Because the Catholic church has such a long history and is really an organic body that has been developed and shaped over a period of around two thousand years, there are many practices that have evolved over time, and their significance seem to take on a very different understanding in the mind of many of Christ’s followers. We have the use of many sacramentals in the Church, which aid us in our being constantly aware of our connectedness to God and these sacramentals give us a physical reminder that we are all called to a life of holiness – a ‘sense of the sacred’, as some theologians would put it.
So, we have in our church’s beautiful traditions many blessings that serve to remind us of God’s constant care for us, and that saints are always praying and interceding for us. Statues of saints are meant to be a physical reminder of how we are in communion with them as we make our own often difficult and challenging journeys towards living more and more godly lives. So should the wearing of medals and crucifixes help us not to lose sight of what our ultimate aim should be – a heavenly existence.
But I also have seen, and continue to see, how so many well-intentioned Catholics seem to have a very narrow appreciation of what having such sacramentals do. Why do we get sacramentals blessed? Why do we get blessings at all?
A blessing signifies several things. Blessings serve to show that something has received an approval and a validation. Don’t couples that plan to get married first seek their parents’ blessing? They do this because they want their relationship to be approved and accepted by the parents of both parties. There is a need to do this, not out of fear, but out of deep respect. They are validated in their love for each other, and this does serve to strengthen them in many ways. They need to hear the words of approval and blessing, because it assures them most of all that they are loved. All blessings received, without exception, serve to strengthen the recipient’s connection with the authority of the one who truly blesses.
When a blessing of a sacramental takes place, the same principles are at work. The words of blessing serve to remind the one who is going to use the article how he or she is loved by God (the ultimate giver of the blessing) and how God is delighted with his or her faith. The result should be that the one who hears these words becomes strengthened in his or her faith in God, and has a deeper resolve to live a life that mirrors Christ’s own life.
Though this is the theology behind any blessings, I seem to find it a bothering truism that many Catholics prefer to have a rather ‘talisman’ mentality when it comes to blessings. I have very often been presented with sacramentals like medals and holy pictures and crucifixes to be blessed, with the intention that these blessed articles given to someone else, often as gifts. As a priest, who has the spiritual growth and maturity of his people in mind, this bothers me. A lot.
I do not wish to promote any superstitious beliefs, and I do know that I can end up doing just this if I simply bless ‘blindly’ everything that the faithful present to me. I often ask a simple question – is this for you? When the answer is in the negative, and I am told that the article is in fact for someone else, I often tell the person to give the article unblessed, and to ask the recipient to approach a priest for a blessing.
The intention and purpose of this is to give the person an experience of a spiritual validation when he or she hears the words of blessing from the priest. These are not just his words, but are words of validation and affirmation of God’s blessing upon him or her. The words should serve to re-instill in the person that they are much loved by God. Just presenting a sacramental to someone and saying “this is already blessed” doesn’t serve to bring this out. In fact, it will inadvertently serve to promote a ‘talisman’ mentality, where the article is blessed (with the stilted notion that there is ‘power’ in the sacramental). What should be far more ‘powerful’ is the knowledge that one is secure and affirmed in God’s love, because many of life’s insecurities stem from a craving and insecurity of one’s unconditional blessedness.
This is one of the reasons why whenever I bless a home, that I will always insist that all of those living in the house or apartment have to be present at the blessing. I will not bless a residence where only a hired helper is present to open the door, leaving me alone to ‘do the blessing’ when there are hardly any members of the household present. Each family member needs to hear the words of the blessing to call to mind how their being loved unconditionally by God gives them the strength to live in and through the challenges faced by the daily ups and downs of family life.
I am unsure that part of the issue lies in the unspoken truth that many of us much prefer to receive a blessing than to be a blessing. Maybe it’s a negative upshot of what I would call an ‘entitlement’ mentality, where we think that it is better to receive than to give. I also do know that I will probably not change this flawed thinking in a large body of Catholics, as I have come across priests who are loath to correct misinformed theology.
But I am hopeful for those who do hear my explanation and understand my sincerity of wanting to banish superstition of any kind.
Aren’t all blessings good? Yes, but it does seem that some blessings are better than others when the blessings fall on our ears as well as on the sacramentals themselves.