For priests, there is probably no request more common than this one: “Father, will you bless this?” Dozens of times per week we’re requested to bless a new rosary, statue or other religious article, or even a new car or home. We also get more personal requests: “Father, may I have your blessing?” Even in these secular times many of the unchurched and lukewarm still instinctively seek our blessings and prayers when they see us out in public, whether it’s at the airport or in the grocery store.
One might think, given the frequency of such requests, that we would have studied a good bit about the theology of blessings in seminary and would have been trained to make these brief pastoral moments more meaningful both for ourselves and for those to whom we minister—but such is not the case. I cannot remember a single thing being taught about the theology of blessings. Perhaps blessings were mentioned in passing when listing examples of sacramentals (objects, rituals, blessings, or events that are like sacraments in some sense but are not among the seven sacraments), but there was no elaboration of a theology of blessings.
Hence, many priests have a rather vague theological framework for one of the most frequent requests that we get. If we are not careful, we can treat such requests in a rather perfunctory way, waving our hands and saying a few holy words, barely realizing that we are using a priestly power that is often more appreciated by the faithful than by us. Something important is happening in a blessing and we priests do well to be more aware of what that is in order to avoid a kind of dubious rationalism or a superstitious excess.
A recent book by Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti, The Priestly Blessing: Rediscovering the Gift, is most helpful in filling this gap in the training of most of us priests. It thoroughly develops a theological and pastoral framework for giving and receiving blessings. In a mere 150 pages, he surveys the biblical and ecclesial history of blessings and sets forth a theological, spiritual, and pastoral explanation of them. He explores the place of blessings in the incarnational aspects of the Catholic Faith, their purpose in sanctifying and restoring who and what was wounded in the fall of creation, and the roots and effects of blessings in the lives of the faithful. He also answers many practical questions such as these: Who can bless? Are hands to be extended, folded, or imposed? Are there some things that should not be blessed?
Msgr. Rossetti also explores the controversy that has emerged in the last fifty years among some theologians about the nature of blessings, how they are best conferred, and whether things should be blessed or only the people who use those things.
This debate among theologians reached the parishes in the late 1980s. The “Book of Blessings,” published in 1989, became controversial because it generally stopped short of using language or gestures that were associated with actually blessing the item. The new ritual book arrived from Rome without much explanation, and most of us who were priests at the time obediently sought to use it.
When someone requested the blessing of an object, we would dutifully open the new ritual and read the prayers. Puzzlement would often result when the prayers ended without a sign of the cross over the item and without traditional words specifically asking God to bless the item. Sometimes the faithful would ask, “Father, did you bless it?” They were instinctively looking for the traditional gesture of the extended hand moved in the sign of the cross with words such as these: “May almighty God bless this [item] in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
The new Book of Blessings intentionally removed such things and spoke instead of asking God to bless the people who used this or that object or lived in this or that place. Without any explanation from Rome as to why traditional blessing formulas and gestures were eliminated, most of us priests either began to add the words and gesture back in or just quietly returned the Book of Blessings to the shelf and returned to using informal blessings or prayers from older books.
Msgr. Rossetti sets forth the theological views that underlie both the new and the old ritual books. He is fair in his presentation and explores why some in the past century have sought to adopt a different understanding of blessings. Were they involved in a correction of superstitious understandings? Did they over-correct? Is there a balance to be found in studying both views? And because the use of the older rituals is still permitted, does the debate even matter anymore?
Msgr. Rossetti takes the helpful approach of using the controversy to teach more deeply on the theology of blessings. I know that it has helped me in understanding that those who developed the modern Book of Blessings were not engaging in innovation for its own sake, nor were they being impious. Even for someone like me who strongly prefers the older Roman Ritual for blessings, the vision of the newer ritual is not without merit and can help prevent excesses and superstition. Msgr. Rossetti has provided a helpful contribution to the controversy and, while favoring the traditional gestures and the insight that things as well as people can be and are blessed, articulates the newer insights as well.
This is an excellent resource that should be required reading for all priests and be included in the curriculum of seminary formation. It is also readable and helpful for all of God’s people. It would make a good Christmas gift for any priest or deacon, filling what is likely a significant gap in their studies. Go, my brother priests, sell all you have and buy a copy! (Or, put it on your Christmas wish-list.) This priestly work is too important for us to be vague about it. As the subtitle suggests, rediscover the gift!