The use of holy water or ritual ablution is common to many religions, and visitors to Catholic churches in Europe will be familiar with seeing the faithful dipping their fingers in the holy water font near the entrance and making the sign of the Cross.
But since March, churches have dispensed with the practice, for coronavirus hygiene reasons. The fonts, also known as stoups, stand empty, while parishioners continue to make the dipping gesture out of sheer habit.
So it was in the church of Sint-Servatius in Diepenbeek near Hasselt in Limburg, until Johan Blokken, the manager of the local ice-cream parlour had a bright idea: why not retrofit a new automatic gesture, by filling an empty hand sanitiser dispenser with holy water?
People are already becoming accustomed to sanitising their hands when entering and exiting, and the dispenser would be perfectly in line with hygiene rules.
“We started chatting about this a few weeks ago,” Johan’s daughter Caroline explained to De Standaard.
“We were sitting around the table when Dad spotted the alcohol dispenser in the shop. We tried filling the dispenser with water. By adjusting the amount of water to be dispensed, we got just enough water on our hands to make a sign of the cross. So the solution was found.”
“People who enter the church via the entrance on the Marktplein are first asked to disinfect their hands with alcohol gel,” said deacon Jos Holsteens.
“A metre and a half further on is the second dispenser, with holy water. There we ask people to slide their left hand under the dispenser so they don’t touch anything. When they have a quantity of holy water in their hand, they can make the sign of the cross with the right hand.”
And there’s no danger of a run on holy water if other churches pick up on the idea – they make their own.
“There is certainly enough in the dispenser for one Mass, and with some water and a few grams of salt, we immediately have a new stock. Although we do have to say a prayer of blessing over the water and salt beforehand,” he said.
The parish priest, Father Ludo Vaes, says the faithful are happy with the gesture.
“We only set up the dispenser at Mass time, to prevent abuse,” he said.
“At the same time, we are going to look into how we can place something similar in our other Diepenbeek churches, at Rooierheide and in Lutselus.”