ROME, 26 JULY 2011 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: My wife, Deo volente, will give birth to our first child shortly. I have been thinking about the sacramental known as "churching," which was once common. I believe that it has gone out of fashion due to a perception that it manifests a view of pregnancy and childbirth as being "unclean" and is therefore demeaning to women. Without getting into the whole area of modern misunderstandings of ritual purification, it seems to me that this pious practice could be promoted to much pastoral advantage. A woman who has done a wonderful thing, bringing a new Christian into the world, comes to the altar of God to give thanks and receive a blessing — what could be wrong with that? (For those whose religious practice is irregular, it would also serve as a further point of contact with the Church and a teaching opportunity after the baby's baptism.) As far as I can see, there is nothing in the ritual that would be forbidden to a pastor who wished to use it. Perhaps you could comment? — P.C., Dublin, Ireland
A: First of all, I offer my congratulations and prayers for this gift of new life. According to the early 20th-century Catholic Encyclopedia, the churching of a woman is:
"A blessing given by the Church to mothers after recovery from childbirth. Only a Catholic woman who has given birth to a child in legitimate wedlock, provided she has not allowed the child to be baptized outside the Catholic Church, is entitled to it. It is not a precept, but a pious and praiseworthy custom (Rituale Romanum), dating from the early Christian ages, for a mother to present herself in the Church as soon as she is able to leave her house (St. Charles Borromeo, First Council of Milan), to render thanks to God for her happy delivery, and to obtain by means of the priestly blessing the graces necessary to bring up her child in a Christian manner. The prayers indicate that this blessing is intended solely for the benefit of the mother, and hence it is not necessary that she should bring the child with her; nevertheless, in many places the pious and edifying custom prevails of specially dedicating the child to God. For, as the Mother of Christ carried her Child to the Temple to offer Him to the Eternal Father, so a Christian mother is anxious to present her offspring to God and obtain for it the blessing of the Church. This blessing, in the ordinary form, without change or omission, is to be given to the mother, even if her child was stillborn, or has died without baptism (Cong. Sac. Rit., 19 May, 1896).
"The churching of women is not a strictly parochial function, yet the Congregation of Sacred Rites (21 November, 1893) decided that a parish priest, if asked to give it, must do so, and if another priest is asked to perform the rite, he may do so in any church or public oratory, provided the superior of said church or oratory be notified. It must be imparted in a church or in a place in which Mass is celebrated, as the very name 'churching' is intended to suggest a pilgrimage of thanksgiving to the church, and as the rubrics indicate in the expressions: 'desires to come to the church', 'he conducts her into the church', 'she kneels before the altar', etc. Hence the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore (No. 246) prohibits the practice of churching in places in which Mass is not celebrated.
"The mother, kneeling in the vestibule, or within the church, and carrying a lighted candle, awaits the priest, who, vested in surplice and white stole, sprinkles her with holy water in the form of a cross. Having recited Psalm 23, 'The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof', he offers her the left extremity of the stole and leads her into the church, saying: 'Enter thou into the temple of God, adore the Son of the Blessed Virgin Mary who has given thee fruitfulness of offspring.' She advances to one of the altars and kneels before it, whilst the priest, turned towards her, recites a prayer which expresses the object of the blessing, and then, having sprinkled her again with holy water in the form of the cross, dismisses her, saying: 'The peace and blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, descend upon thee, and remain forever. Amen.'
While the ceremony itself has no elements of ritual purification, in some places it was associated with Jewish customs and especially with the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was not obligatory, and customs as to when and where it was carried out varied widely from one region to another.
There are several reasons why the custom has largely fallen into disuse. More than any lingering association of childbirth with impurity, the decline is probably due more to the fact that the dangers inherent in giving birth are highly reduced in modern societies.
It was also common in earlier times for newborns to be baptized within hours after birth or the following day, and so mothers were frequently absent from the celebration. This situation is quite uncommon today.
Because of these new situations the revised Rite of Baptism for Children has incorporated the blessing of the mother after childbirth (the "churching" if you wish) within the concluding rites of the sacrament of baptism. A blessing of the father is also included so that nobody is excluded from responsibility for the child's Christian upbringing.
The Book of Blessings also has an "Order for the Blessing of a Mother after Childbirth." This blessing is only imparted to those mothers who were unable to attend the baptism. The introduction to the rite says, "It is fitting to have a special celebration in order to provide the opportunity for her to benefit from the blessing that in the rite of baptism prompts the mother and all present to thank God for the gift of the newborn child."
This blessing is not necessarily held in a church and may be imparted by a priest, deacon or authorized lay minister.
* * *
Follow-up: Churching After Childbirth [8-23-2011]
With respect to our reply on the churching of women after childbirth (see July 26), a Mississippi reader mildly chided me for being too "Novus Ordo centered" and leaving out the fact that some form of churching exists in other Catholic rites.
He wrote: "When we had our fifth child over 10 years ago, the day of the baby's baptism [into the Byzantine (Ruthenian Greek rite) Catholic Church] my wife was 'churched' and our baby daughter was presented prior to the commencement of the Divine Liturgy, during which she was baptized, chrismated, and given her first Holy Communion. The churching was a beautiful service — our little girl was held aloft and moved in the sign of the cross before the holy icons."
One of the advantages of this follow-up section is the possibility of making amends for such omissions, although I think our reader will understand that this column's character as a brief response to concrete questions does not always allow us to cover every possible angle of a question.
It is also worthwhile pointing out that churching may still be imparted according to the norms of the pre 1962 rites of blessing.
Another reader, from Honduras, described a common custom in that country: "In the part of Honduras where I am volunteering there is the custom for the parents to present the child, usually at Mass, about 40 days after the birth of the child. The child and parents are blessed, and the priest usually raises the child up above his head, facing the congregation, presenting the child to the assembly. This most often takes place at Masses in rural villages, but I have also experienced it at Masses in smaller churches in town."
Similar customs probably exist elsewhere. Since the rite of blessing a mother does not foresee its being held during the celebration of Mass, I believe that it is not correct to present the child during Mass. I see less difficulty, however, in doing so immediately before or, preferably, after the Eucharistic celebration.