Saturday, April 7, 2012

Please Give My Kids Their Spiritual Vitamins

As I was getting out of the truck with the groceries today, I came across Fr. Cory Sticha's blog on "Why I refuse to bless children at Communion." My immediate response, as posted on his G+ share of this blog was, "Bah humbug!" I thought maybe I should elaborate. :) Keeping in mind this is just the opinion of a layman who is willing to submit his judgment to the Church...

First off, my response comes from being a parent of five young children, and specifically my desire for them to receive as many blessings as possible. We've moved about the country a bit in our time (Tulsa, OK to Tampa, FL to central NJ), and within those places, we've moved locally such that we were situated near different parishes, not to mention traveling a fair bit and visiting other parishes. I mention that just to say that we've observed a fair variety of local customs in the US, and my impression (not by any means scientific) is that it was more common than not for our children to receive a blessing. It was common enough such that when we visit places that do not, my wife doesn't fail to comment on it (in a not praiseworthy manner).

Frankly, prior to reading Fr. Sticha's post, I had assumed that it was indeed normal practice, perhaps even sanctioned by the USCCB, and a non-controversial issue. I mean, I have considered whether or not EMs should do it, and I even suggested to our pastor at a parish where they did that perhaps they should not. He agreed and that was that. But it was never so much a question of whether or not it should be done at all. So I have to say I was a bit surprised in reading his post.

I have to say, maybe it's my non-denominational Protestant upbringing, but it seems to me that sometimes we Catholics can truly be overly fond of our strictures and rigors. I mean, I actually really like formal liturgy and structure--think it's important and indispensable--but I have felt on more than one occasion that some folks take it too far, dare I say Pharisaically (in the stricter meaning as one who really does do everything by the letter to a T).

Fr. Sticha cites Sacrosantcum Concilium (SC) 22 as, it seems, his primary motivation for not giving the blessing.  In my reading up more on this topic, I came across a series in Zenit's long-running liturgical Q&A on the subject of Blessings for Non-Communicants. In the second follow up, Fr. McNamara addresses that particular objection, noting, "Since much liturgical law is grounded in custom, canonists generally admit that, according to canons 23-28, some ecclesial communities have the capacity to introduce customs that either interpret the law, or fill a vacuum or silence regarding the law." In short, it seems the issue is certainly not as cut and dry as a simple reading of SC 22 might give the impression to be. (It should be noted that Fr. McNamara's personal opinion is also one of reticence towards this particular custom, but he is trying to be fair and provide both sides.)

Not only this, but the British bishops' conference have actually encouraged the practice, saying, "to receive a 'blessing' at the moment of Communion emphasizes that a deep spiritual communion is possible even when we do not share together the Sacrament of the Body and blood of Christ." And Fr. McNamara alludes to other bishops here and there who either encourage the custom or do it themselves. Further, it would seem that even the Holy Father approves the custom--at least for Catholic children--as he himself gave such a blessing publicly, as mentioned in this response on Catholic Exchange.

Fr. Sticha suggests that doing this is "disobedient" to SC. Well, I guess these bishops and the Holy Father (usually a very strict and traditional liturgist) are disobedient, or maybe Fr. Sticha's strict interpretation of SC might need to be re-examined.

Next, Fr. Sticha tears us parents a new one, saying that we parents ask for it because of our entitlement culture, because it makes our kids feel special and warm and fuzzy (or rather, us), lumping in blessing of children with every other conceivable liturgical abuse in the last thirty years. He goes so far as to say he despises blessing children in this way. (Now maybe you understand my response of "bah humbug," eh?)

Wow. This is over the top. First off, this is presuming a lot. It presumes the worst possible motivations for us parents to have in this case. I would expect more generosity on a pastoral issue like this. Even if the less-well-catechized parishioners don't articulate it well, I think it stems from a good parental motivation. I can say that I, too, am a critic of the entitlement culture. Not only that, I am rather traditional in my liturgical leanings. But I don't call myself a traditionalist or "traditional Catholic" (or "trad" or "traddie").

That's because one thing that I don't see as a good in traditional circles, but that is fairly prevalent, is this legalist/rigorist/scrupulous mentality that does not accord with Scripture. Think about it, every time someone comes down on the side of strict adherence to traditions/laws, God shows them up--with Christ and the Pharisees, with St. Paul's breaking down the walls for the Gentiles, with God revealing to St. Peter himself on the rooftop, with the enumeration of the fruit of the Spirit. I'm not one for abuses or transgressing in "the Spirit of VII" by any means, but there is another, equally dangerous extreme to be avoided here. There's a reason that we have a good few supposed traditionalist groups who are either in formal schism or bordering on it--they think they're more Catholic than the Church.

The fact that people (not just Fr. Cory to be fair--he is in some good company) are nitpicking giving a blessing to children is to any outsider pretty unbelievable; it is scroogery. Forget about "feeling good"--in our eagerness to combat excesses of the feel good culture, have we lost sight of charity and generosity?  Do we truly imagine God to be so stingy with his grace and blessings so that he would object to sending his blessing upon children who do not yet communicate? (Or other non-communicants for that matter?) It seems to me to be something of a scandal that this is a controversial issue, even a minor one, in the Church.

As I understand it, in the Eastern churches, communion is given to children when they are baptized (and they are confirmed)--all three sacraments of initiation. They allow their children the great boon of the Body and Blood at such early ages, but we are supposed to deny our children even a blessing?  The Eastern churches are even more protective of communion as a sign of unity than we are, yet they allow it to their children. We withhold the Sacrament from our children so as to better prepare them to understand and partake, not to create some jealous desire for it. There is little justification to withhold a lesser blessing when we are already withholding a greater one.

This is not about "feeling good" or warm and fuzzy; it's about real grace, a real grace that can be received through the blessing of those with Holy Orders. To suggest that such blessings are only about feeling good actually does violence to the faculty of Holy Orders.

Do I want my children to "get something" out of this?  You bet. This is a Good Thing. I want my children to have every exposure to God's grace that I can give them, every blessing. To suggest that this is a bad motivation for parents does violence to the whole concept of parenthood--which is all about seeking the Good for your children.

Again, I say it is scandalous (and I don't choose that term lightly) for priests to make much ado about this and withhold blessings from children. They are preventing parents from obtaining such a good for their children, and it's especially outrageous and inappropriate to do so on grounds of some perceived culture war. If parents don't understand the real value of such blessings, it's an opportunity to further educate them, a teaching moment. That would be a better pastoral response than to deny the good to all based on that potential misconception.

A commenter on Fr. Sticha's post suggests that the final blessing is somehow sufficient, i.e., children don't need a special blessing because they get the general one at the end. Again, this speaks to me of a certain stinginess with God's grace. If we believe that God imparts real grace through the blessings of ordained ministers, you'd think those ministers would be going crazy, blessing every chance they get. I think I would, anyways. Why are we even talking about what is sufficient? God is more than sufficient. He is infinite; we can never exhaust the riches of his grace, so why are we being stingy about it?

Now there is a decent objection in what Fr. McNamara and what I think was at the heart of Abp. Chaput's criticism--the concern that somehow such blessings can come to be seen as an equivalent blessing as partaking. To me, this seems to be rather flimsy grounds to object (a potential conceptual challenge) versus the denial of *real* grace imparted through sacerdotal blessings. And I can speak from personal experience that my daughter is in no way confused on this matter, even though she received many such blessings prior to her first communion. Everyone, even our separated brethren, understand that we think that the Body and Blood are extremely special and that's precisely why we are protective of it. The fact that we offer a different blessing is in fact evidence that it is not the same--otherwise we wouldn't need to offer it.

I encourage all priests and deacons, please, do not be stingy with this grace. Teach parents and children that this is a means of grace for the children, that it is (as one of my priests likes to call it) "spiritual vitamins" (a spiritual communion), and if necessary, correct them if they speak of it as an entitlement or confuse it with the good of receiving the Body and Blood.

Update (10 April 2012): In response to how Fr. Sticha's post has been received, I offer this further response.

Update (later 10 April 2012): Addressing the particular objection of appropriateness.