Externals of the Catholic Church – The Churching of Women

The Church has instituted a ceremony of thanksgiving by which mothers may express their gratitude to God for the blessing conferred upon them in their motherhood, and may receive the solemn benediction of the Church when they enter God’s temple for the first time after that blessing has been given to them.

This ceremony is generally known as “churching,” but the Ritual calls it “the blessing of a woman after childbirth.” “Churching” would seem to imply that permission is given to the woman to enter the church – whereas no such permission is necessary; and the longer title is really the more correct.

Different from the Jewish Rite

While this blessing was undoubtedly suggested by the rite of legal purification prescribed by the Jewish law, it differs essentially from the latter. The Jewish rite was based on the idea of legal defilement. The sufferings of motherhood were looked upon as a part of the penalty imposed on Eve and all her daughters. “I will multiply the sorrows and thy conceptions; in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children.” And so, during the centuries from Eve to Mary, the noble function of motherhood was considered as necessarily associated with guilt. On this account, when the liturgical law of the Jews was formulated by Moses, a solemn ceremony was prescribed for the removing of the “legal defilement” resulting from the bearing of a child.

It must be understood, however, that the Jews did not consider that there was any stain of sin on the mother. Legal defilement was not sin. It was merely a restriction imposed by law, requiring the woman to comply with certain conditions before she would be allowed to take part in the public worship of God, on account of the fact that she had been subjected to the penalty inflicted on our mother Eve.

But with the coming of our second mother, Mary, womankind was elevated and ennobled. Sin had entered into the world through a woman; redemption from sin came through a woman also; and motherhood, although still a painful ordeal, was no longer looked upon as a penalty. It became truly honorable, calling for thanksgiving instead of purification.

The Origin of the Blessing

Our Blessed Mother Mary, in her humility and her obedience to the laws of her religion, submitted to the Jewish rite of purification after she had given birth to the Redeemer of the world. In imitation of her it became customary in early Christian times for women to abstain from entering the church for a certain time after God hid blessed them with offspring. They then sought 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. The exact time when this pious custom originated is not known; but it is of very ancient date, and has been traced back to the fourth century, shortly after the Council of Nice.

Who Should Receive It?

The Church does not wish that this beautiful blessing should be given to all mothers indiscriminately. It is for honorable motherhood only. The bearing of an illegitimate child is not an occasion for thanksgiving, and therefore only those mothers whose children are born in lawful wedlock can claim this benediction of the Church. It may be given to a mother whose child has died without Baptism, because even then she has great reason for thanking God for her own preservation.

It must be distinctly understood that there is no obligation to receive this blessing. It would not be even a venial sin to omit it On one or two occasions certain bishops and provincial councils tried to impose an obligation regarding “churching,” but the Holy See refused to sanction the innovation.

How the Blessing is Given. The ceremony must take place at a church, although it need not be the parish church to which the woman belongs; but there is a certain propriety in receiving this blessing in one’s own church, with the pastor or his representative as the officiating priest, in the presence of the congregation of which she is a member.

This blessing is never given outside the church. Even in the case of a mother who is in danger of death, it would not be allowable to infringe on this rule, because since there is no obligation to receive it there can be no sin in omitting it. But when Mass is said in a building which is not a church, as may be the case in country missions, the blessing may be given there.

The Ceremonies and Prayers

The Ritual directs that the ceremony should begin at the door of the church, where the woman kneels, holding in her hand a lighted candle; but it has become customary to perform this part of it at the altar-rail. The priest, vested in a surplice and white stole and accompanied by an acolyte, sprinkles the woman with holy water and recites the twenty-third Psalm: “The Lord’s is the earth and the fullness thereof,” with the antiphon: “She shall receive a blessing from the Lord, and mercy from God her salvation; because this is the generation of those who seek the Lord.”

The priest then extends the end of his stole, which the woman takes in her hand, to denote that she is being led into the church by him to offer thanks to God. The priest says: “Enter into the temple of God, and adore the Son of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Who has given thee fruitfulness”; and it is customary for the woman to kiss the priest’s stole. Then, while she prays silently in thanksgiving for God’s blessings, the “Kyrie eleison” and the “Our Father” are said by the priest, followed by several short verses. And finally a beautiful prayer is recited as follows: “Almighty, eternal God, Who through the delivery of the Blessed Virgin Mary hast turned the childbirth pains of Thy faithful into joy, look kindly on this Thy handmaid, who has come to Thy temple joyfully for thanksgiving; and grant that after this life, by the merits and intercession of the same Blessed Mary, she and her offspring may deserve to attain to the joys of eternal blessedness. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.”

The woman is then sprinkled with holy water and is solemnly blessed with the words: “May peace and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father and Son and Holy Ghost, descend upon thee and remain forever. Amen.”

It is customary to make an offering on the occasion of receiving this blessing. The ceremony is in imitation of the Jewish rite to which Mary submitted, and at which she made the sacrificial offering of a pair of doves. It is therefore proper that when a Catholic woman wishes to express her gratitude for the favor which Almighty God has bestowed on her, she should make a suitable gift for religious purposes, according to her means – that thereby she may manifest her dependence on God’s bounty and her thankfulness for all the favors which have been conferred upon her.