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Churching After Childbirth
And More on Use of English Translations Abroad
ROME, JULY 26, 2011 (Zenit.org).- 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.
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Follow-up: Which English Translation to Use Abroad
As a corollary to our reflections on the use of the new English translation in non-English-speaking countries (see July 12), there was an earlier related question from a reader in Israel. He asked: "When Mass is celebrated in English in a non-English-speaking country, by priests who are not native speakers of English or under the authority of a bishop from an English-speaking country, how is it determined which English-language lectionary to use?"
I would say that the choice of lectionary would follow the same basic principles as the choice of missal. In other words, any lectionary currently approved for liturgical use may be used in the non-English-speaking country.
There are several approved lectionaries. Most English-speaking countries use the original Jerusalem Bible with some adaptations, such as the use of "Lord" or "God" instead of "Yahweh." The United States uses an adapted version of the New American Bible. Canada has temporary permission to use the New Revised Standard Version, even though the Holy See did not approve this Bible for liturgical use. The Antilles use a lectionary based on a second edition of the Revised Standard Version, published by Ignatius Press. Many consider this the best contemporary translation, and it is the only lectionary which corresponds exactly to a Bible translation currently in print.
The exceptions would be those mentioned in the original article: National colleges or parishes, embassies, overseas military bases and similar places would use the lectionary approved in each respective country.
Although not obligatory, it is pastoral good sense to prefer the lectionary with which the majority of those assisting at Mass have greater familiarity.
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Readers may send questions to ... Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.
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