When our first parents were so unfortunate as to transgress the divine command by eating the forbidden fruit, Almighty God called them to Him, and in punishment of their disobedience the woman, who was the first to transgress, was told: “I will multiply thy sorrows and thy conceptions: in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” And though it was promised at the same time that the seed of the woman should crush the head of the serpent which had seduced her, this was to take place only after the lapse of centuries, during which the woman was to hold an inferior position, and her noblest function of motherhood be regarded as necessarily associated with defilement. The memory of this, which was traditional among all the peoples of the world, assumed in the true religion of the Jewish Dispensation the sanction of a liturgical law. It was left for Mary, the highest type of true womanhood, to change this decree, and to elevate woman to the sublimest heights to which it is possible for her to aspire. What can ennoble her more than to have the greatest creature that ever came or ever can come from the hand of Omnipotence given her as a model? If sin came by woman, redemption from sin came also by woman, as the Church sings of Mary: “Through whom we have received the Author of life, Christ Our Lord.”
As our divine Redeemer by eating the Paschal Lamb on the eve of His sacred Passion gave that Mosaic rite an honorable termination, as certain of the Fathers have remarked, so did Mary, by conforming to the law of purification, give to it an honorable ending.
The rite of Churching differs essentially from the ceremony of legal purification among the Jews, as we shall see in the sequel. The Jewish rite was founded on the idea of legal defilement; Mary removed this, and by becoming the mother of our divine Redeemer made maternity truly honorable. The Jewish rite was necessary to fit the mother for assisting at religious ceremonies; the Christian rite is an act of thanksgiving. The Jewish rite was of obligation, commanded by the voice of God Himself; the Christian ceremony does not bind even under pain of venial sin. Hence through Mary the whole current not only of public opinion but also of religious observance on this point is changed, and results in the true elevation and ennobling of woman. Happy would it be for woman if the refined paganism of our day did not seek to degrade her once more, while eloquently prating about her rights. But by no other means than by the example of Mary can she be truly elevated, and the sooner the world learns this the better.
A spirit of humility, so natural to the true Christian heart, as well as a desire of imitating the Blessed Virgin, equally natural to Christian mothers, induced the early Christian women to abstain from entering the church for a certain time after they had received the blessing of motherhood, although no legal defilement attached to them under the New Dispensation. They then asked the blessing of the priest at the door of the church, before entering, and made their first visit as an act of thanksgiving for their safe delivery.1 Hence the origin of churching, which was a natural outgrowth of the Mosaic rite. The date of the origin of this pious custom is not certain; but that it is very ancient there can be no question. Perhaps the first authentic mention we have of it is in an Arabic canon of the Council of Nice.
Turning to the persons to whom this blessing is to be imparted, it is to be remarked that it is not to be given to all women indiscriminately. And as there is no obligation binding even under pain of venial sin, women are only to be exhorted to receive it, but it is not to be imposed as an obligation. Nor is it of obligation that the mother should bring her infant with her, as there is no law to that effect, nor is there anything in the ceremony that necessarily supposes the presence of the child. When a provincial council of Mechlin decreed to make churching obligatory, the Sacred Congregation at Rome changed the decree. The blessing is not to be denied those whose infants have died without baptism. Says O’Kane: “The pastor may refuse it in any case in which the birth is notoriously illegitimate, even when there is no diocesan or provincial statute requiring him to do so.” And the Sacred Congregation of Rites, on being consulted on the subject, decided that none but those whose children were born in lawful wedlock could claim a right to this blessing.3 Also, according to the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore (N. 242), the blessing is not to be given promiscuously, but regard is to be had to the honorable condition of the person asking it. In short, it is a blessing for honorable, not for dishonorable, motherhood.
There is no special legislation with regard to the priest by whom the blessing should be imparted, nor is there any need of it; the pastor of the church to which the mother belongs, or his representative, is the person who, according to the most ordinary rules of propriety, should give it. The blessing is not to take place outside the church, even in the case of a mother who is in danger of death; because as there is no obligation to receive it there can be no sin in omitting it; but in missionary countries where Mass has frequently to be said in a hall, a schoolhouse, or a private dwelling, the blessing can also be imparted there. The rule, then, is that wherever Mass can be celebrated the blessing can be given, but not elsewhere.
With regard to the manner of giving the blessing, the circumstances of this and perhaps other missionary countries have made certain inroads on the strict requirements of the ritual. It directs that if a woman desires this blessing she shall kneel at the door of the church, holding a lighted candle in her hand; and the priest, vested in surplice and white stole, and accompanied by an acolyte, shall proceed to the door of the church, where he shall sprinkle her with holy water, and recite the twenty-third psalm, with an antiphon. Then he presents her the end of the stole which hangs from his left shoulder, which she takes with her right hand, while holding the candle in her left; and they come up to the foot of the altar, the priest saying the while: “Enter into the temple of God, adore the Son of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who has given thee fruitfulness of offspring.” After certain versicles and responses, with the “Our Father,” the priest recites the prayer: “Almighty, everlasting God, who through the delivery of the Blessed Virgin Mary hast changed the pains of the faithful in childbirth into joy, look mercifully on this Thy handmaid, who comes in gladness to Thy temple to offer thanksgiving; and grant that, after this life, through the merits and intercession of the same Blessed Mary, she may be found worthy to attain. together with her offspring, to the joys of everlasting happiness. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.” The priest then sprinkles her with holy water, gives her a blessing, and the ceremony is ended.
But it has just been said that the full ceremonial of the ritual is not always carried out in many places. Among us in this country it is not the general custom to meet the woman at the church door; she more commonly comes to the altar rail, where the priest, standing at the inner side of the railing, performs the ceremony How far this departure from the strict requirements of the ritual is justified it is not the intention to inquire in this place; but where it does exist it is known and at least tolerated by local ecclesiastical authorities.
It may further be noted that while in many of the blessings, and in the administration of the sacrament of baptism, there are rubrics directing the plural number to be used when there is more than one person, there is no such rubric with regard to churching. But this is not always regarded, and there are frequently several women churched at the same time. Nothing is said in the ritual as to when the candle should be extinguished, or what is afterward to be done with it; but it is commonly extinguished at the conclusion of the ceremony, and left to the church to be burned on the altar.
This blessing is asked in imitation of the Blessed Virgin presenting herself in the temple, and submitting to the ceremonial law of purification; and, inasmuch as she made an offering on that occasion, it is customary with many Christian mothers to make an offering on the event of their being churched. It should not be regarded as strange that offerings are made to the priest and church on the occasion of baptisms, marriages, churchings, and the like. There are at least two very good reasons for this. In the first place, there is a propriety in the faithful making voluntary offerings for the spiritual benefits they receive through the ministry of the priests, as those cannot be estimated at a price, as labor or merchandise can be; and as they are the free gifts of God to His people, there is a fitness in making some return for them in the same manner. And in the second place, there is no professional man of the same education, and holding a position at all as responsible as that of the priest, who receives so small a salary; and while professional men have only certain hours in which they are engaged, and seldom more than six or seven in the day, the priest is liable to be called at any moment, night or day, and when called he is strictly bound in conscience to render prompt service. The new-born infant can call him to the furthest end of his parish, were he ever so fatigued. And these offerings are commanded by God Himself, both in the Old and in the New Law.4 The statutes of every, or almost every, diocese have made his salary comparatively small, knowing that he will receive certain voluntary offerings, thus making these offerings a part of his necessary income; and this gives him a sort of claim on the people for them. It is well for the faithful to have a correct idea of this matter; for while some of them imagine the priest is fond of money, the fact is he is the poorest paid man of education in the community. In large congregations, however, these perquisites do not, as a rule, go to the officiating priest, but are thrown into a general fund from which the salary of the pastor and his curates is taken in whole or in part, according to the amount.
1 O’Kane, pp. 244 et seq.; “Kirchen-Lexicon.”
3 Felise, Decree, June 18, 1859; O’Kane; De Herdt.
4 Deut. xvi. 16; I. Cor. ix. 43.