Thursday, March 18, 2004

"Because I am a mean man who hates children!"
"Isn't that what everyone is saying?"
That's the "ice breaker" answer I give nowadays when asked why I don't bless children (or anyone for that matter) in the line for Holy Communion. I usually let that answer soak in ever so briefly before I laugh and slap the interrogator on the back for good comic measure. Then I proceed to explain my reasoning. For readers who may be interested in a priest's account of why the practice is not recommended, and, perhaps for priest-readers who may need help responding to similar inquiries, I offer my reasons as I have them to date.

(1) The teleological answer: Quite simply, the line for the distribution of Holy Communion is precisely for that, and that only. It is not the intent of the ritual that it be a line for other things, however worthwhile they may be in their own right.

(2) The theological answer: The Church teaches the Holy Eucharist is "the source and summit of the Christian life" (Const. on the Church, 11). If asked, most of us would easily point to the consecration as the most important part of the Holy Mass. If we thought a bit more, I think we would naturally extend that to also include the reception of Holy Communion (not because the validity of the Holy Eucharist depends upon its reception, but because the Holy Eucharist is ordered toward reception). In any event, worthy reception of the Holy Eucharist is the most perfect form of participation in the Sacred Liturgy. With that in mind, at the precise moment when the climax of the Holy Mass is reached, when we arrive at that to which the whole Mass is directed and from which it flows, the reception of Holy Communion is replaced with a blessing? As if anyone's blessing, even a priest's, could possibly take the place of reception of the Sacrament?

(3) The liturgical answer: The Fathers of Vatican II describe the Sacred Liturgy as "the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the font from which all her power flows" (Const. on the Sacred Liturgy, 10). Because of this, the Church closely regulates the Sacred Liturgy. It is not the private or local property of anyone, not even a bishop or priest. It is the common patrimony of the Universal Church. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Church establishes rubrics that direct the sacred action proper to each participant in the Sacred Liturgy. The rubrics surrounding the Holy Eucharist and the various rites for its adoration (note especially how Benediction is given by a cleric with veiled hands, and the rubrics governing Exposition and Adoration when immediately following the Holy Mass) make it clear that a cleric is not to give "his" blessing in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed. This does not, I know, automatically exclude the blessing of children. However, and though I would not be in agreement with what follows, it would at least be more liturgically consistent to give a Benediction to non-communicants, since the Blessed Sacrament is exposed at that point of the Holy Mass. (Notice how attention to this would also clarify the awkward practice of extraordinary ministers giving blessings with hands, as does a cleric. Since a cleric is not to do that when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed, certainly neither should a lay person.) In addition, the priest's blessing upon the people is specifically situated at the end of the Mass, not during Holy Communion. Furthermore, the implementation of Vatican II can be said to be marked by a simplification of rites. Numerous signs of the Cross were removed from the Holy Mass. Couldn't it be said, then, that the multiplication of blessings during Holy Communion is contrary to the direction of the liturgical renewal we have been given? Finally, this practice is yet another unintended change of the Sacred Liturgy. Though perhaps minute, it seems to be another manifestation of a foreign attitude that seeks to co-opt the Sacred Liturgy, making it the production of the local community, rather than a font of grace received from beyond ourselves.

(4) The pastoral answer: (a) Dispensing blessings during Holy Communion promotes, I believe, the false idea that "everyone gets something," perhaps even going so far as to promote more frequent unworthy reception of the Sacrament by people who feel compelled to simply come forward in the Holy Communion line, regardless of their state of soul, because everyone else is. This is especially the case when we are blessed to have non-Catholic visitors who are ignorant of the Holy Eucharist and unaware of how to alert that they should receive only a blessing. (b) As a minister I find the practice confusing. I am not a good judge of age, even less so when trying to focus on my duties at the Holy Mass. It happens often that the sign requesting a blessing (hands folded over chest) is not followed, leaving me unsure why the person stands before me. This is especially noted in the case of older children and adults, who by appearance certainly could be old enough to receive, but who have not yet made First Holy Communion. (c) It seems to me there is value in waiting, praying, and preparing for something. This corresponds to the virtue of patience, something we are rapidly loosing all vestige of in society. Being cheated out of the anxious waiting can cheapen the expectation proper to more full participation at Holy Mass.

(5) The historical answer: I realize that the giving of a Benediction (notice, I did not say blessing) at the time of Holy Communion does occupy a place in history, in the Traditional Rite. But, also notice that the giving of the Benediction with the Sacred Host was given to the person receiving the Sacrament, not as a replacement of reception. While reciting the formula for distribution, the cleric would give Benediction with the Sacred Host, which was then placed on the communicant's tongue.

(6) The asthetical answer: The often fevered attempts of elders, on the approach for Holy Communion, to force small children to place their hands over their chests (and to pretend that they just might stay that way...this time!) is, to put it lightly, very distracting. I doubt it promotes proper focus for the elder who struggles with a child down the entire aisle of church. I know it distracts me.

(7) The analogical answer: I would venture to guess that most of us would find it inappropriate if someone were to present himself in the line for Holy Communion, not for the Sacrament, but to have a Rosary blessed. The priest, despite the sad appearance of many of our modern church structures, is not some sort of "sacral vendor," dispensing Holy Communion here, blessed medals there, holy cards here, rosaries there. Just as I would refuse to bless a Rosary at that moment of the Holy Mass, so do I refuse to bless a child. Yes, I realize the limitations of this analogy, as all analogies are limited. No, my refusal would have nothing to do with my dislike of the Rosary, just as my refusal has nothing to do with a dislike of children. And, no, my refusal should not be interpreted to mean that blessing rosaries is bad, just as it should not be interpreted that blessing children is bad. That moment of the Holy Mass is, quite simply, not the place for blessing rosaries. Likewise with the blessing of children.

And if all the above fails to appease an offended parent, I am always happy to bless individually any and all children who come to me after Holy Mass, when my hands are not otherwise occupied and when I can even pick them up, and have some time to say a few words to them!

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