Is it enough for a priest to make the sign of the cross over plain water, to make it “holy water”?
Holy water is one of the Church’s sacramentals. “Sacramentals” are sacred signs instituted by the Church that “signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the Church’s intercession” (Catechism # 1667). Moreover, according to the Code of Canon Law (canon 1167 § 1), “the Apostolic See alone can establish new sacramentals, authentically interpret those already received, or abolish or change any of them.”
A priest can pretty much bless anything, by intending to do so and waving his hand over it in the form of a cross. He could say something very simple — “Benedictus benedicat” (May the Blessed One bless [this thing]” — or he could make up an elaborate and verbose blessing that wows all who hear it. Either way, an item is then blessed afterwards. But does a made-up prayer thereby bring about a sacramental? Or, to the point at hand, if a priest says some random blessing over some water, does it become holy water?
The Code of Canon Law has something more to say about this. The second paragraph of canon 1167 adds this indication: “In confecting or administering sacramentals, the rites and formulas approved by the authority of the Church are to be observed carefully.”
From this we understand that in order to make holy water, one needs to use the ritual provided by the Church for making holy water. It is not enough just to bless it. (There are actually two rituals, I’ll return to this in a moment.)
So if a priest just makes the sign of the cross over water, it is blessed water, not holy water. Some will see this as a ridiculous and petty distinction, but it is important: sacramentals are established by the Church, and through her intercession gain us specific helps. If this water that I use is merely blessed and not holy water per se, I do not gain all the benefits that the Church invests in holy water per se when I use it.
Priests who do not use the Church’s official rituals may end up depriving the faithful of special graces they could otherwise receive.
Now I mentioned that there were two rituals for holy water. This is a somewhat thorny issue. Basically here we are talking about the Ordinary Form ritual versus the Extraordinary Form ritual. The former is a simple blessing of the water that may include (but does not require) the mixing-in of blessed (not exorcized) salt; it is found in Appendix II of the Roman Missal in its latest version. The latter is a far more elaborate ritual that entails exorcizing both salt and water and blessing both several times over the course of about six distinct prayers, all said in Latin (it is not permitted to do them in English); it is found in the old Rituale Romanum. Many priests now prefer to use the Extraordinary Form ritual for the preparation of Holy Water. I’ve written about that before HERE (that post includes recordings of the Latin prayers, for those priests who need help with Latin).
It is good to have things blessed. The Church has a large number of blessings to enrich our lives. Priests may, as I said, bless practically anything ad libitum. But even better than having something that is merely blessed is having something that is a sacramental, where applicable. In the case of holy water, that is certainly the case. Priests should use the Church’s official ritual so that the faithful can gain all the benefits the Church intends.