First Blessing in the Ordination Mass?

Catholic ordinations always take place in a Mass, and the presider is always a bishop. The bishop presides over any liturgy, priests only act as his representative with his mandate (cf. e.g. Lumen Gentium 26). In the ordination liturgy itself, the newly ordained priests assist the bishop as concelebrants (a quite unfortunate term in my eyes, but be that as it may) for the rest of the Mass. So far, so good.

But then there is the tradition of the “first blessing” of a newly ordained priest where it starts to get a bit complicated. How does the first blessing relate to the ordination liturgy itself? The Latin Pontificale leaves no doubt: There is no first blessing whatsoever in the ordination Mass. The presiding bishop gives the final blessing of the Mass, and after the dismissal the Mass is over. Anything else can take place afterwards following local custom.

The English Pontifical follows the Latin, but I am familiar with a well-known custom that the bishop asks the newly ordained priest(s) to bless him before the dismissal. He kneels down in front of the priest(s) and receives the first blessing.

The German Pontifikale allows including the first blessing in an odd way: Where it is custom, the newly ordained priests can give the first blessing together before the final blessing of the Mass by the bishop. (“Wo es Brauch ist, können die Neupriester vor dem Schlusssegen des Bischofs gemeinsam den Primizsegen erteilen.”)

I have even been in ordination Masses where only the newly ordained priests gave the first blessing without any final blessing by the bishop, but this practice is not foreseen by the Pontifikale.

None of these options make sense to me, with the German option of a double blessing probably being the most irritating. When I studied medieval church history with the well-known professor Arnold Angenendt, I learned the early medieval concept of “pure hands” or “powerful hands”: The hands of a newly ordained priest have fresh and unspent power, hence people – even bishops – should crave such a pure blessing and literally go any distance to get one.

But from the point of view of ecclesiology, liturgical symbolism, and the theology of the ordained office after Vatican II, this notion is not convincing.

In general, the symbolism of a bishop being blessed by a non-bishop can make good sense. Acts 13:1–3, where the Christians in Antioch laid their hands on Barnabas and Saul before they sent them to Seleucia and Cyprus, might be a good example and analogy. Blessing is not a one-way road among Christians. The biblical meaning of a blessing is not only someone “with power” acting over someone “without power,” but also praying to God for someone. Any Christian should be willing to bless anyone, and even bishops (maybe bishops more than others!) should crave being blessed. We also know liturgical reflections of that idea, e.g., there were times when the pope received Holy Communion from the hands of a deacon (and never took it on his own), or when the presider’s assistants prayed for him in the Penitential Act in the same way he prayed for them. (I think we lost a lot when we lost those two traditions.)

But this is not the point in the context of current liturgical symbolism. Priests bless bishops in a public liturgical act only in this one case. It is not part of a general liturgical rule of “bishops being blessed”. It is not covered by the Latin Pontificale, and it matches neither Lumen Gentium 26 nor Sacrosanctum Concilium 13 with their clear distinction between sacred liturgy and popular devotion. The symbolism of the presiding bishop as an image of the apostolic roots of the Church and of the unity of the Church – with the priests as his helping hands and not the other way round – is quite clear and should not be called into question by any (medieval) custom of popular devotion.

So when I attend the next ordination Mass, I would be most happy if I could receive the final blessing by the presider, and if I could decide on my own whether I ask for a first blessing by a newly ordained priest or not.

7 comments

  1. There is also the old tradition of a bishop doing numerous blessings of congregants as he processes out of the church after the final blessing. Not all bishops do this, but it raises the question of blessing people who have just been blessed. If one is good, two is better? To me it confuses the whole meaning of blessing. Also do not the liturgical documents assume that any blessing, even of a medal or a rosary, would include some brief liturgy of the word to precedes it, thereby making it appear less magical?

    1. If memory serves, the orders of blessing in the Book of Blessings (postconciliar) normally arrange for reading and responses, et cet. There are at least a couple that don’t – involving devotional articles – where a short formulary is indicated without such:

      Blessings of Articles Meant to Foster the Devotion of the Christian People
      In special circumstances, a priest or deacon may use the following short blessing formulary:
      May this (name of the article) and the one who uses it be blessed, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit. R. Amen.

      Order for the Blessing of Rosaries
      In special circumstances, a priest or deacon may use the following short blessing formulary:
      May this rosary and the one who uses it be blessed, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit. R. Amen.

      1. Raises another question: Are there blessings without a spoken formula – simply making the sign of the cross in the air? I confess to having done this after Mass as people are crowding the doors to get home and some devout person asks me to bless a rosary. Maybe that’s what some bishops do during the recessional procession. Sort of seems like liturgical minimalism with maybe a dose of clericalism mixed in?

      2. Jan

        Another frame: Maybe it’s pastoral because that’s what many people in the pews who don’t parse the Book of Blessings want because it’s what’s customary?

        For such non-verbal blessings adjacent to a liturgy, there has certainly been a liturgical frame accompanying them.

  2. Regarding “exit procession blessings”, the bishop of my diocese is often in danger of dislocating his shoulder as he flails his way down the nave, distributing his favours to both sides alternately. Many other bishops have dispensed with this custom, thank goodness..

    Regarding blessings of objects, I have told this story before. A priest friend, when asked “Father, will you bless my rosary?” always responds “No!” — and then after a pause, “But I’ll ask God to.” There’s a whole theology of blessing there that we need to rediscover.

  3. A theology of priesthood dominated by thinking in terms of “powers” is at work here. It does not respect the ordering of ministries; rather, ordination celebrates the receiving of “powers.” We are still a long way from a renewed understanding of the priesthood. Even Pope Francis, who distances himself from clericalism in words, reinforces it when he kisses the hands of newly-ordained priests during a pandemic.

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