Lost Liturgies File: The Churching of Women

Today as I write this it is the Feast of the Presentation (February 2). Some determine this feast to be the definitive end to the Christmas cycle and it is perhaps appropriate that yet another snowfall is descending on Washington. Biblically this feast commemorates the Jewish practice of a woman presenting herself at the temple forty days after the birth of a male child in order to be “purified” and blessed by the priest. Mary as an observant Jew fulfilled this obligation and it is recorded in Luke 2:22-24:

When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

The Jewish practice of “purifying” a woman after childbirth was set forth in the Book of Leviticus 12:1-8:

The LORD said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over.  If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding. ” ‘When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. He shall offer them before the LORD to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow of blood.” ‘These are the regulations for the woman who gives birth to a boy or a girl. If she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’ “

As you can see, there is a fairly negative concept at work here. A woman becomes ritually unclean by giving birth. This was due to the flow of blood and/or other fluids at birth. Even more distressing to modern notions is that a woman who gave birth to a daughter was considered ritually unclean for even longer! Alas, it is well that the power of the Church to bind and loose has freed us from this thinking. Keep in mind that this was ceremonial law, not moral law and, hence, the Church is not setting aside immutable moral law in abrogating such notions of ritual impurity.

Nevertheless the custom and instinct of blessing women after childbirth was retained in the Church with an altered understanding from Jewish teaching. That rite came down through the centuries and was intact until very recent times and was referred to in many places as the “Churching of Women.” (The official Latin title of the Rite was actually benedictio mulieris post partum – (the blessing of women after giving birth))The rite was largely discontinued in the 1960s in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. The Book of Blessings published in 1984 does contain a “Blessing of a Woman after Childbirth” but it is seldom used and is significantly altered from the old rite in use until about 1965.

The reasons for the discontinuance are many. I remember my mother and other  women of my mother’s generation saying they had been taught the Jewish history of this rite and thus rejected it for that reason. But the Catholic Church was clear to distinguish its practice from the Jewish roots. Pope Gregory as early as the 6th Century protested any notion that defilment was incurred by childbirth. Further, the prayers of the old “Churching of Women” Rite never mentioned a need for purification and spoke only of blessing and thanksgiving. So those who taught women of my Mother’s generation against this practice were probably engaged more in polemics than true Church history. Another reason for the discontinuance was probably and simply that so many things were dropped during the changes in the wake of the Council.

On this Feast of the Presentation I would like to recommend this beautiful ritual to your attention. In an extended sense it fulfills What Mary did today, forty days after the birth of Christ. Surely we do not understand it in an Old Testament way, but we rescue and fulfill the tradition with the beauty of Christian faith and the dignity of women who are mothers.

I have attached a PDF version of it here:  The Churching of Women.  Though it has never been required by the Church it is a beautiful way to welcome back and bless a woman who has perhaps been away for a few weeks  giving birth. She has labored well for her family, her child and the Church and this ritual can serve simultaneously as a blessing and thanksgiving extended by the Church to the noble women who are our mothers. The blessing can be given after a baptism, after mass, collectively to recent mothers, or individually. It is true that the current baptismal rite contains a blessing for the mother but this older rite is a more single and special blessing. The Pope’s recent Motu Proprio permitting the older forms of the sacraments to be used has made these older rituals also more available. Here is the concluding prayer of the rite:

Almighty, everlasting God, through the delivery of the blessed Virgin Mary, Thou hast turned into joy the pains of the faithful in childbirth; look mercifully upon this Thy handmaid, coming in gladness to Thy temple to offer up her thanks: and grant that after this life, by the merits and intercession of the same blessed Mary, she may merit to arrive, together with her offspring, at the joys of everlasting happiness. Through Christ our Lord.

I looked for a video depicting the Churching of Women but found none. Instead enjoy this video by Shirley Ceasar which celebrates the love of a mother as an image of God’s love:  The full cost of my love is “no-charge”

24 Replies to “Lost Liturgies File: The Churching of Women”

  1. Wow. I have given birth 7 times while living in 3 different parishes and this blessing was never offered to me – or anyone else I know!

    What a beautiful ceremony. What a great amount of comfort and help it would be for some, especially new mothers or when there has been a problem with the birth, postpartum depression, etc.

    I feel like I’ve really missed out on something very special.

  2. I have heard once a connection between the ceremonial “purification” of women and the ceremonial “purification” of the Chalice at Mass…

    Just a thought.

  3. The tradition of Churching of women persists in the East. The 40th day is also a not uncommon date for the baptism of the infant.

  4. Cinzia. I want to be frank here. I just reviewed all of the second democracytruth.blogspot, the one with Bruce Springstein, and don’t believe that Msgr. has at this point been able to take the time to review it before posting. I think I understand where you are with this. It is the perplexing issue of the day; the place of women, generally. Priests in the Greek Orthodox Church I believe can marry. (Please correct if need). The place of Mary Magdalene I have treated in my book in a way that I don’t think that you would be adverse to, but I stop at saying that she was ‘married’ to Christ. Don’t know where you are on the Dan Brown issue. This is a controversial issue and I’m not sure that Msgr. would want to get into this on this site. I want you to know that I do understand you, now, and let you know that I too am involved in this perplexing issue. I have recently come to an understanding why the priesthood is ‘best’ left to men, however. If women were priests, as the bride of Christ would then then be administering to themselves. The church upholds a place of women, that is not necessarily related to ‘sexuality’ per se, but to a specific organization that holds, (my understanding) men as the singular, and women as the whole, and thus representative of mankind’s need of unity within the church. This is actually something that I don’t think we, as women, can avoid even within secular society. I for instance, try my best at philosophy, but I know, when I read the greats, even now a Professor from St.Xavier University, that I do not have the ‘mental’ facility to compete with the genius of such men. Women philosophers even today are such primarily in their relation to a great, which inevitable is a male. But perhaps we are just beginning to blossom in this regard, right. I do admire you in your question, and indeed identify with you in your quest that women too be ‘real, rational’ creatures. Indeed, this is achievable, and has been in the past made real by a few women. So carry on in this regard, I am sure that Msgr. would, will have no objection. A mark of success in this, is to make the esteemed change in the method you have adopted to propagate your views. It means that you believe that I, and the men, can also think for themselves, which clarifies that you too believe you can. (In my book the chief character, goes through a trial, in imitation of Jesus not for the atonement of sin and the bringing of life) but for the atonement of women in their sexual exploitation.- Just so you will know I understand where you are coming from on the female issue). Thank you for all of your work. I believe you are a brave soul, and I recognize (but ‘only as a woman’! grin grin) your intelligence.

  5. Postscript: To Cinzia.
    Just having a coffee and thinking, (yes thinking!!!). Another important factor, I believe, is that there is not a clear-cut one sided discrimination within the Catholic Church. For instance: The Blessed Virgin is I understand (correct if in error, Msgr) associated very strongly with the Holy Spirit, which traditionally is associated with mind. (Just to bring up the mind/body dichotomy). And yet, and this is very important, even as a philosophical issue, we seek our redemption only with, through and in Jesus Christ, his FLESH and BLOOD: i.e. his PHYSICAL PRESENCE, with the, or through the? (you see I’m not philosophically, let alone theologically clear) ‘fellowship’ of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps you will inform me better if you could the significance of Jewish rite in this regard, and whether they ‘update’ their ‘understandings’, as does the Catholic Church in this problematic, (and very mysterious areas) of human thought and existence. Mary Magdalene, holds for me as I understand a special place, for she signifies for me all of women, i.e. the totality as distinct from the special case. I am still struggling with the difficulties this involves. Again , in appreciation of your efforts to understand, I remain your ‘sister’, in Christ.

  6. The 1989 Book of Blessings, Part 1, Chapter 1, section 8, contains an official blessing for a mother before and after childbirth. The 1969 Rite of Baptism of Children directs that the celebration of the baptism of a child end with the blessing of the mother or the blessing of the father and the mother. So perhaps instead of bemoaning “lost liturgy”–and thereby implying that the reforms of the Second Vatican Council were somehow deficient instead of a great gift of the Holy Spirit–we should familiarize ourselves with the current official ritual books. Perhaps instead of chasing after the exotic and the esoteric, we ought to hunker down and do the hard work of understanding and undertaking the living Catholicism contained in the current authorized rites. Perhaps instead of spending time and money looking for lacey surplices, maniples, and the Missal of 1962, priests should study the 1989 Book of Blessings and figure out ways to regularly celebrate blessings in the lives of the parish. Just saying.

    1. Wow David you’re really a hawk on this stuff. What if it weren’t either or but both and?

      For the record I did mention the blessing of the mother in the Baptismal rite and also the Book of blessings and am not unfamiliar with them as you seem to suggest. I fact I use them 99% of the time when I celebrate the liturgy. I however have chosen to walk in the “wide Church” wherein I celebrate diverse liturgical experiences. I am the Pastor of a strong African American Parish with a fine Gospel Choir. I also celebrate the Latin Mass (EF) once a month and have done so for over twenty years. I am also familiar with the neocatechumenal liturgy and am confortable in Charismatic settings. Let me ask you what you thought of the Shirely Ceasar Gospel song I placed at the end of this “traditional” post? The point being that there is a bigger Church out there than you seem willing to accomodate. I urge you to greater Charity. Lastly your reference to Pre conciliar rites as “exotic and esoteric” is one of the reasons that so many traditional Catholics feel excluded and like step-children. The vituperative and hostile attitude that they experience from some in the Church is hardly Pastoral or even kind. I think your remarks and some of the words you have chosen are examples of this attitude to some extent.

      Also for the record the current “authorized” rites are not the only authorized onces. THe Pope’s Motu Proprio has indicated that the old rites are authorized and in fact that there were not able to be de-authorized.

    2. David,

      The Pope would disagree with you. The Vicar of Christ on Earth believes that the 1962 liturgical books ARE current official liturgical books. To say otherwise would be to ignore his speeches, actions, and proclamations. I’d ask you to name one canon lawyer who has articulated the position you argue over the past year.

  7. I remember so well this ceremony, having had it after four of the six births. I can not remember why I did not have it after every birth. After mass, I approached the priest and requested it, no appointments needed to be made in the 1960’s. It was done at the altar railing and I felt so blessed. I am going to send this info on to some of my former catechumens who I still feel an olbigation to keep them close to that RCIA journey.

  8. Msgr.

    I read somewhere and I am sorry that I cannot remember the source but there can be another interpretation of the ritual of churching. The writer said that the churching was a religious ceremony that was said over a woman before she resumed her normal duties she had to be purified in much the same way the priest must purify the chalice after it was used to contain the precious blood in the Eucharist. The woman participated in the sacred act of creation with God and there fore also had to be purified. I wish I could recall the writer, but it is a beautiful concept.

  9. “…bless a woman who has perhaps been away for a few weeks giving birth…”

    I shudder to think of a labor that lasts several weeks…15 hours was plenty for me!

  10. Dear Msgr. Pope,

    Thank you for the interesting article! My grandmother has told me before about this ritual, which she unfortunately did seem to experience in a negative way (as if she needed to be cleansed from impurity). I had thought, however, that the purification (needing ritual purification is different from needing moral purification!) even in Jewish times was not something that was degrading but something that recognized the beauty and power of birth. Just as the Jews needed to be cleansed after other life events where they came into contact with blood or bodily fluid, I had thought that this ritual (the Jewish one) recognized the sacredness of life and appreciated the “sacramentality” of the body. Otherwise, how could we CELEBRATE the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple as a feast if we were truly remembering something that was a negative thing? I would love to hear your thoughts on this if you have a chance.

    Thank you, and God bless you.
    Kristie Wellman

    1. Like so many things, the ritual of purification peobably had many levels of meaning for the participants. The Text requiring Jewish women to report was clearly quite negative in its assessment of the need for purification. But like many things, over the centuries layers of meaning and experience were added. Hence, as you point out we can well celebrate this feast of Jesus and Mary. I also agree with your distinction that ritual impurity is not the same as moral impurity. It is a helpful remark.

  11. On the same day of this post, Fr. John Hunwicke, Vicar of St. Thomas the Martyr, Oxford (C of E), who seems to be personally interested in the upcoming Anglican Ordinariates, wrote an interesting little take on the Churching of Women and the business about Jewish ritual purification. Not sure he is right about the latter, but worth considering ….


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