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Why Do Catholics Bless Stuff?

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A Catholic priest will literally bless your cat if you ask. But what is this ritual about? Why do we do it, and what does it accomplish? Father Hugh Barbour explains.


Cy:

What does a blessing do? Father Hugh Barbour is next.

Hello, and welcome to Focus, the Catholic Answers podcast for living, understanding, and defending your faith. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. What a blessing to have you here with us today.

Catholics are constantly getting stuff blessed. If a priest starts to bless us, we know exactly what to do. Every now and then, someone will show you their Rosary and tell you who blessed it, “Oh, this was blessed by Pope Francis in 2014,” or something like that. But what is a blessing? What are we doing when we’re asking to have an item blessed or a person blessed or an undertaking blessed? We asked Father Hugh Barbour, who gives us a blessing at the end of this podcast, so hang around.

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Here’s Father Hugh Barbour to bless you with the discussion of blessings.

As a person who’s born and raised a Catholic, you get used to blessings, and sometimes the thing that’s common, you never stop and ask, “What exactly is happening here?” So let’s go right to the most basic question. What is a blessing?

Fr. Hugh:

Okay. So it’s a pretty simple thing from the point of view of the words. If you speak Latin, Greek and Hebrew, it’s very easy to understand.

Cy:

So for you and me, in other words.

Fr. Hugh:

Right. Because blessing in Latin, Greek and Hebrew means to speak well of something or someone or some action. [forgien language 00:01:50] in Latin, or if you like the restored pronunciation, [forgien language 00: 01:51]. All right? [forgien language 00:01:57] to speak well in Greek, [forgien language 00:02:00] if you want to speak modern Greek or church Greek. All right? To speak well, [forgien language 00:02:04], all right? Those all mean to speak well of someone, something or some action.

Now, it’s important to know also that in English, the word blessing, even though it begins with a B, just like benediction, which is the word we would use also. His name will be in benediction or he gave me a benediction, meaning a blessing. The English word for blessing is very interesting. And it’s not unrelated to the meaning, the more profound, the deepest profound Christian meaning of this term. The English word for blessing comes from an Anglo-Saxon word, [forgien language 00:02:40], which means to anoint or consecrate with blood.

Cy:

Oh, wow.

Fr. Hugh:

Isn’t that amazing?

Cy:

That is amazing. Yeah.

Fr. Hugh:

That was from the pagan Anglo-Saxon used to say. You would offer an animal sacrifice. And then, you would sanctify things with the blood of the animal you’d sacrifice, which is precisely what you find in the Old Testament, in some of the sacrifices and the Mosaic Law, that the blood sprinkled-

Cy:

On the people.

Fr. Hugh:

… or the priest puts his finger in it and blesses with it.

Cy:

Right.

Fr. Hugh:

And of course, our salvation is brought about by the blood of the lamb, that is the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, whose blood is the ultimate blessing, the ultimate sanctification.

So our English word blessing actually is extremely rich, richer than the Latin or the Greek or the Hebrew word, because it actually contains the word blood. If you think, blah, blah, blessing. That’s the same root as blood. Okay?

Cy:

Okay.

Fr. Hugh:

So that’s just aside. I won’t go back to that. But to bless, there are several ways in which we speak well and we’re speaking here about the things of God. First of all, blessing is an act of praise, where we praise God or his Holy Ones for their great works. You say, “Blessed be the Lord, God of Israel. For he has visited, and sent redemption to his people.” Or, “Bless the Lord, you work for the Lord, praise exalt him, [inaudible 00:04:02].” Or, “Bless you. Bless your heart.” All Southerners say right before they-

Cy:

Psalm, Psalm, and then Southerner.

Fr. Hugh:

Right after you’ve done something stupid or right after they’ve said something mean about somebody.

Cy:

Well, bless your heart.

Fr. Hugh:

Well, he is such a hateful thing. Bless his heart.

Anyway, so there’s that sense of giving praise, first of all, that’s the first sentence. And that’s one to keep in mind because it’s very popular nowadays with Liturgists and we’re also end up being kind of the enemies of what we normally think of as blessings, but we’ll get into that.

Cy:

Okay.

Fr. Hugh:

So then the second sense of a blessing is when we authoritatively command some good thing to come forth from someone or something.

Cy:

Okay.

Fr. Hugh:

And we have that already in Genesis. It says, “He blessed and said, ‘Go forth and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.'” Right? So the blessing of creation, meaning to give it the power to accomplish good things in the name of the one who is giving the blessing, right? So that’s extremely important aspect.

That’s what we normally kind of are thinking of, or that’s more in the direction of what we think of blessing, that it gives power to accomplish some good thing.

Cy:

Okay.

Fr. Hugh:

Then there is blessing as a prayer, which invokes or praise for the good of someone, right? These are all closely related notions. First, we said, praising someone absolutely. Then, commanding some good thing to come about. And then, we have desiring or expressing our desire for some good thing to happen. Like, “He blessed me. Lord, help your servant so-and-so and make him prosper and give him your grace.” Right? So that’s another one, where we express our prayerful desire for the good of another person.

So there are three senses there. Now, normally Catholics are thinking of blessing in a restricted sense, which is not restricted much because it’s the same way the scriptures use it. That is, that the word blessing has to do with the fulfillment of a priestly role.

Cy:

Right.

Fr. Hugh:

That is that we expect the priests of God to call down his mercies upon us and obtain for us graces and blessings through their own blessing, which is authoritative because it comes from their priesthood. And this is precisely what God did in the Old Testament. We read precisely that God gave to Aaron and to his sons, the following order, to pray like this. And all of us know this blessing, especially if you’re a Protestant, interestingly enough, because Protestant preachers use it more than Catholics, but it is one of the optional blessings in our missile but you don’t hear it very often. But here it is, maybe you do in your parish. But any case, “You will bless, therefore, in this way, the children of Israel, and you will say, ‘May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord show his face kindly to you and have mercy upon you. May the Lord turn his countenance towards you and give you peace.'”

We all know that. And normally the minister holds his hands out, extended in front of him and blesses the people. That’s the first recorded command in the Old Testament of a priest to bless the people. All right?

Cy:

Yes.

Fr. Hugh:

Aaron. Now, God blessed us, blessed all the days of creation and blessed us for procreation. So, that’s the first and original blessing, is the blessing of procreation. Then, there’s a priestly blessing, which is basically for the protection and the continuance and furtherance of our life on this earth and the service of God with peace and deliverance from our sins and living in the light of his countenance.

But then, the Bible gives us numerous examples of blessing throughout the Old Testament, which I won’t even go into. There are many, many, many, many, they keep going and going, but let’s just fast forward to the New Testament. And we’re told by Saint Paul that God has blessed us in Christ with his immeasurable blessings.

And so we look at Christ as the example, and we look throughout his life and we see that he was continually blessing people. Now in the Palestine of our Lord’s time, of course, they had come back from the exile into Babylon and they’d come back. And of course, there was the temple worship with the priestly blessings, but then also they developed the practice of the Rabbis, who are not priests generally.

Cy:

Yeah.

Fr. Hugh:

Now, our Lord was, but our Lord was priest in virtue of the new covenant, not of the old. He wasn’t from a priestly line-

Cy:

No.

Fr. Hugh:

… in the old covenant, but in the new covenant, he was because it’s a new covenant and a new priesthood. But our Lord, that we continue to see in the scriptures, he blesses people. He blesses the children, he lays his hands upon them. And he invokes God’s blessing to multiply the bread. So many ways in which he blesses.

Now, here, we understand that the blessing is not only to speak well and therefore, to pray well or wish well on someone. But also, it’s almost always presented, I would say always safely, with a gesture that is extending of the hands or the touching with the hands or on the top of the head or the elevating joining of the hands. There’s some gesture which accompanies it. So it’s not to speak well, but also to perform a gesture of blessing.

Cy:

Yeah.

Fr. Hugh:

So most people, if you came up and they gave you a rosary and they said, “Will you please bless the rosary?” And I just folded my hands close to my chest and said, “Lord, Jesus, bless this rosary. Amen.”

Cy:

They wouldn’t like that.

Fr. Hugh:

They would be very disappointed because-

Cy:

No, because you didn’t make the sign of the cross [crosstalk 00:10:01]-

Fr. Hugh:

… making the sign of the cross, because the blessing involves not only words, but also gestures or a sacred symbol.

Cy:

That’s funny because this happened to me and it did bother me.

Fr. Hugh:

Right. And I’ll explain to you why it happened to you.

Cy:

I never thought about that.

Fr. Hugh:

I will explain it to you, why it happened to you. And it’s very unfortunate. But then, there’s a third aspect of blessings, and that is that we tend to not only have blessings in word, to speak well, and as the English word for blessing implies-

Cy:

To anoint with blood.

Fr. Hugh:

To anoint with blood, but this is the third sense. It’s not just speak well, not just make a gesture, but also to use some other thing, which is already sacred to bless something else.

Cy:

Sure.

Fr. Hugh:

And so the church, continually in her practice, she blesses water before she baptizes. The water for baptism is blessed before she baptizes, even though baptism will be valid even if the water weren’t blessed, in an emergency, for example.

Cy:

Right. Right.

Fr. Hugh:

So she blesses the water for baptism. She offers and blesses the bread and wine for Mass. She blesses oil for the anointing of the sick, she actually consecrated, the Chrisom, to mix with the oil for confirmation, for nations, for the consecration of altars and in the traditional right. Also chalices and other sacred objects, bells, for example, in the old right. Consecrated, they weren’t just blessed, they were anointed with chrisom.

Cy:

But like the walls of a church are when you consecrate the church-

Fr. Hugh:

The walls of the church, right. That’s a better example from the current liturgy, although they made it optional. But any case, if you ever involved, [crosstalk 00:11:37].

Cy:

I’ve seen that, it’s beautiful.

Fr. Hugh:

Oh, of course. If you’re ever involved in dedicating a church, don’t let them admit that. Okay?

Cy:

No, you want that, yeah.

Fr. Hugh:

I witnessed the consecration of a beautiful church that belongs to a Catholic college and they’ve made this beautiful church and then, they didn’t anoint the walls because it was optional.

So anyway, that’s…

Cy:

Optional.

Fr. Hugh:

We don’t like that. Optional, Saint Basil, The Great, would have said, “Optional, huh.” Anyway, optional, you must be a heretic. But anyway, so that’s the other thing that the church blesses and/or consecrates, water, oil, other objects for the use of the faithful, flowers, fruits. And so you have certain-

Cy:

Wedding rings.

Fr. Hugh:

Wedding rings are blessed. All kinds of things are blessed, which are either the symbols of the sacraments or the material agents whereby the sacraments are conferred.

Cy:

Okay.

Fr. Hugh:

And so those blessings are of great importance and great power, especially when they touch on the validity of the sacrament. For example, you have to use chrisom for confirmation.

Cy:

Right. And, that has to do with the connection of the Bishop, I would imagine. Right? Because he’s the-

Fr. Hugh:

Right, you have to use chrisom for confirmation. He can’t, as in the Protestant Churches, just lay hands on you. He has to use the chrisom.

Cy:

Right.

Fr. Hugh:

Marriage, it would be valid if you didn’t have a ring, you would still be valid.

Cy:

That’s good because I’ve lost it about four times. I know you’re not supposed to lose your wedding ring, but this is like number five, I think. All right.

Fr. Hugh:

You don’t take it off.

Cy:

Oh, it’s not because I… One time it came off-

Fr. Hugh:

It slips off?

Cy:

Because I put sunscreen on my kids and then, I went swimming and it just came shooting off. And that’s, I’m sorry, Father. I have a very-

Fr. Hugh:

Oh, no, no, that’s when the devil is just trying to discourage us. So when it happens like, that by accident, don’t worry about it. Just just laugh at the devil and move on. Okay? And find it before your wife found out that you lost and just joking.

So those aspects of blessing there are key, but they’re related to the priestly role of blessing, where a priest blesses something to make it Holy, right? Not simply to bless God because he’s good and he does good things for us, but rather because we want to make the thing that we’re blessing Holy.

Now there are two ways we can make something Holy, by fervent prayer for the person, that’s like a priestly blessing you receive, or by a prayer, which actually sets the thing apart for sacred use, like most strongly with the water of baptism. The Chrisom, other things that are blessed or consecrated for sacred use, chalices, pattens, monstrances, [inaudible 00:14:21] alters, you name it.

But then we also have blessings of rosaries, metals, scapulars. We have a plethora of blessings, which are meant to constitute that thing as a sacred object, which should be used only for sacred purposes. The things that are right in the middle, like Holy Water.

Cy:

Yeah.

Fr. Hugh:

You know, in the Eastern tradition you drink Holy Water.

Cy:

Oh, you do? I didn’t know that.

Fr. Hugh:

Yeah. You drink it. Yeah, you don’t sprinkle it-

Cy:

Oh, I should join the Eastern Church. I got to ask you about one though. I’m just a little getting concerned about the time. I apologize for that Father, but okay, so there’s one other one that you’re not quite hitting on. And that’s like, when you go to Gloucester and before the fishing season starts, the priest comes out and blesses all the fishing boats. He’s not setting the fishing boats apart for-

Fr. Hugh:

No, that’s a different… That was exactly the next step. That’s what it takes, to see we’re thinking along the same lines. That is a blessing, which is invocatory, not constituent. They have considered blessings, which makes something Holy. Invocatory blessings, which asks for God’s blessing and grace upon them. Those blessings are renewed continually like the blessing upon the family during the meal, a blessing of a particular activity like that, that happen annually, or relatively often, depending upon what they are. But that’s that third kind. You bless God, because he’s so good. You make things Holy by the authority of your priesthood to accomplish certain Holy effects. Or you ask for something as a priest or as a lay person, as a blessing from God, for those who were present. Their protection of soul and body, like blessings on travelers, such things. They have to with circumstances or activities of human life.

So you have basically the blessing of God, which occurs practically, continually in the divine office of the church, praising God. Then you have the things which make things Holy for sacred use and to be channels of divine grace. And then, you have the blessings which ask for what you need in order to accomplish the activities of human life, right? That’s the powerful consideration there, but blessings are things that we should ask for.

You should ask a priest for blessing whenever you see him, or when you’re leaving him after a good period of time, because the priest blessing is significant. And it has a power of itself, not like that of the sacraments, but to the prayer of the church and your own faith, is a very powerful thing. So you should always take advantage of that possibility.

Cy:

Is it only the clergy who can give a blessing or is there…

Fr. Hugh:

There are, the people that are the most privileged to give blessings are priests.

Cy:

Yeah.

Fr. Hugh:

And then of course, in the medieval dispensation, Kings, because they are the fathers or parents or Queens of their people, but also parents and many Catholic parents have not learned or have forgotten. But in Europe, the tradition was always that parents bless their children. Now, traditionally among Latin Catholics, priest blesses people using his hand, making the sign of the cross. But the lady bless others by using the thumb and tracing the sign of the cross on the forehead.

Cy:

Right.

Fr. Hugh:

And Catholic parents should do that every night for their kids before they go to bed, when they go to school in the morning. But the parental blessing, either from the father or the mother, is a very important thing. And it’s part of the parental power. You have something which is in line with God and the angelic hosts all the way down to the governance of your children, which has a real effective power in their lives.

And also gives them the constellation and awareness of their being under the blessing of those who have the care for them. So, definitely parental blessings are very important. So all you have to do is just put your thumb on the child’s forehead and just say the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, or may Jesus and Mary keep you, or may your guardian angel bless you. Whatever you want to say, but a blessing like that is a very important thing. And it’s something you have the right to do because in the Bible, priests, Kings and fathers and mothers are the ones that give blessing.

Cy:

Well, I have adult children and I still do it.

Fr. Hugh:

Yeah. Absolutely. There you go.

Cy:

And the least-

Fr. Hugh:

How did they turn out? Well-

Cy:

Oh, they’re horrible people. No. Yeah. They’re very good people, but I feel like that’s my privilege as a father. And even if you don’t want it, I don’t care.

Fr. Hugh:

Absolutely.

Cy:

I don’t care. I’m blessing you. I don’t care, even if you’re in a bad mood.

Fr. Hugh:

I saw that in Italy, a new Bishop visiting, after he’d been made a Bishop and he knelt down on the ground while his little low mother blessed him on the forehead.

Cy:

God bless him, isn’t that beautiful?

Fr. Hugh:

There you go.

Cy:

Yeah. That’s right. All right. Well, I’ll ask you for your blessing then.

Fr. Hugh:

Absolutely.

Cy:

Before we go, may we?

Fr. Hugh:

[forgien language 00:19:01]. Amen.

Cy:

With his blessings and his exorcisms, and most especially, in his establishment of the sacraments, Jesus unveils the world of spirits to us, a world that is constantly having an influence on us. But we are not aware of, unless he shows it to us. Among the things he left us are these blessings and people who have the power to bless us. They’re very, very powerful. It’s wonderful to be Catholic and to have this great array of gifts that God has given us.

So get some Holy Water, get your rosary blessed and take advantage of all the blessings that God makes available. Thanks for joining us today on Focus. Don’t forget, we love to get emails and we have been getting more and more emails from folks who suggest new programs that we might want to do.

You can contact us at our email address, [email protected], [email protected] Don’t forget to like, and subscribe if you’re watching on YouTube. Please do like and subscribe. And also we can use your support. It costs money to do this. We’ve got a crew of people that puts these things together and we got to pay them. They got to eat and you can support us by going to givecatholic.com, givecatholic.com. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. Thanks for being with us. It has been a blessing and we’ll see you next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

 

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