rite of blessing and sprinkling holy water. I have seen branches used as well as aspergillum. Is there any guidance on this? I have looked at the General Instruction of the Roman Missal but to no avail. -- J.H., Coventry, England

A: There does not seem to be much in the way of precise norms regarding the making and use of an aspergillum or sprinkler.

Monsignor (now bishop) Peter Elliott in his ceremonial handbook gives the following good advice but without providing official references:

"The sprinkler may take the form of a brush or of a hollow perforated ball, perhaps containing a sponge. But the pocket size sprinkler conveniently used in pastoral situations does not seem appropriate for celebrations in a church."

Some older guides, for the extraordinary form, also state that as well as the brush or hollow globe, "preferably, a sprig of hyssop or other shrub is used."

Other sources restrict this latter option to significant celebrations such as the blessing of a new church or cemetery. This use was specified in the rituals for such consecrations but without necessarily limiting its use to such occasions.

The oldest form of sprinkling is clearly that of using hyssop or another shrub -- a practice which is also found in the Bible. The brush form, now less common, was often used in the Middle Ages and is evidenced by several sources, such as a 12th-century bas relief in the cathedral of Modena in Italy. The modern form with the hollow ball is from the 15th century at the earliest.

Recent popes have used both branches and hollow spheres in blessing with holy water.

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Follow-up: Indulgences at the Point of Death

Responding to our Oct. 15 article on the plenary indulgence on the point of death, a reader from New Hampshire wrote, "In your article you don't say what specific prayer or action the person at the point of death, without a priest present, would have to do to receive the plenary indulgence."

I did not say so because, as mentioned in the Handbook of Indulgences, the usual requirements of prayer are substituted by having habitually said some prayer during one's lifetime. This generous concession is because many people at the point of death are unable to recite any specific prayers.

Another reader, from Mumbai, India, commented: "It is stated that 'an indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven.' Kindly clarify what is 'temporal punishment,' with examples. The sinners who repent and confess are fully qualified for eternal award from God. Then why this extra route? Is this compulsory for everyone? Please explain as many like me are confused."

Since the theme of indulgences was not my main point in the earlier answer, I limited my quote to No. 1471 of the Catechism. The following two numbers clarify the concept under the heading "The Punishment of Sin":

"1472. To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the 'eternal punishment' of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the 'temporal punishment' of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.

"1473. The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the 'old man' and to put on the 'new man.'"

In this the Catechism seeks to explain in human terms something that is intimately bound up with each person's relationship with God within the communion of saints (see CCC 1474ff). As the text implies, the "punishment" is not external but follows from the imperfection of love that sin entails. The purification is, in a way, a striving for perfection in loving God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves as Christ has loved us.

If we do not achieve this perfection of love in this life, then we necessarily and spontaneously desire to achieve it after death. This would enable us to come face to face with the Lord without looking away due to some imperfection of love that impedes us from meeting his loving gaze.

Again, we are using images and human language. All such images are inevitably imperfect and fail to clarify the fullness of the mystery.

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Readers may send questions to 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.