Externals of the Catholic Church – The Ritual

Our Holy Church considers that all earthly things need sanctification, inasmuch as by the fall of our first parents the world became subject to the power of the Evil One; and so, from the earliest times, she has observed the practice of bestowing blessings on various objects. She wishes that not only the things employed in her services but also those that her children use in their daily life should be ” sanctified by the Word of God and by prayer.”

History of the Ritual

The Roman Ritual is a book which every priest has occasion to use frequently. The Ritual means the “Book of Rites,” just as the Missal signifies the “Book of the Mass,” and the Pontifical the “Book of the Pontiff” or Bishop. It has taken centuries to bring the Ritual to its present form. In early times all the forms of blessing were not comprised in one book; some were contained in the “Sacramentary,” some in the Missal, some elsewhere. The first book resembling our Ritual was entitled a “Sacerdotale,” or Priest’s Book, and was published at Rome in 1537. In those days nearly every diocese had its own Ritual and its own list of authorized blessings; and, to promote uniformity, the Council of Trent recommended that a new and complete Ritual should be issued and should be used all over the world, at least where the Latin rite prevailed. In 1614 the learned Pontiff Paul V authorized a revised Ritual which was put into form by a commission headed by Cardinal Julius d’ Antonio, a man of remarkable zeal and ability. It has not been altered to any considerable extent since that time, although it was re-edited by Benedict XIV in 1753, and many new blessings have been added to it at various times.

The Parts of the Ritual

The complete Ritual is made up of several parts. It opens with the rites of the Sacraments that can be administered by a priest – Baptism, of a child or an adult; Penance, with the form of absolving from censures; the giving of Holy Communion outside of Mass or to the sick; Extreme Unction, with an appendix of psalms and the Litany of the Saints, which may be recited when the last Sacraments are administered to the sick; and Matrimony, after which is placed (very appropriately) the prayers of “churching,” or the blessing of a woman after childbirth.

A chapter for the visitation of the sick contains some beautiful prayers and selections from the Gospels, which may be read over the sick person. These are worthy of special notice, on account of the consoling nature of the passages chosen from the sacred text.

The first is the touching account of the faith of the pagan centurion – “Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof. Say only the word, and my servant shall be healed.” Another gives us the divine commission bestowed on the Apostles: “Going into the whole world, preach the Gospel to every creature. . . . They shall place their hands on the sick, and these shall be made well.” A third tells of the curing of the mother-in-law of Saint Peter, who was “seized with great fevers.” Another, the healing of the man at the pool of Bethsaida. Each of these is followed by an appropriate prayer, asking for restoration of health for the afflicted one; and at the end is a special blessing imparted by the placing of the priest’s hands on the head of the sick person and by a prayer asking health for him “through the intercession of the Apostles Peter and Paul and all the Saints.” And the series of prayers is concluded with the opening verses of the sublime Gospel of Saint John: “In the beginning was the Word.”

The Various Blessings

Further on in the book come the details of the ceremonies of Candlemas Day, Palm Sunday, and other feasts on which special blessings are imparted. But the part which is most interesting is that which contains the many blessings which the Church authorizes and uses for the sanctification of persons, places and things.

These are altogether about 140 in number. The prayers used in them generally ask that the thing blessed may tend to the spiritual and temporal welfare of the faithful.

First come the blessings of persons. There is the well-known Blessing of Saint Blaise,” which is administered in some of our churches on his festival, the third of February, and which is commemorative of the legend which makes that saint the preserver from diseases of the throat. There is a blessing for sick persons, distinct from those already mentioned; and a special form of prayer and benediction for a woman who expects to become a mother.

There are several blessings for children. One is for infants, that they may “grow in holiness”; one for a child, that it may increase, as our Saviour did, “in wisdom and age and grace with God and men”; another for an assembly or sodality of children, and a special blessing for sick children.

Blessings for Religious Articles

A blessing is given to nearly everything which the Church uses in her rites and ceremonies or offers to the veneration of her children. There is a form for a new cross, for religious statues, for banners, organs, crucifixes, rosaries of various kinds, medals, and many other articles. Some of these receive what is called die “Papal Indulgence” through the form of blessing which is recited over them.

Then there are the blessings for buildings. There is a special form for schools – for the Church is always the zealous promoter of Christian education and all varieties of useful knowledge. Several blessings are provided for dwellings. One of these is assigned to Holy Saturday, when the priest (in many countries) goes from house to house, sprinkling holy water and praying that “as the blood of the paschal lamb protected the Israelites from the destroying angel, so may the Blood of Jesus Christ protect the inmates of this house from all evil.”

It is a laudable custom, when a new house is completed to have the priest visit it and invoke the mercy of God upon it and those who shall dwell in it. A blessing is given in the Ritual for that purpose – that the edifice itself may be preserved from danger of destruction, and that spiritual and worldly blessings may come abundantly upon those who shall call it their home.

Blessings for Living Things

The tiller of the soil, the herdsman and the shepherd are the primary producers of wealth; and the prosperity – even the existence – of the human race depends upon the success of their labor. The piety of the faithful in every age has sought for the blessing of God and His Church upon flocks and herds and the products of the soil. And so we find many quaint blessings in the Ritual, for nearly every animal that is useful to man – cows, oxen, horses, sheep, fowl, bees; also a different form of blessing when any of the larger animals is sick. There are blessings, too, for the protection of the farmers* crops and granaries against harmful animals – mice, locusts, etc. The Church has always believed and taught that “every best gift, every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of Light”; that all things, even the lowliest, are directly subject to His providence.

Blessings for Eatables

This spirit of the Church leads her to extend her solemn blessings even to the things that are to be used for food and drink. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” – and even the food which God provides for the nourishment of our bodies tends to some extent to the promotion of His glory. And so she gives her blessings for vines, fruits, eggs, oil, bread, cakes, cheese, butter – and even wine and beer. Our Church advocates temperance, indeed; but she knows, as we know, that the abuse, not the use, of these latter things is to be reprehended.

Blessings for Other Things

To permit the giving of God’s blessing to the things which we use in our daily occupations, the Church has provided forms of benediction for many different objects – for the launching of a ship, for bridges, for wells and springs, for furnaces and limekilns; for granaries, bakeries, stables; for seeds and for a field after sowing; for medicines and surgical appliances. And that she may demonstrate that she appreciates modern inventions, she has added formulas for the blessing of steam engines, railroads, telegraphs, telephones – and, very recently, for the apparatus for wireless telegraphy.

All these blessings show us that the Church wishes us to recognize our dependence upon God, Who bestows His gifts upon us so abundantly; and, that these may be useful to us spiritually and otherwise, the Church bestows her solemn blessing upon the things which we, the children of God, have received from our Heavenly Father.