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.

Monday, April 9, 2012

More On Why Children Should Be Blessed in the Communion Line

Predictably, Father Z comes down on the side of strict adherence to the letter of the law in the question of blessing of children at communion time. It's worth pointing out that the main thing he highlights is the "feel good" aspect. No surprise there--he considers himself a literalist liturgical watchdog and enemy of any contemporary culture seeping into the liturgy. And Father Z is not above judging the Pope in matters of liturgy, either.

But interestingly--and worshippers of the letter of the law should take note here--he says not that the case is closed but that "we could use more and intelligent conversation about this wide-spread practice." Indeed. Unfortunately, that's not what Fr. Sticha's post seems to be stimulating. Rather, my devout Catholic buddies seem to be focusing on Fr. Sticha's indictment of the feel good and entitlement culture (something I generally could agree on), buying into that characterization as the sole reason for blessing children at that time.

However, as I pointed out in my last post, this is an ungenerous simplification and, as I see it, an injustice to parents. Furthermore, it does violence to the nature of sacerdotal blessing (as being just something that gives us warm fuzzies instead of real blessing/grace). I also offered evidence of 1) a bishops conference supporting it and 2) the Holy Father himself doing it.

All these counterpoints are being ignored as folks, I must observe, self-righteously clap each other on the back, acknowledging their greater liturgical enlightenment over we silly wishy-washy parents who are foolish enough to desire a special priestly blessing for our children, the same children who, it must again be noted, are refused the Sacrament in the Latin rite for several years as a discipline (i.e., not an irreformable/infallible dogma). As I said before, in our rite we are withholding that greater good, so offering the lesser good of a priestly blessing in its place seems a good thing (and many priests and even bishops seem to agree--and to hastily generalize and characterize them all as disobedient or unorthodox would be an injustice).

The sole commenter on my post, sadly, took a simplistic and side-stepping approach, saying, "The communion line is for reception of Holy Communion." Really? I didn't know that. Sigh. Excuse me while I dismiss that dismissal of my arguments.

I apologize if I'm a little grouchy on this, but it does hit close to home. What's more, I see more religious pride at play in how Fr. Sticha's post is being received than real consideration of the pros and cons (again, because the main arguments seem to be based more against the perceived "feel good"/entitlement motivations). Anyone who reads my stuff can readily see I'm not one to go with the flow and base my opinions on what feels good, so I submit that, as Fr. Z suggests, we have "more and intelligent conversation about this widespread practice," instead of just patting ourselves on the backs.

Let me offer one more consideration in favor of the practice:
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked them, but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” 
After he placed his hands on them, he went away. (Matt 19:13-15)
I wonder if some of the reasons the disciples rebuked them are not the same as those rebuking parents/priests who bless today. But priests are in persona Christi, especially at mass, especially at communion. Maybe it is good and right to wait for children to mature before they partake, but that does not mean they should be entirely turned away. Instead, let priests act truly in the person of Christ, in imitation of him, and place their hands on the children and bless them.

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

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.

Friday, April 6, 2012


People have been emailing me, asking why, why haven't I blogged the last couple days. I'm sorry fans, but I've just been chillin with the fam. (I kid, no one noticed. ;) ) But since I am supposed to be doing this--just a few more days, and then I'll give you a real break, I promise.

Actually, yesterday I was staring at the screen, the empty blog post window, with hands on keyboard, but I just couldn't think of anything to say. I am in fact having the same experience right now; hence this blather. Last night I was going to blog, but then I started holding Iain and fell asleep on the couch. Next thing I knew, it was bedtime.

So this is what I gotta say today: take some time and go spend it with your family. Peace!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Unto Us a Child Is Born

Apologies for not blogging yesterday (I'm sure you're really disappointed ;-) ). I excuse myself for having a very busy day at work and then having to get to bed way early for a ridiculously early morning today at the hospital.

The midwife asked us to get there at 6a, and we managed (almost). Turns out, it seems we probably didn't need to be there that early, but c'est la vie. To make a long story short, our fifth child was born today at 14:55 EDT. He's a boy: Iain Hamish Gregor, weighing in at nine pounds even and twenty-two inches tall (or long, depending on your perspective). Baby and mom are doing well, resting.

Here's his first pic:

Friends and family are welcome to see more, including vids, in our Iain's Birth set at Flickr. I'll be adding to it as we take more in the next few days most like.

Peace out! :)