As Catholics, when we walk into a church or a chapel our eyes automatically scan the walls near the entrance. What are we looking for? Holy water.  

The holy water font comes in many different forms in our modern day churches from marble bowls attached to walls to freestanding basins. Still other churches offer holy water in flowing fountains, tempting very small children to dip more than just their tiny fingers into the blessed waters.  

The origin of the holy water font or stoup, as so many other traditions in the Catholic Church, can be traced to ancient times, according to newadvent.org. Known as “the fountain for ablutions (washing a part of the body),” a large fountain, located in the center of the atrium of a basilica, was used by the faithful to wash their hands and feet, a rite that was most likely associated with Judaism. The website also states that as the proportions of Christian basilicas were reduced, so did the size of the holy water font.  

Fountain_at_St_Peter's_Basilica,_Rome_-_2733.tif

The nave of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome contains this holy water font surrounded by cherubs. The font was created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who was commissioned by Pope Innocent X in 1645 to complete the decoration of the pilasters and chapels. © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar/CC BY-SA 3.0 

 

In the early days of the church, materials used for stationary holy water fonts included bronze, marble, granite, terra cotta or solid stone. While some are rather nondescript basins, others, especially during the Middle Ages were quite ornate including the large one surrounded by cherubs at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), Article 1, No. 118 states, “The gathering of the People of God begins with baptism; a church must have a place for the celebration of baptism (baptistery) and for fostering remembrance of the baptismal promises (holy water font).”  

So the next time you reach for the font, remember there is more than just a blessing awaiting. There is a reminder that we have received the sacrament of baptism, “we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission…” (CCC, Part Two, Article 1, No. 1213).  

And say a prayer of thanksgiving for modern transportation and paved roads in keeping dusty feet away from the holy water.