The Asperges is an ancient liturgical action, dating back to at least the 9th century AD. The ritual was in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church as late as the 1962 Missal, which is used in Latin Mass parishes today (both schismatic and non-schismatic). The Asperges was essentially suppressed amidst the liturgical changes that happened during the papacy of Blessed Pope Paul VI. In the Mass of Paul VI, there is mention of the option of using this ritual either before Mass or in lieu of the “Penitential Act:” however, it is extremely rare to actually see this ritual performed in the Novus Ordo–except perchance once or twice a year on Sundays during the Easter Season.
The Asperges is a blessing with Holy Water that precedes High Mass on Sundays. It is done with a metal rod known as an “aspergillum” (my new favorite word) which the Priest repeatedly dips into a small of container of Holy Water. (The aspergillum can also be called an “aspergilium” or an “aspergil.”) The Priest quickly swings the aspergillum over his head in order to sprinkle the Holy Water.
Before Sunday High Mass, the Priest intones an antiphon to lead in the schola (choir). The antiphon “Asperges Me” is usually chanted. During the Season of Easter, the “Vidi Aquam” is used instead. Then, as the choirs chants through the Asperges Me or the Vidi Aquam, the Priest blesses himself with Holy Water, as well as the high altar, the sanctuary space, the altar servers, and lastly the people in the pews.
This ritual sprinkling of Holy Water immediately prior to Sunday High Mass is typically referred to as the “Asperges,” named after the Antiphon which accompanies it for most of the liturgical year.
The Asperges affects in the souls of the faithful a remission of venial sin before entering the Holy of Holies. It is a ritual of purification. It uses the sacramental of Holy Water, and is efficacious to those who participate devoutly. There is also a certain power which flows from the fact that it is a blessing administered by a priest. A priest’s intercession has merit in the eyes of God, and his celebration of the Sacraments is valid, regardless of any holiness or lack of holiness on his part. (To deny the validity of Sacraments celebrated by sinful priests is essentially the heresy of Donatism.)
The glory, grandeur, grace and majesty of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass–which is one and the same with Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross, such that the two are really just the one, self-same Sacrifice–demands that we prepare ourselves internally prior to witnessing so great a mystery, so supreme an act of love.
No young man or woman would go on a date without first attending to his or her bodily hygiene: how much more important is it that we attend to the cleanliness of our souls before we come face-to-face with our Blessed Lord?
Such analogies, though imperfect as all analogies are, can be very beneficial when used properly.
The Asperges is a humble petition to God for mercy. Being mindful of our own sins, even those already forgiven in Confession–especially if they are mortally sinful habits which we have yet to break–is a necessary step to growing in holiness. To paraphrase an old saying associated with Alcoholics Anonymous: the first step to healing is knowing that you have a problem. In like manner: the first step to growing in holiness consists of recognizing how unholy you are; asking God to forgive you; and making a firm resolution to change your ways.
For those baptized who are living in a state of mortal sin, this needs to be done through the Sacrament of Penance. For those who are currently living in a state of grace–even if they have a habitual attachment to grave sin–the Asperges is an excellent way to do so. (Even those in a state of grave sin may still profit from the Asperges: but apart from Perfect Contrition,–an extremely rare form of contrition motivated exclusively by love of God–only the Sacrament of Confession can remit the guilt incurred by mortal sin; and even in the case of Perfect Contrition, Perfect Contrition leads you to want to go to Confession anyways, so it’s not like it’s a substitute for Penance or anything like that.)
There are few things which please God more than a soul that is humble and penitential. So, let us all strive both to practice humility and to be sorry for our sins.