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.