The Blessing of New Life
Responding to modern cultural challenges, the Catholic Church is turning to its great tradition of prayer to publicly acknowledge the precious gift of human life with the new Rite for the Blessing of a Child in the Womb.
According to Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., this addition to the Church’s liturgy not only “gives testimony to the wonderful gift of God’s blessings in new life,” but also has the potential to become an important element of parish life and to help advance the new evangelization.
The path to getting the new blessing approved began in 2007 when Father Frank Brett, a retired priest in the Diocese of Knoxville, Tenn., brought the idea to then-Bishop Kurtz. After they confirmed that the Book of Blessings contained no blessings for unborn children, Archbishop Kurtz introduced the concept at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
A draft of the blessing was then composed and eventually brought before the full body of bishops at their general assembly in November 2008. It was overwhelmingly approved and sent to Rome for review.
The Holy See’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments officially approved the English text of the rite and blessing on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8, 2011. Approval was given to the Spanish text the following March, and the USCCB chose the Solemnity of the Annunciation, March 26, 2012, to approve the blessing for use in all U.S. dioceses.
Archbishop Kurtz, who is the current vice president of the USCCB, made a case for a wide use of the blessing at the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization last October. His brief intervention found great interest among the bishop delegates, many of whom asked for more information.
In the conversations that followed, one thing that became apparent was “the potential for the parish to embrace a vocation of supporting the child in the womb and the mother,” Archbishop Kurtz said. “I see this blessing has the potential of entering into the rhythm of parish life.”
He explained that, in today’s culture, baptism is increasingly deferred after the birth of a child. Some say this may be in order to give children a chance to make a decision for themselves as adults.
But from his own reflection and experience in speaking to people, Archbishop Kurtz said that “more often, not moving forward with baptism of a child is a non-decision” because of fear or embarrassment because they’ve been away from the practice of faith or simply because of a lack of priority within the busy life of a young family.
“Reaching out to Catholics who have fallen out of the habit or virtue of the Sunday obligation relates very much to the new evangelization,” he added. “This blessing is the gracious extension of Christ to welcome them.”
The archbishop finds this blessing an occasion to invite parents to begin preparing for the baptism of their child.
“For those who haven’t been active in the Church and fearful about the demands and obligations of preparing for their child’s baptism, especially those tempted to delay baptism,” he said, “this blessing would be first a joyful welcome and invitation.” In other words, the welcome, not the obligation, is the first thing they would see.
An important distinction remains between this blessing and baptism, Archbishop Kurtz noted. The blessing of a child in the womb is a sacramental, like making a sign of the cross upon entering church, and not a sacrament. Administered by a priest or deacon, the blessing is meant to move someone closer to baptism.
While preparing for his responsibility as a delegate at the Synod, Archbishop Kurtz convened several focus groups in the Archdiocese of Louisville. In each, he asked what they thought of this new rite of blessing. He posed this question after asking about the new evangelization, as some of those present expressed timidity about speaking to others about becoming active again in the Church.
“However, a whole different tone took over when I mentioned the blessing,” the archbishop recalled. “They said, ‘I could invite someone to that!’”
Archbishop Kurtz has urged the pastors in his archdiocese to consider offering the blessings four times a year around the Immaculate Conception in December, the Annunciation of the Lord in late March, Mother’s Day in May, and at the beginning of Respect Life Month in October.
He called it a “privilege” to offer the blessing himself, which he has done twice now, at Louisville’s Cathedral of the Assumption and at the Basilica in Bardstown, Ky. Each time it has been well received as it was from the very start.
“Now the task begins that this blessing is not just finding a comfortable place on the bookshelf,” he emphasized, “but actually enters into the rhythm of parish life in the United States.”
JOSEPH PRONECHEN is a Catholic journalist and staff writer for EWTN’s National Catholic Register.