The Rite for the Blessing of a Child in the Womb – some questions

A Pray Tell reader from a liturgical tradition of Christianity (OK, that’s an inelegant description, but I prefer not to define others by what they’re not – a “non-Roman Catholic” reader) writes in to alert us that the Rite for the Blessing of a Child in the Womb is now out in final form. (Pray Tell reported earlier that the blessing was on the way.)

Now that the text is out, the reader raises some difficult questions worth considering:

The rite has things that concern me — principally, a tendency to impute emotions onto the mother that she may or may not be feeling, and an idealized picture of pregnancy. For instance it is entirely possible that the woman is not feeling “wondrous joy” at her pending motherhood.

Furthermore, does this rite assume that all births will be to healthy children? Just before the prayer mentioned above is a prayer that says “grant a healthy birth that is the sign of our rebirth one day into the eternal rejoicing of heaven.” What does this rite then say to the mother if the birth is not healthy? What is the priest to do if at the time of the blessing, it is already known that there are medical problems for the fetus? Does the birth of a child that is not healthy signify some flaw in our “rebirth one day”?

Finally, on page ten is this prayer: “It has pleased our heavenly Father to bless this community with the gift of new life. Today we join in offering heartfelt thanks to almighty God for this (these) newly conceived child (children), created in the image and likeness of God.” Will there be a parallel rite of mourning, for the inevitable circumstances (statistically speaking) where there is a miscarriage?

To provide only a rite for joy and no rite for grief is a pastoral disaster waiting to happen.

18 comments

  1. As far as the final point goes, I would imagine (and feel confident saying) there are a number of prayers, written for use in an informal or formal context, for the death of a child.

    Regarding the possibility of a birth with complications and/or subsequently ill child, I’m not sure that outcome differs much from when we don’t see the fruits of God’s grace the way we expect to after any other given prayer (e.g., still feeling spiritually broken after the centurion’s prayer, pre-Advent 2011 or after; still suffering some challenge or burden after praying Kyrie Eleison; still witnessing war/violence/abortion/hunger/etc. after praying for an end to them). I think if we get to the theological roots of those questions we could understand why the prayer is still OK in the event of a hard birth and life afterward.

    As to the first question (no idea why I’m doing this backward), that’s a little stickier. In the end, though, I think it’s pointing toward the miracle of life and the general joy of a child. Of course there are tons of emotions that accompany pregnancy; I read the prayer to indicate something of a Marian approach to pregnancy, or even John the Baptist’s reaction to Christ in the womb. Maybe, too, the prayer highlights the ideal pregnancy (worry-free, etc.) and provides a teachable and pastoral moment to those who give counsel to women in difficult pregnancies.

  2. Maybe the prayer should be a simple request for the good health of the baby and mother rather than a theological treatise?

    1. Yes, keep it simple.

      The local Orthodox parish simply includes “the unborn child of N & N” in its customary list of prayers.

      Since I was prayed into existence by my mother, and the women of my family always have me in their prayers, the prayers of women will never be lacking.

      Some years ago I came across a sociological study of the relationship of social networks to health; you only need to count the women in your social network; forget about the men.

      Of course, men benefit from marriage much more than women.

      This rite has much more to do with the self importance of the clergy than the welfare of the child and family.

      1. Jack, I disagree, given that the blessing has no reference to the person delivering it. The only people actually mentioned in the prayer are the child, mother, father, and Christ. I could maybe – maybe – see how it could involve the self-importance of the clergy if it was given at Mass and a family known to be pregnant was shamed by the priest for not coming forward, but I imagine those cases would be few and far between. I’m not sure how a priest or deacon would get an inflated ego by delivering this blessing.

  3. It occurs to me to add that all to often, what starts out with good intentions can be lacerating. Imagine yourself a woman who has lost several pregnancies or been unable to conceive at all. You show up for Mass and feel ambushed, belittled and betrayed when the priest calls up the pregnant women to be blessed, prefacing this with a mini-sermon praising them for being part of God’s creative plan.

    1. I think this would fall more in the realm of pastoral prudence of the minister- otherwise, I feel there would always be some counter-case for practically everything and we would be unable to celebrate, bless or thank God for anything.

  4. Brigid, I’m in complete agreement with your second comment on being called up for a blessing. I felt the same way over the weekend at the Saturday Vigil Mass, at which all the present mothers were invited to stand for a blessing. A sincere gesture on the part of the parish, to be sure, but one that had the potential to bring a lot of grief to those women who have suffered through difficult pregnancies, lost children, have been unable to conceive, etc. I agree that good intentions can end up causing severe inadvertent harm, but I don’t know that that problem invalidates the prayer itself. Perhaps it should be advertised as available for request and left at that, rather than given at Mass in a public forum, or advertised ahead of time in a parish bulletin so that those uncomfortable with it could attend a different Mass that day.

    1. But aren’t we all broken and wounded in some way? When will it end? Children are a gift from the Lord, as are mothers and fathers. If I feel excluded when the community blesses God and prays for these people, then I am in need of forgiving, forgiveness and healing. The public prayer of blessing can become a moment of change and blessing for me.

      Are we going to stop praying for prisoners because someone who has lost a loved one to crime might feel hurt? I would hope not!

      I wonder if calling this good work of the Lord something harmful would be a sin against the Holy Spirit.

  5. With regards to some of what has been said above: My wife and I have unfortunately suffered through one miscarriage, and have still yet to have any children. A few other married couples we know are expecting their first children at the moment, and yes, it’s emotionally tough to be happy for them and yet still grieve for what could have been.

    But our feelings shouldn’t get in the way of other people receiving blessings – I don’t think that would really be fair to them. Neither should it stop our priests drawing attention to the purpose of marriage and the blessings of God – ultimately, that’s not really fair to anyone.

  6. Interestingly, the 1964 Roman Ritual already contained a “Blessing of an Expectant Mother at the approach of confinement” that included the blessing of the unborn child. It reads in part (Weller’s translation, my emphasis):

    …Lord, we beg you to visit this dwelling, and to drive away from it and from this servant of yours, N, all the enemy’s wiles. Let your holy angels be appointed here to keep her and her offspring in peace; and let your blessing ever rest upon her. Save them, almighty God, and grant them your everlasting light; through Christ our Lord.

    All: Amen.

    May the blessing of almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, come on you and your child, and remain with you forever.

    All: Amen.

    The Book of Blessing’s short fomulary for the blessing of an expectant mother has something similar:

    God has brought gladness and light to the world through the Virgin Mary’s delivery of her child. May Christ fill your heart with his holy joy and keep you and your baby safe from harm. In the name of the Father, + and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. R. Amen.

  7. I agree – especially this part

    “To those who are foster moms, mentor moms, and spiritual moms – we need you”

    When my children were still at home, I had each one of them select a “Church mom ” to bring flowers to on Mother’s Day – for example, the sweet woman who had prepared them for First Communion.

  8. Perhaps this is a cynical response but I expected the rite to be a fail since its real purpose seems to be making a point about the contents of the womb, which may not be a bad point to make, but I’ve never been a fan of using prayers and petitions as vehicles for making political, ideological or ethical points.

  9. For those unborn babies whose sires would not be fathers it is a good thing that the blessing is not reserved for those mothers who have a man (husband) ready to be a father.

  10. I thought there are a lot of problems with the points raised by the reader whose piece is reported here.

    Mothers and fathers face a lot of emotions during the period of pregnancy. For example, some result from circumstances beyond our control, others are natural human emotions that are neither morally good or bad, others come as a result of hormonal imbalances, still others are a result of our frailty and sin, and there are some that are holy and good. Life is always God’s gift – it is God’s first gift to us that makes all other gifts possible, and the joy, thanksgiving and awe in the presence of such a gift are holy and good emotions. The prayer affirms joy of motherhood as Godly and, without denying other emotions, natural or otherwise, prays for God to increase this holy joy. This is a normal aspect of prayer.

    The reader might perhaps have interpreted healthy birth as perfect birth. A very understandble leap in our materialistic culture where we only want to spend money on the best. But “healthy birth” is not defined in the prayer narrowly and can admit of various gradations. So the rite doesn’t assume all children are born perfect; and the fact that the child will likely have health problems, such as because of genetic disorder or congenital diseases, doesn’t mean we cannot pray for a as-healthy-as-possible birth, God-willing.

  11. And of course, a healthy birth is a sign of our new birth into spiritual wholeness begun in the baptismal font; abnormalties are a sign of sin (not, I must add, a result of any actual sin of the parents or any individual). I suffer from red-green colour blindness and I do not pretend that this is not a defect (I was reminded by my eye doctor recently that the condition means the rods and cones are abnormal and could deterioriate faster than normal rods and cones) but it doesn’t mean I am not blessed by God, or that my birth is not a blessing. My birth defect and its attendant suffering are signs of the effects of sin, but the Catholic Christian faith affirms to me the good news that Christ has redeemed us from sin, and that suffering itself has been changed into our instrument of glory. Sin and its signs are not the last word, and they no longer have the power to hinder us from the perfection and communion of love with the Father, and to these I look forward to and have assurance as I stand firmly rooted in Christ and his Church.

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