A friend had just returned from a talk given by a priest—what the precise theme was I do not remember: I was a teenager at the time. However, I do recall the excitement with which my friend recounted the priest’s explanation of Holy Water, and the reason why Catholics bless themselves before and after Mass. “It wards demons and evil spirits! It keeps them from distracting us during Mass and tempting us in life.” Perhaps I was already a bit of skeptic in my adolescence, but though I commented not, I had a sneaking suspicion that her priest’s explanation was rather shallow. Blessing ourselves with Holy Water has to serve a greater purpose than creating a Christian Force Field.
We Catholics are by no means the only religious adherents who bless themselves with water prior to the worship of God; in fact, in Islam and strands of Judaism and Hinduism their ritual blessings carry considerably more import than our sprinklings or signings. Unlike these traditions, however, our oft neglected blessings with Holy Water are not prerequisites for worship: they are reminders of our once-for-all invitation to worship God through Baptism.
Given the preeminence of Infant Baptism in the Catholic Church, I do not think the psychology of this moment can be understated (especially in youth ministry). When we enter our churches, we are given the chance to claim for ourselves what was claimed for us in our childhood. Not knowing whether we would grow up to be saints or jerks, our families and our Church welcomed us regardless, declaring publicly that we would be persons of faith, hope, and love.
Thus, as we dip our hands into the Holy Water font upon entering a church or chapel, we do not simply prepare ourselves for Mass, but affirm the ludicrous amount of trust placed in us years before through Baptism. As we bless ourselves upon departure, we further accept the mission to place similarly ludicrous amounts of trust in others: a mission which calls us to serve them and invite them to lives of love, prayer, and worship.
Catholic ministry, unsurprisingly, is guided by this same baptismal principle of trusting invitation. We cannot come to a vocation as clergy, educator, or formator out of a sense of right or destiny. We are servants not saviors; we are first called upon by God and by the People of God to help others foster lives of prayer and service. Thus, while we often think of a vocation to ministry as something that is ours, we must remember that it originates in the call of another. The first act of ministry is not our own: it proceeds from the trust of others.
As our life of faith—especially our Eucharistic practice—calls us further into contemplation of the gift and duties of our Baptism, our life of ministry demands a constant awareness of and reflection upon the trust placed in us. If we fail to do this, we are liable to do great harm not only to these, our brothers and sisters in Christ, but also to ourselves. However, if this trust is at the forefront of our prayer we will be ever reminded that our ministry is a gift, and because it is God’s gift, the source of our greatest joy and fulfillment.