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The first two definitions of the verb ‘to bless’ in my Collins English dictionary are: to consecrate or render holy, beneficial, or prosperous by means of a religious rite; to give honour or glory to a person or thing as divine or holy.
Blessings are used frequently, and in both senses of the word given above, in Catholic ritual. People ask for rosary beads or other religious articles to be blessed. We bless ourselves with holy water as we enter a church. The psalms frequently use phrases such as “Bless the Lord, my soul, bless the Lord!” The celebration of Mass concludes with a blessing and dismissal.
Blessings are sometimes incorporated into another ritual, such as the blessing of the rings in the Order of Matrimony and the blessing of the holy oils at the Chrism Mass. At other times they are celebrated as rituals in their own right (pun intended!) For example, a ceremony of the Blessing of the Fleet is held annually in the Whitsundays.
Judging by the number of phone calls I receive from people seeking help with preparing a service of blessing, one of the Church’s best-kept secrets is the official ritual book entitled Book of Blessings. This book was promulgated in Latin as De Benedictionibus in 1984. It was then translated into English by ICEL. The edition published in the USA in 1989 is the one that has been approved for use in Australia. It is a most useful resource and should be included among the liturgical books of every Catholic parish.
The six sections of the Book of Blessings contain rituals for every conceivable occasion – from blessing animals and factories, to pilgrims and new pastors. The first chapter has blessings for people, the second for buildings and equipment used in human activity, the third for objects found in churches (new baptismal font or chalice, for example), the fourth for devotional aids (religious medals, etc), and the fifth for feasts and seasons (including that elusive blessing of the Advent wreath!). The final chapter picks up any possible people or occasions that haven’t already been dealt with.
As with any liturgy, a blessing is a celebration of the priesthood of Christ. We all share in that priesthood through our baptism and we can all, when appropriate, give or celebrate a blessing. The Book of Blessings identifies a hierarchy of ministers who exercise the ministry of blessing. At celebrations involving the whole diocese, the bishop is the minister. A priest normally presides at a blessing involving the local community, but a deacon or layperson may preside in his absence. Indeed, there are some blessings, especially those associated with home and family, where lay people are the most appropriate presiders.
A service of blessing usually consists of readings from scripture, praise of God, and petition for our needs. As with any liturgy, it is essential that a blessing be prepared and celebrated in a way that ensures the full, conscious and active participation of everyone present. Gestures such as the sprinkling of water or the assembly raising their arms in blessing enrich the celebration by involving people and emphasising the meaning of the ritual.