In the news: Blessings at Communion

An item has resurfaced in Catholic blogdom that deserves some attention.

It is the issue (more contentious than I had thought) of blessing children (and by extension, non-Catholics) during the reception of Communion by the faithful. An American priest, Fr Cory Sticha, has made an impassioned plea to put an end to a practice that he loathes with some gusto. In fact he writes,

“I despise blessing children in the Communion line (and yes, I chose that strong language very carefully), and encourage other priests to stop immediately.”

The ubiquitous Fr Z has taken note of this blogging priest’s statement and supported it, reiterating his own earlier disaaproval of the practice. I, for one, find myself rather torn on this issue, and cannot offer unequivocal support for the good fathers’ position (perhaps a surprising stance for a liturgical conservative).

It’s not that Fr Sticha does not make some excellent points. He laments the persistent ‘feel-good’ factor that has blighted so much of post-conciliar liturgy, and the destructive shift of the focus at Mass from God to “us”, the human community; it is destructive because it is inimical to worship of God, which is what Mass is all about. The memory of the 1980s buzzphrase regarding Mass, “celebration of community” still brings chills and migraines. So if parents are dragging kids up for a blessing just so that they can feel good, feel included, then perhaps something is indeed seriously wrong with their understanding of the Mass.

Likewise to be scorned is the attitude that everyone needs to feel they get something, which Fr Sticha rightly sees as a symptom of the modern “culture of entitlement” and its endless assertion of rights (all too often without any mention of obligations). We do not go to Mass primarily to get something, but to give something: our praise, our worship, our time, our bodies as a living sacrifice (cf Romans 12:1) united with Christ’s sacrifice made present on the altar. The Communion we might receive is the supreme expression of our unity with Christ’s Body that sacrifice and with Christ’s Body in the Church, and should be the consummation of our prior self-giving. Moreover, Fr Sticha is right when he says that kids need to learn that there are some things you just have to wait for, and work for. And of course, as he rightly points out, Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion have no business offering pseudo-blessings – that makes the whole thing a nonsense.

It is hard not to agree with any of this. However, a couple of things needs to be considered as well. First is his claim that blessing children at Communion is in violation of the conciliar teaching that no one “even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, #22). This is an important and oft-forgotten teaching of the Council. Yet I am not sure blessings at Communion are really in violation of this. Nothing is being added to the ritual as such, no violence is being done to the integrity of the liturgical rite. A too-literal interpretation of this would remove any possibility of unscripted remarks, even when they are allowed. It would also be the end of the “rite of parish notices” which predates the conciliar reforms in many places. Mind you, that might not be such a bad thing…

At the abbey, many families come forward as a group at Communion, even if some cannot receive. The presence of these children, and the unity of the family, merits some acknowledgement. Far from working against the necessary lesson that there are some things for which we must wait, the blessing given to children in contrast to the Communion received by parents and older siblings might actually reinforce the message that Communion is something to which they are not yet entitled. Nevertheless, their presence there, and the presence of the family as a group, is something that pleases God and rightly deserves his blessing. Is it such an abuse to offer such a blessing at Communion? (It may be, but I remain to be entirely convinced).

Furthermore, it is not just children who come forward for blessing. Here, at the abbey, we have a goodly number of non-Catholic adults who accompany their Catholic spouses to Mass. Their presence too is cause for joy, for their exposure to the liturgy is integral to the movement God is working within them, a movement towards the Church. All of them approach with reverence and a serious and sober demeanour. It is not mere tokenism for them. In the early Church non-Catholics and those under instruction (the catechumens) were dismissed after what we would now term the Liturgy of the Word. I need to check, but I suspect that their dismissal was not without some sort of encouragement and blessing. We no longer dismiss the catechumens and non-Catholics; we still need to bless them for their presence, and their exposure to the Truth; just as we need to bless the family unit, and the mixed marriages in which the non-Catholic spouse is willing to come to Mass and at least hear the Word. Blessings in such cases seem both to guard the sanctity of Communion, and acknowledge the divine stirrings in the hearts of those still unable to receive Communion. Naturally the need for good catechesis and teaching remains.

Nevertheless, the issues which prompt Fr Sticha to lament the practice of blessings at Communion are serious issues, and need to be addressed more effectively. If that were achieved, perhaps the issue of blessings at Communion might not be so contentious. A possible compromise might be to find another place for some sort of blessing of non-communicants. The danger would be that a quasi-rite could develop that gives such a blessing too much prominence, and thus too much importance. There is something fitting about the discretion of the current practice of blessings in the course of Communion. It may not be traditional; but tradition is not comprised solely of things done before. The Leonine prayers added to the end of the pre-conciliar Mass date from 1884, so are hardly of ancient use, yet their addition was quite uncontroversial. Of course, the difference is that they were papally mandated.

In 2008 the Congregation for Divine Worship issued a response to a question submitted regarding the practice of blessings in place of Communion. It is not supportive, though it makes no mention of blessing children at all, only of adults. Its particular concern centres on those who are separated from the Church by a deliberate act, who might use such a blessing as a “back-door” form of acceptance. That indeed would be reprehensible. The letter from the Congregation’s under-secretary carries no force of law, though that does not mean it can somehow be dismissed out of hand.

In the meantime, there is no explicit ruling either for or against. The Church may well legislate specifically if the issue gets up a head of steam. For now, one can take refuge in the old theological principle, ubi dubium, ibi libertas: where there is doubt, there is freedom.