19 February 2008

Sand for Water

Lenten desert? YES! Sand in the fonts? NO!

After the 7.30pm Sunday Mass on campus, a woman approached me and asked, "Father, why is there water in the baptismal font?" Used to esoteric questions from my U.D. students, I took a breath and geared up to give a ferverino on the sacramental uses of water and the first known uses of fonts in the patristic period. . .before I could say a word, she grumbled, "There's not supposed to be any water in there. . .it's supposed to be sand!" I stared at her for a sec and said something like, "Well, that was an unauthorized innovation from the 80's. Trendy nonsense. We don't renounce our baptisms in Lent." She turned and walked away. I was prompted to find this little piece of liturgical arcana. . .

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 Undersecretary


  1. Thankfully in all my travels I've never yet found sand in a baptismal font during Lent.

    There was however, the day I found algae in ours...

  2. Michelle,

    The most disgusting practice I've seen is the sponge-in-the-font trick. If people knew what sort of bacteria grows on wet sponges....(shudder)...

    Fr. Philip

  3. Anonymous8:23 AM

    Dear Fr. Philip,

    YOU GO, FRIAR!!! I was kind' hoping that the Sand in the Font thing was a fond memory, not having seen it anywhere in my travels for some years now...then again, I've also been hoping that somewhere, someplace, they'd discover that jelly donuts are really health food.

    As for the sponge thing, I never really got that in the first place. Your remark made me think of something Aidan Kavanaugh, osb, used to say: The water in the font is called "living water", but NOT because things are growing in it!!!
    I've been to places where the water in the fonts and Holy Water stoops resemble nothing so much as they do swamps or sewage-treatment plants. UGH!

  4. Sand in the baptismal font? Any idea how this practice started?

  5. Chris,

    I'm sure a little research would turn up a journal article or some liturgy workshop nonsense from 1983...however, I have my own theory...I call it the "Martha Stewart Liturgical Boredom Syndrome" (MSLBS). MSLBS occurs most often in a suburban parish with a Baby Boomer pastor and a feminist liturgy director (usually a "sister") both of whom spend too much time thinking about ways to make the liturgy "relevant" (as if this is something WE do). One obsession of those afflicted by MSLBS is to way overextend the good found in a metaphor and then beat it to death with cheap fabric, faux rocks, and a mini-Zen rake. This innovation is, of course, declared a custom of the parish almost immediately so that no sensible instruction with actual theology from Rome can overturn it.

    The only know cure for MSLBS is 300mg each of Redemptionis sacramentum and Summorum pontificum taken twice daily until the tackiness disappears.

    Fr. Philip, OP

  6. Thank you for addressing this issue! I hate reaching into a holy water font, only to find it empty.
    It was a pleasure meeting you at the DEW two weekends ago!

    -Justin Aquila

  7. Anonymous5:37 PM

    Thank you, Father! I ran across this for the 1st time this year in a parish here in Oregon, and I was dumbfounded... I have to admit I tend to be a bit rigid about things regarding Our Faith, but that just took me aback! Luckily it is not my regular parish and it worries me to see such deviations. Thank God for the Dominicans! Veritas! Would the Diocese (or in our case the Archdiocese) have an office to oversee the norms of practice?

    Thank you for your blog!


  8. Aquinas7:36 PM

    Fr Philip,


    Two years ago, the woman who was the "liturgist" at our parish left, and I (I'm the parish's music director) was asked to assume some of her responsibilities. One of the first things I did was to fill the holy water fonts with—gasp!—holy water during Lent. For the past 14 years or so under the previous (MSLBS) regime, we'd had sand—desert themes, aridity, and all the other effluvium from the liturgy workshops she'd attended.

    Then, what happened to me was exactly what happened to you: a woman insisted that sand, not holy water, belonged in those fonts. Having anticipated the problem, I had printed out several copies of the Dicastery's response to the issue, and quietly handed it to her. This was before a Lenten Mass. Ya know, I've never heard another word from her about "why we're not doing things the way we used to"—meaning back in the MSLBS days! Praise God!

    Thanks for a GREAT blog.

  9. Flambeaux7:33 AM

    A priest friend of mine remembers coming down from the dormitory for Office of Readings & Lauds one morning in seminary and finding that some prankster had put little army men and dinosaurs engaged in violent battle in the sand of the jacuzzi-style baptismal font.

    Now, why a seminary needed a jacuzzi-style baptismal font in the first place he was never sure. But it did establish for him that such a practice is insane.

    I'm glad to hear that fad has finally left UD.

  10. Did not know that - thanks, Father!

  11. I've recommended the carrying of holy water, and when sand is encountered, replacing it with holy water IMMEDIATELY and leaving copies of the quoted document from the CDW - "Guerrilla Catechetics"

    All the parishes in town used to have sand/rocks for lent; now the only one that does seems to be the one that started it...