Everyone today seems to be terrified of salt. An Oratory father was recently celebrating a Baptism which, at the request of the parents of the child, was in the traditional Roman Rite. One of the ancient rituals involves placing a few grains of salt on the baby’s tongue. Afterwards a godparent admitted that she had been unsettled by this. When asked why she exclaimed: “But father, salt is a poison.”
The truth, of course, is that salt is an essential constituent of the human body. We need to consume a moderate amount of salt regularly to maintain the healthy functioning of our bodies. Salt can even have medicinal uses. The Provost suffers from mild hypotension which can cause light-headedness during liturgical functions. A liberal sprinkling of salt on his boiled eggs and a weekly dose of The Tablet works wonders at raising his blood pressure to the normal level.
Since the earliest centuries, salt has been used by the Church as a sacramental. Originally it was placed in the mouths of catechumens during the process of preparation that they had to undergo before Baptism. The symbolism of this was that they were being given a taster to make them hunger for the truth of the Gospel. The salt used in Baptism has also been blessed and exorcised, which endows it with power against the devil.
On the natural level salt also has a preservative quality. In the days before refrigeration, it was used to protect perishable foods. When we baptize a child who is not yet at the age of reason, the Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity are planted like little seeds in the child’s heart and soul. Placing salt on his tongue in the traditional form of Baptism is symbolic of our prayers that these supernatural treasures will be kept uncorrupted and healthy until he reaches the age when he can consciously engage with them and begin to practice the Faith. In the prayers of the Ritual, salt is described as “the first nourishment” that the child receives at Our Lord’s table. In this sense it can be seen as an appetizer that prepares him to receive the Living Body of Christ in Holy Communion.
Perhaps we can draw an analogy between salt and the religious faith in the age in which we live. Just as salt is considered to be a threat to our health, so religious faith, and particularly our holy Catholic Faith, are seen by many to be a force for ill in the society in which we live.
Very recently the United Nations presented a report on the Vatican in which it strongly urged the Church to change Her teaching on abortion and contraception, amongst other things. In other words, the U.N. seems to be demanding that the Church should deny Her own identity as the pillar and the ground of Truth established by Our Lord Jesus Christ to teach all nations and in all ages with divine mandate. The French Government, meanwhile, has established a “National Observatory of Secularism”. One of its tasks is to monitor religious communities for “signs of pathology”, one of which seems to be adherence to the teaching of the Catholic Catechism on issues such as the sanctity of human life and matrimony.
To many educated and articulate policy-formers, then, the Gospel in its fullness is viewed in the same way that many people see salt – a danger to public health, which must be eliminated from the diet for the organism of human society to flourish.
But if we deprive our bodies of salt, then it is only a matter of time before we shrivel up and expire. And the same goes for the society in which we live if we stifle the religious expression on which our culture is founded. Remove the Gospel from the menu, and civilization will wither and expire. The Catholic Church is the single voice that speaks most consistently and clearly for the protection of human life when it is at its most vulnerable and innocent, in the mother’s womb. Silence that voice of the Church, and we shall soon find that no innocent human life is safe anywhere.
There is no need to despair, however. Yes, salt might have fallen out of fashion. In the most pretentious restaurants it is apparently considered unsophisticated to ask for salt to be brought to the table. But statistics show that people secretly crave salt more than ever. A consumer study conducted not long ago by the Daily Mail has demonstrated that while shoppers like to keep up a respectable facade of healthy eating, the ready-to-eat salads that sell best of all in supermarkets are actually full of salt, even if the high salt content is hidden in the small print on the back of the packet.
And even though it is unfashionable to admit to being Christian, and especially to being Catholic, we can be sure that the human heart continues to crave Catholic Truth. Man’s psychological health depends on the reassurance that his life has a purpose. The Gospel tells him that he was called into being by a Creator Who knows and loves him. The restlessness inside man means that he longs for the knowledge that he has been made for eternal life and everlasting happiness in Heaven. When he is sick, the Gospel will give him the words of life that will give meaning and value even to his suffering. When he is dying, the Church has a Sacrament to strengthen him and to prepare him for his inevitable encounter with Almighty God when his soul departs from his body.
Our Lord tells us that we are “the salt of the earth”. We live in a society that is grazed and wounded by selfishness and Godless materialism, amongst other things. Salt irritates wounds. But it can also help to disinfect them and to heal them, when applied with care.
In bearing witness to our Catholic Faith, it is inevitable that we will cause irritation, especially to the secularist crusaders who would like to bully us out of existence. But we are called to be the salt that reminds society that it is wounded. We have to provide the reasoned voice that keeps the discussion alive. The temptation will sometimes be to keep quiet and to blend in. Only if we live our Faith with ever greater confidence, courage and patience, however, shall we be able to bring the healing and new life that Our Lord wants for this world.
Analogies can only be taken so far. Whatever the benefits of salt to the human body, it should probably only ever be used in moderation. Not so Faith, Hope and Charity: we must pray for these virtues in abundance.