In its widest acceptation Blessing has a variety of meanings in the sacred writings:
- It has taken in a sense that is synonymous with praise; thus the Psalmist, "I will bless the Lord at all times, His praise shall be always in my mouth" (Ps. xxxiii, 1).
- It is used to express a wish or desire that all good fortune, especially of a spiritual or supernatural kind, may go with the person or thing, as when David says: "Blessed art thou, and it shall be well with thee" (Ps. cxxvii, 2).
- It signifies the sanctification or dedication of a, person or thing to some sacred purpose; "Christ took bread and blessed, and broke" (Matthew 26:26).
- Finally it is employed to designate a gift so Naaman addresses Eliseus: "I beseech thee therefore take a blessing of thy servant" (2 Kings 6:15).
With these various significations it is not the present purpose to deal. Coming, then, to its strictly liturgical and restricted sense, blessing may be described as a rite, consisting of a ceremony and prayers performed in the name and with the authority of the Church by a duly qualified minister, by which persons or things are sanctified as dedicated to Divine service, or by which certain marks of Divine favour are invoked upon them.
The custom of giving blessings goes back to the very earliest times. In the morning of Creation, on the completion of each day's work, God blessed the living creatures that came from His hands, bidding them increase and multiply and fill the earth (Gen. i-ii). When Noah emerged from the Ark, he received God's benediction (Genesis 9:1), and this heritage he transmitted through his sons, Sem and Japheth, to posterity. The pages of the Old Testament testify abundantly to the great extent to which the practice of blessing prevailed in the patriarchal ages. The head of each tribe and family seemed to be privileged to bestow it with a special unction and fruitfulness, and the priests at the express direction of God were wont to administer it to the people. "Thus shall you bless the children of Israel. . . and the Lord will turn His countenance and give them peace" (Numbers 6:23-26). That great value was attributed to blessings is seen from the strategy adopted by Rebecca to secure Jacob's blessing for her favourite son. In general estimation it was regarded as a mark of Divine complacency and as a sure way to secure God's benevolence, peace, and protection. The New Dispensation saw the adoption of this rite by Our Divine Lord and His Apostles, and so, elevated, ennobled, and consecrated by such high and holy usage, it came at a very early stage in the Church's history to assume definite and concrete shape as the chief among her sacramentals.
Since, then, blessings, in the sense in which they are being considered, are entirely of ecclesiastical institution, the Church has the power to determine who shall have the right and duty to confer them. This she has done by entrusting their administration to those who are in sacerdotal orders. The solitary case in which one inferior to a priest is empowered to bless, is where the deacon blesses the paschal candle in the ceremonies of Holy Saturday. This exception is more apparent than real. For in the instance referred to the deacon acts by way of a deputy and, moreover, employs the grains of incense already blessed by the celebrant. Priests, then, are the ordinary ministers of blessings, and this is only in the fitness of things since they are ordained, as the words of the Pontifical run: "ut quæcumque benedixerint benedicantur, et quacumque consecraverint consecrentur" (That what-ever they bless may be blessed, and whatever they consecrate shall be consecrated). When, therefore, laymen and women are represented as blessing others it is to be understood that this is an act of will on their part, a wish or desire for another's spiritual or temporal prosperity, an appeal to God which has nothing to recommend if but the merits of personal sanctity. The ordinary greetings and salutations that take places between Christians and Catholics, leavened by mutual wishes for a share of heavenly grace, must not be confounded with liturgical blessings. St. Gregory first definitely taught that the angels are divided into hierarchies or orders, each having its own role to play in the economy of creation. Similarly the Church recognizes different orders or grades among her ministers, assigning to some higher functions than to others. The working out of this idea is seen in the case of conferring blessings. For while it is true that a priest can ordinarily give them, some blessings are reserved to the Supreme Pontiff, some to bishops, and some to parish priests and religious. The first class is not large. The pope reserves to himself the right to bless the pallium for archbishops, Agnus-Deis, the Golden Rose, the Royal Sword, and also to give that benediction of persons to which an indulgence of some days is attached. He may, and in the case of the last mentioned often does, depute others to give these. To bishops belongs the privilege of blessing abbots at their installation, priests at their ordination, and virgins at their consecration; of blessing churches, cemeteries, oratories, and all articles for use in connection with the altar, such as chalices, vestments, and clothe, military standards, soldiers, arms, and swords; and of imparting all blessings far which Holy Oils are required. Some of these may, on delegation, be performed by inferiors. Of the blessings which priests are generally empowered to grant, some are restricted to those who have external jurisdiction, like rectors or parish priests, and others are the exclusive prerogative of persons belonging to a religious order. There is a rule, too, by which an inferior cannot bless a superior or even exercise the ordinary powers in his presence. The priest, for instance, who says Mass at which a bishop presides is not to give the final blessing without permission from the prelate. For this curious custom authors cite a text from the Epistle to the Hebrews: "And without all contradiction that which is less is blessed by that which is greater" (vii, 7). It would seem an overstraining of the passage to say that it affords an argument for maintaining that an inferior minister cannot bless one who is his superior in rank or dignity, for the text either merely enunciates an incident of common usage, or means that the inferior by the fact that he blesses is the greater, since he acts as the representative of God.
The range of objects that come under the influence of the Church's blessing is as comprehensive as the spiritual and temporal interests of her children. All the lower creatures have been made to serve man and minister to his needs. As nothing, then, should be left undone to enhance their utility towards this end, they are placed in a way under the direct providence of "Every creature of God is good. . .", as St. Paul says "for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer" (1 Timothy 4:4-5). There is also the reflection that the effects of the Fall extended to the inanimate objects of creation, marring in a manner the original aim of their existence and making them, in the hands of evil spirits, ready instruments for the perpetration of iniquity. In the Epistle to the Romans St. Paul describes inanimate nature, blighted by the primal curse, groaning in travail and anxiously awaiting its deliverance from bondage. "The expectation of the creature waiteth for the revelation of the Sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him that made it subject, in hope" (viii, 19-20). From this it will be easily seen how very reasonable is the anxiety of the Church that the things which are use in daily life and particularly in the service of religion, should be rescued from contaminating influences and endowed with a potency for good. The principal liturgical blessings recognized and sanctioned by Church are contained in the Roman Ritual and the Pontifical. The Missal, besides the blessing given at the end of Mass, contains only those blessings associated with the great functions incidental to certain days of the year, such as the blessing of palms and ashes. In the Pontifical are found the blessings that are performed de jure by bishops, such as the solemn blessing of persons already referred to, the forms for blessing kings, emperors, and princes at their coronation, and those before mentioned as of episcopal prerogative.
The great treasury of ecclesiastical blessings is the Roman Ritual.
Formulæ for blessing persons
First comes a blessing for pilgrims to the Holy Land, on their departure and return containing beautiful prayers and apt allusions to the Magi journeying through the Arabian desert under the guidance of the Star, to Abraham leaving his own country and setting his face towards the distant land of Canaan, to the Angel companion of the younger Tobias, and, finally, an appeal to God to prove to the wayfarers a solace on their journey, a shade from summer heats, a shelter in storm, and a haven of safety. Next follow blessings of persons with Holy Water before Mass, for an adult who is sick, for a number of sick people, one for a woman on the approach of confinement and another after childbirth, blessings for infants, for children come to the use of reason and for those arrived at years of discretion, for children on their presentation in Church, that they may lead good Christian lives, for boys and girls on the Feast of the Holy Infancy that they may grow up to imitate the virtues of the Saviour and reach salvation under His guidance.
Blessings for things
(a) In addition to the blessings already mentioned for articles destined for altar purposes, the Roman Ritual has formulæ for blessing crosses, images of Our Lord, of the Blessed Virgin and saints, church organs, processional banners, new bells for church uses and for other purposes, dress and cinctures worn in honour of Our Lady and of other saints, monstrances, reliquaries, vessels for Holy Oils, church ornaments, clerical habits, medals, pictures, and crosses for the Stations, rosaries of all the recognized kinds, water, candles, the Trisagion of the Holy Trinity, the different scapulars of Our Lady, of Our Lord, of the Blessed Trinity, of St. Joseph, St. Michael the Archangel, and other saints. Most of the objects just enumerated, as, for instance, rosaries and scapulars, receive what is called an indulgenced blessing, that is to say, by the pious employment and use of them persons are enabled to gain an indulgence.
(b) The following articles of food have benedictions assigned to them: paschal lamb, eggs, oil, wine, lard, cheese, butter, dripping, salt, and water which is used as antidote to rabies. There is also a form for everything that may be eaten. The fruits of the earth, such as grapes, corn, and the garnered harvest, seeds that are put into the earth, wine and the vintage, herbs and grasses may all in a fitting and appropriate language be "sanctified by the word of God and prayer".
(c) The lower animals which minister to the reasonable requirements of the human family may have blessings invoked upon them in order that the measure of their usefulness may be increased. Thus, birds of the air, beasts of the field, bees that afford such examples of industry to man, horses and oxen broken to the yoke, and. other beasts of burden are included in the formularies of the Ritual. The Creator is invoked to grant to the brute strength and health to bear his burthen and, if attacked by sickness or plague, to obtain deliverance.
(d) The Ritual has blessings for houses and schools and for the laying of their foundation stones; for stables for the lower animals and every other building of any description for which no special formula is at hand. There is also a special blessing for the bridal chamber.
(e) Lastly inanimate things that subserve the equitable needs and convenience of society may receive from the Church the stamp of her benediction before they are sent on their way to do their appointed tasks. Such, for instance, are new ships, new railways with trains and carriages, new bridges, fountains, wells, cornmills, limekilns, smelting-furnaces, telegraphs, steam engines, machines for producing electricity. The many serious accidents that occur explain the concern of the Church for those whose lives are exposed to danger from these various sources.
The inquiry will be confined to the Blessings approved of by the Church. As has been said, the value of a blessing given by a private person in his own name will be commensurate with his acceptableness before God by reason of his individual merits and sanctity. A blessing, on the other hand, imparted with the sanction of the Church has all the weight of authority that reaches to the voice of her who is the well-beloved spouse of Christ, pleading on behalf of her children. The whole efficacy, therefore, of these benedictions, in so far as they are liturgical and ecclesiastical, is derived from the prayers and invocations of the Church made in her name by her ministers.
Blessings may be divided into two classes, viz: invocative and constitutive. The former are those in which the Divine benignity is invoked on persons or things, to bring down upon them some temporal or spiritual good without changing their former condition. Of this kind are the blessings given to children, and to articles of food, The latter class are so called because they permanently depute persons or things to Divine service by imparting to them some sacred character, by which they assume a new and distinct spiritual relationship. Such are the blessings given churches and chalices by their consecration. In this case a certain abiding quality of sacredness is conferred in virtue of which the persons or things blessed become inviolably sacred so that they cannot be divested of their religious character or be turned to profane uses. Again, theologians distinguish blessings of an intermediate sort, by which things are rendered special instruments of salvation without at the same time becoming irrevocably sacred, such as blessed salt, candles, etc. Blessings are not sacraments; they are not of Divine institution; they do not confer sanctifying grace; and they do not produce their effects in virtue of the rite itself, or ex opere operanto. They are sacramentals and, as such, they produce the following specific effects:
- Excitation of pious emotions and affections of the heart and, by means of these, remission of venial sin and of the temporal punishment due to it.
- Freedom from power of evil spirits;
- Preservation and restoration of bodily health.
- Various other benefits, temporal or spiritual.
All these effects are not necessarily inherent in any one blessing; some are caused by one formula, and others by another, according to the intentions of the Church. Neither are these effects to be regarded as infallibly produced, except in so far as impetration of the Church has this attribute. The religious veneration, therefore, in which the faithful regard blessings has no faint of superstition, since it depends altogether on the Church's suffrages offered to God that the persons using the things she blesses may derive from them certain supernatural advantages. Instances are alleged in the lives of the saints where miracles have been wrought by the blessings of holy men and women. There is no reason to limit the miraculous interference of God to the early ages of the Church's history, and the Church never accepts these wonderful occurrences unless the evidence in support of their authenticity is absolutely unimpeachable.
Before a minister proceeds to impart any blessing he should first satisfy himself that it is one which he is duly qualified to give, either by his ordinary or delegated powers. He should next use the prescribed rite. As a rule, for the simple blessings of the Ritual, a soutane, surplice, and stole of the requisite colour will be sufficient. A clerk should be at hand to carry the Holy Water or incense if required, or to prepare a lighted candle. The blessings are ordinarily given in a church; but, if if necessary, they can be lawfully administered elsewhere according to to the exigencies of place or other circumstances or privileges, and without any sacred vestment.