Blessings of children

It was with a sense of dismay that I read the posts over at Father Z and The Deacon’s Bench, regarding the issue of whether or not children should be given blessings during the distribution of the Eucharist. My initial knee-jerk reaction was “oh no, not another thing I’m doing wrong, gosh these traddies ARE strict and it does seem rather mean-spirited”.

The arguments against not giving children blessings are however logically coherent. Firstly and perhaps most importantly, it is not in the rubrics. Whilst it may not be the most serious of liturgical abuses, it needs to be remembered that the liturgy is at the centre of our faith and as Cardinal Burke noted last year we must ensure that the Eucharist is entered into properly , according to Church norms, if we are not to weaken or lose our faith.

Secondly, the blessing of children seems to have its roots in a very Anglican practice, namely that all are welcome around the Lord’s table. Wonderful as this sounds, the Eucharist is no mere symbol, it is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He offers himself to all however we have to ensure that we are in a state to receive Him and not guilty of mortal sin. Whereas in Anglican churches sidespeople enthusiastically shepherd all members of the congregation to the altar, row by row, either to receive communion or a blessing, there is reason why this practice does not occur in Catholic churches. The responsibility remains on the communicant to decide whether or not they should present for communion, as to partake of communion in a state of mortal sin or not believing in the real presence is an offence against God himself as it profanes the Eucharist.

This is why it is important that not everybody is herded up en masse to receive as to do so places undue pressure upon those who may not be able to receive for a multitude of reasons, such as not having observed the Eucharistic fast or perhaps already having received the Eucharist twice that day already. If everyone is always encouraged to traipse up to the altar then those who must not receive the Eucharist may well receive out of either habit or fear of what others may think.

To take children up to the altar during communion can foster a misleading attitude in terms of how we think of the Eucharist. It is not simply about us, but about God meeting with us, not something to which we are entitled, but something which is freely given, of which we must ensure that we are worthy of receiving.

I can identify with Fr Cory Sticha when he says:

“One of the arguments frequently given in defense of blessing children is, “They feel like they get something.” Yes, because we wouldn’t want our children to learn how to do something without getting something in return.”

On the occasions where we have attended the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, my eldest has got quite indignant that she has been instructed to stay behind in the pews, “it’s not fair” being the refrain, she feels excluded and of course all children of a certain age want to join in with what their parents are doing. Whilst it is undoubtedly character building, given the practice goes on in the Novus Ordo, it’s another (minor) barrier for us in terms of exploring the Extraordinary Form. The eldest hates it, has no idea what is going on, finds it unintelligible and she’s not even allowed to join in for a blessing.

I’m not sure whether or not I agree with the sentiment that often parents want the children to go up because it gives them the warm and fuzzies. Whilst this may be the case in some families, the eldest went through a prolonged shy period until she was about six and I had no desire to trundle up a truculent child, ensuring that she kept her arms in the requisite crossed position or didn’t shy away from being touched like a scalded cat before eagerly dashing back to her seat, but we did so, not knowing any better, thinking it was the done thing. I’m not particularly comfortable with the blessings distributed by the extraordinary ministers of communion either. But then again I’m not entirely comfortable with extraordinary ministers of communion distributing the body …

On the other hand, when one listens to the blessings that are given out to the children, they are certainly not priestly or sacramental, being somewhere along the lines of “God bless you dear” or “May the Lord Jesus bless you and keep you safe”. They are carefully worded to ensure that there can be no confusion that this is a sacramental or “official” blessing. In which case what on earth are blessings doing during the distribution, particularly given that they are wholly unnecessary, a blessing is given to the entire congregation at the end of the Mass?

There’s also the issue of very little children such as ours. If the baby is left in her car seat during communion, she wails inconsolably fearing permanent abandonment and disturbs the peace of the others; if the toddler is not firmly manacled or forcibly velcroed to an adult during communion, she will run off to begin disassembling of the Easter garden or the shrine to our patron saint. We have very little practical choice other than to take them up with us. So of course when faced with my beaming brood of Botticelli cherubs any priest with half a heart will naturally want to give them a little blessing…And why not?

The formidable Elizabeth Scalia has reminded me of why I don’t eat peanuts in bars, when she questions the hygiene aspect of the practice – the priest will touch little Xavier on the head or face prior to to dipping his hand back into the ciborium to dispense the Body to the next person. Not something that is worth dwelling upon in any great detail. The Church should not be stingy with blessings she argues and sits on the fence, blessings of children, is not something that we should get het up about either way, it should be an individual matter for each parish.

I’m not sure that I agree. Whilst not to bless children seems very much against the spirit of Mark 10:14, it is not as if the children are being forbidden from getting to know Christ and building a relationship with Him. It is precisely because of the reverence in which the Church holds the Eucharist that it prescribes the certain conditions under which one is eligible to receive. We are not telling children that they are exempt from the Eucharist or the altar for ever, in fact we are teaching them a valuable lesson in terms of its importance.

What is important pastorally is that there is consistency, i.e that practices and customs do not vary from parish to parish and priest to priest, causing confusion, upset and hurt. It would therefore be helpful to see some official clarification from the Vatican one way or another. Technically this should be a piece of cake next to Summorum Pontificum. But then again, as my husband and countless clergy will testify, some of the biggest causes of fallings out amongst congregations are where precious offspring are involved. Perhaps this is one of those battles that just isn’t worth fighting?

Update:

Joseph Shaw has written a detailed post that outlines precisely how this practice contravenes the rubrics. A few important points come to light, firstly that the blessing of children was never outlined in the list of liturgical abuses described by the Blessed John Paul II, which means that secondly, the majority of the faithful are unaware as I was, that this should not be customary.

One of his commenters raises a point that I was thinking of when writing the post. Many non-Catholics and/or those not permitted to receive communion often come to receive a blessing in good faith, as a sign that they are making a spiritual communion. Indeed the celebrant often invites them to do so. In the light of this it seems that official clarification and pastoral advice is overdue.

13 thoughts on “Blessings of children

  1. I have heard it suggested that children ought not to be at Mass until they understand what is going on. Perhaps that would solve the problem?

    1. I am not sure that is the answer. Children need to learn to behave at Mass, Church should be a familiar welcoming environment in which they feel comfortable and in which they can learn the richness and customs of our faith via the examples of our extended church family.

      1. I agree with you that they should feel comfortable in church, but this may come from frequent visits to church with their parents during the week. It is not just at Mass that we can show our adoration for our Lord.

    2. It would have prevented me from going to Mass altogether…I have no-one to leave the children with! That surely can’t be the answer either!

  2. I got to “extraordinary ministers of communion distributing the body” and did a double-take!

    I think that perhaps customs differing is all right as long as it is clear that it is the customs, not the beliefs, that differ. A simple “it is our custom to offer a blessing to those who come forward but there is no obligation to do so” could maybe clear things up a bit?

  3. “…the hygiene aspect of the practice – the priest will touch little Xavier on the head or face prior to to dipping his hand back into the ciborium to dispense the Body to the next person.”

    Unless little Xavier has headlice or an infectious skin disease this isn’t really a hygiene issue.But, if hygiene is your concern, then I hope you never have to receive communion straight after someone receiving on the tongue – think how easy it is for saliva to end up on the minister’s fingers!!

  4. FWIW I have rather mixed feelings about this whole subject. When I was growing up — these sorts of ‘blessings’ at Communion time were never given. Then I saw the practice gradually creep in about 20 years ago. I’d really have liked to have given a swat with a rolled up newspaper to whichever group of hippies encouraged it in the first place. HOWEVER, seeing as it’s so widespread one really has to question whether it’s an abuse to the extent that’s worth fighting a battle over. I’d have to say no. For years I had assisted at as EM at a parish in San Diego in the middle of a tourist area. People came from all over with customs from different localities. Believe me it was MUCH simpler to keep the line moving if you merely said ‘God bless you’ than to explain why blessing weren’t supposed to be done. ‘Father will bless you after Mass if you’d like’ ‘Huh?’ ‘FATHER WILL BLESS YOU AFTER MASS, This is supposed to be for Communion’ then you’d wind up with hurt feelings, etc. This was especially hard if you had a 4 year old intent on staying rooted to the spot until he/she received ‘a blessing.’
    I must say I was rather surprised though, when I attended FSSP Masses for the last year and a half I was there. The FSSP priests *all* gave young children a blessing at Communion time. And this was even visiting FSSP priests. It’s not the end of the world. (But we can see it from here. ;-D )

  5. As to not having an usher ‘herding’ people row by row like the Anglicans…uhm…I live in Carlisle and here they DO do that. The ushers literally point you up the isle…so…so much for ‘in Catholic churches that doesn’t happen’. As for the blessing of children, I like it! And I wouldn’t leave the girls in their pew, the church is too big for that, and especially when they were younger I would have worried if they were okay ‘back there’…

  6. Thank you for this post, Caroline: I’m coming from a different perspective here, but it’s given me quite a bit to consider.

    I kind of feel like I’m intruding a bit here, and I’m bound to have misunderstood something, and I’m sorry for going on at such length, but…

    As a Methodist, the practice of offering a blessing at the rail for any and all who do not (for whatever reason) receive is the norm for me – though I seem to recall that when I was a child we were generally off in Sunday school at the critical moment so the issue very rarely arose. As a communicant within my own denomination, and being also permitted to receive when I visit Anglican churches, I find it stirs very powerful and very mixed emotions to have to remain in the pew on those occasions I attend mass.

    It’s always good to be welcoming, and attending and participating in mass (so far as is possible) is I think necessary in order to understand what is actually happening. I can see this as a strong argument in favour of blessing children and others who are (again, for whatever reason) non-communicants. I certainly appreciate how powerful and helpful a blessing can be for those not able to receive.

    Having once been at mass and felt very strongly that I wanted to go up for a blessing, and been eventually persuaded to do so by the fact that a great number of small children and the very occasional adult were doing so, I did. I found it enormously powerful and was hugely glad I’d done it. Then I discovered only a few days later that it wasn’t allowed, and felt phenomenally guilty. On a personal level, I’m selfishly relieved that there’s so little awareness of this within Catholicism: I feel a little less bad about having been ignorant of this now that I’m aware of how misunderstood it is.

    After experiencing that, I’m hugely reluctant to take a stance which would deny a similar experience of God to anyone else, and particularly so where this is a stage in reaching or returning to a position where they *can* receive. However, I think that I’m reluctantly obliged to take such a position. I think that this is one area where theology definitely needs to overrule – in a sensitive manner – pastoral concerns. (At least, I think this is what I think; I’m still working through this in my head.)

    There are strong theological reasons for the rubrics, and this whole issue fits into a wider understanding of where, how, when and why blessings are given and received. It’s not an arbitrary rule, or one whose origins are lost in time; it’s rooted in Eucharistic theology. The rubrics rest on theology (and praxis derived from that theology) which is different from that of the churches where the practice has come from. This is one area where the breadth of Anglicanism is unhelpful, I think: while there are obviously Anglican churches which share the Eucharistic theology of the RCC, the canons and practices of the Church of England equally obviously *aren’t* based on that theology, and it’s a mistake to think that those Anglican practices are transferable.

    The terribly difficult thing, of course, is how to deal with it on a practical level when it’s such a widespread practice, and people are so used to doing it, and expect to do it. It’s an issue that needs to be considered and dealt with away from the communion rail, I think, and probably gradually; turning away those who do present for a blessing wouldn’t be either the loving or practical thing to do.

  7. What an interesting post and discussion! I agree that blessings should not be offered or expected. Catherine’s reasoning, for example, is powerful, as is her testimony of feeling powerful emotions when obliged to stay in the pew; such powerful and mixed emotions are good, it seems to me: we are hungry till we feast on Him!

    Having said which, I dont think anyone should feel constrained to leave small children in the pew: we were always taken up to the communion rail, and not blessed. Simple! Of course, if a priest does bless your child in such circumstances, that’s his responsibility, not yours. If its repeated, you may choose to have a gentle conversation about it.

    I also agree that the transition from where we find ourselves now to where we should be, needs to be undertaken with charity,prudence, and catechesis.

  8. Just on the specific issue of the connections between Anglican practice and blessings, when I was an Anglican I found that the offering of blessings at Catholic masses tended to reemphasize the distinctiveness of Catholic Eucharistic teaching. At our Anglican Church, everyone was encouraged (and indeed expected) to take communion. When going into a Catholic Church, the awareness that this was a Church which, whilst wanting to be welcoming and friendly, insisted on drawing a line, precisely because it was willing to offer blessings but not communion, struck me quite forcibly at the time. Whatever the general rights and wrongs here, I don’t think that the offering of blessings always undermines the sanctity of communion: in my own experience, on some occasions at least, it served rather to underline it.

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