How Much Water in the Wine?

During the preparation of the chalice (see HERE for another interesting post on this topic), the deacon or priest who is doing the preparation is supposed to add some water to the wine. This is done

…as the Council of Trent observes, “both because it is believed that Christ the Lord did this, and because from his side flowed forth water as well as blood, and by this mixture this mystery is recalled, and, since in the Apocalypse of blessed John water represents the people, the union of this faithful people with Christ, the head, is represented [by the mixture].” (Rev. J.B. O’Connell, The Celebration of the Mass, page 133)

The foregoing explanation does not necessarily account for the historical development of this practice: often, things to which we afford some mystical significance now were added to our rituals initially for practical reasons. For example, I have heard it said that in the ancient world wine was often mixed with water because it tended to be strong — thus to dilute it somewhat and so make it more palatable.

Regardless of how the practice originated and its precise meaning, a very practical matter surfaces: How much water is too much when doing the mixing? It’s obvious that if you keep adding water to wine at some point it dilutes it to the extent that it no longer has the qualities of wine and is not seen as such any longer. When would we get to that point — and so invalidate the matter used for Mass — during the offertory?

Answers in this matter are perhaps a bit surprising. I say this because basically I do not remember much attention being given this in my seminary training (though my memory is subject to frequent lapses and failures), and somehow it had more or less gotten fixed in my head at some point that as long as more than half of the mixture was wine, then it was still truly wine and so permissible for Holy Mass. (I have since abandoned that idea, as you will see in what follows.)

As with many things, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal is not very thorough in describing what is needed. In numbers 142 and 178 it simply provides a description: wine is mixed with a little bit of water; in number 322 is notes that true wine is needed; in number 324 it says what to do if a priest discovers that only water has been put in the chalice. No information is given about how much water to mix with the wine — or how much water is too much.

As usual, we can look to older manuals to help us figure this out. I have a theory that with many things in the newer form of the Mass, it was taken for granted by the reformers of that time that certain customs/mores would be preserved, and that it was considered “stuffy” to have to write all that stuff out in long form now. The preference, instead, was to provide simple instructions that took for granted “how things had always been done”. The problem with this approach is that unless the collective wisdom is actively handed on — and it largely wasn’t — then we become unmoored from the traditions of our Rite and we start making things up ourselves to fill in the blanks. Thus the latest edition of the GIRM reminds us:

42. […] Attention must therefore be paid to what is determined by this General Instruction and by the traditional practice of the Roman Rite and to what serves the common spiritual good of the People of God, rather than private inclination or arbitrary choice.

— And I keep returning to this point on the blog as I write on these various topics.

Anyway, older manuals help us to figure out how much water is too much. The answer may surprise for two reasons: both how little water is too much, and how manualists are not totally in agreement.

First, a moral manual — “Jone” (Moral Theology by Fr. Heribert Jone — no longer in print, irritatingly):

A little water must be added to the wine during the Holy Sacrifice. Should a priest forget to do so at the offertory, this must be done sometime before consecration; it may never be done after the consecration of the chalice. A single drop of water is enough to comply with the rubric. If the water added should exceed a third part of the wine the latter would become doubtful matter; light wine would thereby become invalid. (Jone no. 494)

So Jone sees too much as “more than a 1/3 water to wine ratio”; a “single drop” is enough. It’s interesting to note why the next author, O’Connell (The Celebration of the Mass), says that one drop probably isn’t enough:

The water which is to be added must be natural water, rose water or other distilled waters will not do, and the quantity must be small. Two or three drops will suffice – it is dangerous to add one drop only, lest it adhere to the side of the chalice and should not mingle with the wine – but a somewhat larger quantity may be used. This water is certainly converted into the Precious Blood, probably by way of complete absorption into the wine. (pages 133-134)

So O’Connell wants to see two or three drops, lest one drop only never make it down the inside of the cup into the wine. (Again, see THIS post in connection with this!) But then in a footnote, he clarifies how much is too much: “Theologians think that even as much as a quarter – or even a third, in the case of good wine – of the quantity of wine, would not render the mixture doubtful matter, unless the wine was very light in quality.” (footnote 74, page 134)

Thus O’Connell is substantially in agreement with Jone, but slightly more cautious: no more than a 1/4 ratio is a good idea, in case the wine isn’t of the greatest quality, but up to 1/3 is probably OK if the wine is good.

Stop for a moment and think about the small amount of wine that a priest puts in the main celebrant chalice in many cases — just enough for himself, a small gulp really. Maybe a teaspoon or at most a tablespoon. So when you think about that quantity, two or three drops of water are probably already approaching 1/4 of the volume of liquid!

Well, it is good to consult a very fine Italian liturgical manual for these sorts of questions, also — Tremoloni (Ludovico Tremoloni, Compendio di Liturgia Pratica, 3a Edizione). Here is what Tremoloni says (my translation):

…recall that even the strictest authors admit validity and liceity for a one-fifth mixture of water — and some allow for more. The wine can be white or red, even if white is to be preferred for reasons of cleanliness (since it does not stain the sacred linens). (page 218)

So Tremoloni actually is the most conservative of all the authors (and he does cite a well-regarded moral manual for what he says — Piscetta-Gennaro), allowing for a 1/5 ratio ordinarily, though admitting that some authors are more lenient.

(I included his comment about the color of wine for interest — I think some people think it must be red because then it looks more like blood; while there is perhaps a greater sign value to using red, using white is totally legitimate and — I might add — quite common in most places outside the U.S. that I have been to!)

From all of the foregoing the take-away may be: it really should only be a couple of drops of water. And those are drops, not “splashes”.

In light of the consolidated opinion of moralists and liturgists on this matter, the custom did arise in some places of using a small spoon — popularly called a scruple spoon — to get just the right amount of water in the chalice:

It is a very small ladle-like spoon, designed to sit in the water cruet or at least be able to fit inside its mouth, by which a small quantity of water may easily and quickly be added to the wine during the preparation of the chalice. It takes the guesswork out and just makes things go more quickly and smoothly. Since cruets come in many shapes and sizes, sometimes are overfilled, sometimes pour faster than one realizes, and so forth, a spoon like this just makes things easier.

I have encountered scruple spoons “in the wild” (mostly in Italy) and always appreciate using them. Still, it’s not rocket science to pour a small amount of water from a cruet, and there is always the possibility of pouring in some more wine if needed — as I have had to do on occasion where the water came out faster than I was expecting. (Though it’s fun to note that Tremoloni talks down the practice of pouring in more wine, implying it might be a bit scrupulous to do so since more than one drop of water can be added — even as he also has the tightest water-wine ratio of the manuals I surveyed!) One figures it out.

I would be curious to know how many priests ordained in, say, the last thirty years, learned anything about the foregoing — beyond a more or less “close enough” or “no fuss” approach that does not want to come across as too “stuffy” – but may, in the end, border on sloppiness.

Uncritical eschewing of stuffiness risks grave error, because in its pursuit of alleged simplicity it often fails to consider the context — and in this case, we are dealing with the very matter of our greatest sacrament, the Most Blessed Sacrament. We need to get that right! So this is serious business, and having a good sense of how things should be done and then approaching celebration in a consistent way can ensure that one both gets it right and does not get bogged down in “fussiness” in the process.

Again, another post on the preparation of the chalice HERE.

This entry was posted in Scheduled and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.