Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Appropriate Times for Blessing

In this third installment on the highly controversial should-we-bless-children-in-the-communion-line series :), I address a key sticking point for objectors to the practice, namely, that it is inopportune, that there are more appropriate times for such a blessing.

First, I want to dispense with a few misconceptions:

  1. Receiving a blessing in the communion line is inherently disruptive. - It is true that it can be disruptive, and it can be so due to the priest or deacon's actions or the recipient/family's actions. It could also be disruptive for people who think it shouldn't happen and start getting all anxious about it. But it doesn't have to be and in most cases it isn't. If it is disruptive, that should be addressed, but it is neither inherent nor the norm in practice. As with all good things, abuses should be curtailed when they occur.
  2. Desiring to receive a blessing in the communion line is a matter of impatience. - This seems more a rhetorical red herring than a real objection because obviously no one who attends mass would mind waiting a few minutes more for the general closing blessing--they will almost certainly be there at that point anyways.
  3. Desiring to receive a blessing in the communion line is a matter of sentimentality or an expression of entitlement. I've already addressed this ad nauseum; read the other two posts (starting here) and the comments on them. I admit that for some parents this may be true, but as far as I and my family are concerned, it does not apply, so it cannot be used as an argument against the practice. Again, abuses and misunderstandings should be corrected, but we should consider a thing in itself rather than in its abuses.
So, on to the point at hand. Put simply, as Br. Bob said, the objection is that "the communion line is for communion."

I suppose there are a few ways to respond to this. One way is by considering other things that have a main/primary purpose but are also well suited for secondary things. Take marriage. The primary goods are the mystical union of man and wife and the procreation and raising of children. There are many other goods, to be sure, and these are not excluded by the primary goods. It seems then that a good criterion here would be that the secondary goods do not inherently detract from or negate the primary good. Considered accordingly, it is clear that sacerdotal blessings in the communion line do not inherently detract from nor do they negate the primary good of those receiving communion.

Things can be designed for one purpose but well used for another. Daily experience confirms this in innumerable ways. A truck bed is designed to haul things, but it can be well used to sit in and have a meal together, or sleep in. A wrench is best for applying torque to bolts and nuts, but it can be used as a hammer when one isn't available. A school gym is used best for sports, but it can be used as a place to gather, even for religious services.  The list could go on and on. That something is designed for one thing is not an argument that it cannot be used for other things. In itself, it isn't even an argument that it shouldn't be used for other things--for that, having a criterion as suggested in the last paragraph would be more appropriate.

Another way to respond is to consider the reason why one should not receive communion. Certainly, we can all agree that if you are disposed to receive, you should. Likewise, hopefully, we can all agree that if you are not disposed to receive, you shouldn't. And the reason for this is not because we don't personally deserve to receive--none of us deserves to receive Him on our own merits, and we say as much ("Lord, I am not worthy...", Domine, non sum dignus). The reason is that we are not in the right disposition to receive that Insurpassable Blessing. For us to then, at that time, receive a lesser blessing in its place--according to our disposition--seems to be a good. 

Saying this does not equate the lesser blessing with the Greater One; indeed, we are presuming by the very nature of the Eucharist that if one can receive it, one should, precisely because it surpasses all others. The only reason you would not receive is that you are prevented due to your disposition, not because you desire the lesser blessing more--that would be absurd.

Seen in this way, such a lesser blessing is not only not not appropriate, it is positively appropriate to the disposition of these individuals.

Objectors have elaborated on this objection, suggesting that if such a sacerdotal blessing is so important, why don't I just seek it out on my own time (i.e., outside of the context of the mass). To me, this seems fallacious on a few counts. First, it seems to be moving the goalposts--because they have been unable to find unassailable grounds to deny non-communicants a lesser blessing in the communion line, they change the context of the argument entirely. It's no longer about whether or not it's good to do so in that context, the question is totally changed: "Why don't you get blessed at other times?" To the point at hand, it's kind of irrelevant--no one is saying that we can't get blessed at other times/in other contexts. What we are talking about is whether or not we should do it in the context of the communion line.

It also seems fallacious in that it is too open-ended. Suggest a context, and I can tell you why or why not I would do so. While father is showering? No. While he's sleeping? Eating? Etc.? There are a host of contexts in which it would seem far more inappropriate to seek a blessing than in the communion line. After mass?  Maybe, but Father is busy greeting the whole congregation as they exit, usually. It would be more disruptive and rude, potentially, to interrupt that, because people are typically in far more of a hurry then than they are in the communion line; not to mention, it isn't generally expected--again more inopportune than in the communion line. Wait until after that (an extra 15-20 minutes)? Well, you try doing that with five young children after they've already more (or often less) patiently made it through mass. Surely, I could corner Father at any time and ask for a special blessing, and at times I have (e.g., to ask him to bless an object), but as I said, this is beside the point. No one is suggesting that we can't do this. 

And consider it from his perspective. In the communion line, his focus is there; he has allocated that time already for the purpose of doling out blessings. He and others expect for folks to make their way, one-by-one, up to him, wait for the blessing, receive it, and move on. It is quite solemn and orderly, and that is not changed by these blessings. It makes little difference in terms of time or effort to give The Blessing (the Sacrament) or a lesser blessing. In short, it is more opportune for him, too.

So if the objection about appropriateness is based on whether some other time would work out better for everyone involved, the answer seems to be that no, another time would not. This is the time of blessing. That it is primarily for The Blessing does not inherently mean it cannot be a time also for lesser blessings. (And most pastors seem to agree, in my experience...)

This last point is salient because it speaks to a positive reason why these lesser blessings should be conferred in the communion line--because it is already an ordered time of blessing. It is a time already set apart for it. It makes sense that this time would be used. 

It actually reinforces that this is a special time for children, especially, because they don't just sit distractedly (as is their wont) in the pew or wander distractedly up, waiting for you to do your thing, and wander back. (And as an aside, I guarantee that if it were common practice to leave children alone in pews, there would be far more disruptions than taking them up for blessings with you.) No, rather, having them come up for a blessing actually reinforces in their minds that this is a special time, it is a time when they need to focus and receive what the priest can offer them (that which they are disposed to receive). It trains them from an early age that this part of the liturgy is special and they need to try harder than usual to pay attention.

And this in no way diminishes from their ability to notice and understand that their parents are receiving something different. In fact, it creates a contrast in their minds, because they are more aware of what's going on than if they were just tagging along. They see what their parents receive, and they see what they receive, and it is different, which stimulates in their mind the question why this is so, providing an opportunity for parents to reinforce the reality, the uniqueness of the Sacrament.

So it seems to me that the objection about appropriateness comes from a rather unnecessary and potentially undesirable limiting of the use of this sacred time of conferral and reception of blessing. It seems, on the other hand, that there are many good reasons to bless non-communicants in the communion line, and only a literalist, legalistic reason not to. 

At the end of the day, it's not my judgment in this that matters, however. If I were a parishioner at Fr. Sticha's parish, I would treat him as a treasure. His heart is, in my estimation, in the right place. There have been plenty of liturgical abuses these last many years. There is certainly an unhealthy feel-good and entitlement culture that needs to be addressed. There is surely a lot of residual confusion and lack of knowledge among the laity due to poor catechesis and lack of strong pastoral leadership. Father wants to address these things, and I commend him for it. I only wish to argue that this particular practice of blessing children in the communion line is not the right line in the sand and further that it is not even really a bad practice nor are parents (or other non-communicants) who want it necessarily misguided. It could be a great opportunity for catechesis in the Sacrament, in fact, without withholding the lesser blessing.

If Father Sticha in his pastoral judgment disagrees, then that is his right, until and if his bishop or some other competent ecclesiastical authority tells us otherwise. I am just thankful that in this one respect my pastors have chosen to give our children such blessings (and that they gave me such blessings when I presented myself for them before joining the Church and, at times, after).

Update (13 April 2012): I was just made aware of this letter on the subject from the CDWDS. As Fr. McNamara points out, the letter is not binding, but it gives interesting insight into the congregation's current thinking on the matter--they are inclined towards not approving such blessings.

Also, another blogger, Deacon Kandra, mentions a letter from a friend who remembers such blessings pre-Vatican II. The point being that this is not a new practice that is part of the "Spirit of Vatican II" as it has been lumped in with by many critics. I mentioned somewhere that my children also receive a blessing at the Extraordinary Form we go to semi-regularly--these are priests obviously mindful of liturgical correctness.

It will be interesting to watch how the situation develops. If it is being studied by the CDWDS, we may yet see some ruling. Probably it would be to the effect that they leave it to the bishops/bishops' conferences to make a ruling, as they have with other similar things pertaining to the reception of communion.