February 8, 2024 at 7:00 a.m.
I hope and pray that as we enter the Lenten season, we will seek many blessings from God and, yes, from priests who are commissioned to impart blessings on their spiritual children.
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Like most priests my age, I cannot count the blessings I have so generously received over the years nor, for that matter, those which I have been so privileged — and humbled — to impart. God is so good. I am in awe with the patience, forgiveness and, quite frankly, the passion with which God has pursued me, a wandering sheep, through all my errant paths and detours. I can only echo with wonder the sentiments of St. Thérèse de Lisieux, the Little Flower, who realized that God does not call those who are worthy, but those whom he desires. Every blessing is an affirmation of that desire, a confirmation of that divine love that no one can earn but can always depend upon.
Having been so blessed throughout my life, it is unimaginable that I would withhold a blessing to another human being who asked for one. Every child of God — for such we all are — is beloved of this Eternal Love. How can I refuse a suppliant what God never would? In my 50-plus years of priesthood, like almost all priests my age, I have blessed just about everything imaginable on request, from cars to kitchens, from knees to noses, and yes, every kind of creeping thing, from turtles to gerbils — at least on Oct. 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. And yes, people. Always people. In blessing the places where people live and in which they move about, the pets they cherish, and the objects they wear or place in their living spaces, I know — they know — I am blessing them. And why do I bless? Because God blesses.
After all, what does God do all day long, I have often asked myself. God certainly must do a lot of listening. And much of that listening is in the form of favors asked, the things that we all want and need from God. God gives good things to those who ask. “If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Lk 11:13).
Jesus is talking here, for one thing, about the power of prayer. The insertion of “the Holy Spirit” is a Lucan editorial alteration to what is likely the original saying of Jesus about God giving “good things” to those who ask (cf. Mt 7:11). It is most insightful, however, and we should ponder it seriously. For it informs us not only that God only gives “good” things, but that God gives the best gift of all: the divine presence dwelling within us, which is the Holy Spirit, the Love between the Father and the Son – the Holy Trinity! When we ask for a blessing, we do not just ask for some thing, some favor. We are asking for the very presence of God, who is the only power that can grant us what we are asking for: God himself. If we are asking for God’s presence, then we are asking to become holy because whoever receives God into their heart is consenting to change, to leave sin aside, and to become holy. To see a blessing as anything less is an insult to God. To ask God to bless something — some thing, some attitude, some lifestyle that is unholy — is a contradiction of the divine Person we are asking the blessing from.
While I am somewhat saddened — though not surprised — by all the confusion and controversy over “Fiducia Supplicans,” the Declaration — the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings (Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, 18 December 2023), considering its timing (of all options, the week before Christmas!) and its seemingly unsolicited appearance on the scene, I can only deduce that it was issued with some sense of urgency, to correct or ward off some mistaken understandings of pastoral — or as the document explains — blessings that are not “liturgical” or “sacramental.” The central issue is, of course, the blessing of people in irregular relationships, such as an invalid marriage (merely civil union between Catholics) or a same-sex relationship, however designated by civil law.
I have no way of knowing what incidents are reported to the Vatican of misplaced blessings — such as of an immoral union itself — or of blessings brusquely refused or denied to those asking for one. I also do not know whether it was anticipated fully how the media and the secular world in general would react to its publication, thus prompting the need to “clarify” days after a statement of which it was said there would be no — no need for — a further clarification. So, I will not attempt yet another clarification of a clarification. Were I to do so, I would be issuing just those liturgical norms that the document explicitly eschews, that is to say, the where and the how such blessings may be imparted. The only thing to be avoided is any words, place or context from which it may be inferred that some sacrament is being celebrated. Am I being naïve or presumptuous to hope that common sense will be the guide to that? Do I have to say, don’t do a “spontaneous” blessing in front of an altar in church with a huge crucifix behind it, as a photo I have seen from some blessing ritual of a same-sex couple in Germany portrayed.
Ash Wednesday is approaching. On that day, many people will approach for the imposition of ashes, a rite that is termed a “sacramental.” It is a sacred ritual which, in a sense, every blessing is. It is not a sacrament because its imposition does not require an evaluation of the disposition of the receiver. The sacramental is an invocation of God’s grace upon a person, but not an affirmation of the readiness or worthiness of the person to receive it, an approval of the state of that person’s spiritual life.
Blessings are something like the seed that the sower — God? — in the parable scatters almost wantonly and haphazardly over every kind of terroir, whether it be able to assimilate it or not. Some non-Catholics enter our parish churches to receive the ashes on Ash Wednesday. I have known some local Christian ministers to do so. I have never refused them, nor did I seek out some document to instruct me. Some people even present their babies for ashes. I see no reason to refuse them either. We baptize children even though they are incapable of sinning, and we teach them the Sign of the Cross and sprinkle Holy Water on them to initiate them in the symbols and traditions of our faith. Who knows when a blessing of any sort, whether it involves ashes, incense or Holy Water, might not move a sinner to deeper penitence even if at its reception he or she are not yet there?
Let me dwell for a moment on that point. It is indeed possible that a person asking to be “blessed” may somehow be seeking affirmation or approval of something that is not of God, something not holy. Would I bless the crack pipe of someone who presented it to me for a blessing? Probably not. I cannot imagine any good coming out of a crack pipe. So what about a brewery or a wine cellar — or a battleship for that matter? Arguments can be made that wine can “delight the heart of man” (cf. Ps. 104:15). It can also make him drunk, but that is due to a misuse of the good.
If two people come up to me and simply ask for a blessing — clearly for themselves and not some object — I will likely tap both of them on the head, imparting a blessing to each person. I have no idea whether they are cohabiting, just entered a business partnership or are going on vacation together. I can tell you that, after all the controversy and confusion that followed the release of “Fiducia Supplicans,” as well as the many attempts to interpret or clarify, I will be doubly sure to include words that exhort the recipient to a chaste and holy life, with the help of God’s grace. But I will not refuse. In good conscience I cannot, unless something clearly would become an occasion of grave scandal or confusion.
I have no window to look into the heart or motivation of any person. The heart of a father is always moved by a child who asks for a favor, as Jesus himself testified. In every case, if I am in error, I would rather err on the side of mercy. I hope and pray that as we enter the Lenten season, we will seek many blessings from God and, yes, from priests who are commissioned to impart blessings on their spiritual children. I hope that all of us will seek to receive the blessings the Lord wishes to bestow on us so that we can grow in holiness, godliness, and conform our lives more fully to that of Jesus himself. That is the main purpose of Lent: to set aside any sinful pattern, and to live in this world as Jesus did, to lead others by our good example. I cannot imagine a better Lenten intention than that. That is the intention I would presume in any request for a blessing. That is the intention I would bless.