To Bless or Not to Bless

I see Pope Francis has refused to give the customary Apostolic Blessing twice recently: to the Italian Red Cross and to a Youth Meeting in Sicily*. The reasons he gave for not doing so were that in both cases the audience was made up of many who were not Catholics — Christians of other denominations, followers of other religions, agnostics and atheists — and he did not wish to give offence. I presume that the pope was being very exact about the liturgical significance of blessing, understood as a prayer or rite performed in the name of the Church and by a duly qualified minister by which persons or things are set apart or sanctified to the service of God or God’s favour is invoked upon them. Not being Italian, I don’t know whether papal blessings are a source of outrage to those who are not Catholic. Having encountered a little hostility to the habit on visits to Rome, I suspect that the question arouses more emotion in Italy than it would here. Perhaps the pope judged the situation accurately. I don’t know, but it has prompted me to think more about blessing in general.

Most readers will be familiar with the many instances of blessing in the Old Testament while some will know and love the beautiful blessings used in contemporary Judaism. In addition to liturgical blessings, the Church has always allowed for a wider use of blessing formulae. As praise and thanksgiving many of us use various forms of blessing throughout the day — before and after meals, for example. St Benedict was very keen on blessing as part of the ritual courtesy of the cloister and as the necessary prelude to entering upon any task or service. For him, it was an invocation of God’s help, as in kitchen service, or recognition of  the grace of God in the other person, as in the greeting of a guest or fellow community member, as well as a means of giving glory to God. This kind of blessing is not reserved to the clergy, and perhaps we should all be more courageous about its use.

I have mentioned before that over the years I have become less reserved about expressing my faith in public. You are not likely to see me carrying a banner or flopping to my knees in a public place, but you may well see me using the ritual gestures as I pray the Office in a quiet corner of the hospital or hear me responding to someone with ‘May God bless you!’ I have not yet encountered any hostility for doing so, though I know that the expression of Christian belief or practice in the workplace is now very problematic in Britain. I find that sad. It is a measure of how far we have strayed from even a residual understanding of Christianity. I would agree that aggressive attempts to proselytise are unacceptable, but I do not see why wishing well to another (blessing) should be seen as an attack on another’s freedom or personal integrity. I’d say it isn’t blessing that hurts another but cursing, and the world is full of that.

So, this Sunday morning, whatever you are doing, please spare a thought for the role of blessing in your life. A blessing doesn’t necessarily have to be spoken aloud nor accompanied with any particular gesture. It is enough that mind and heart should agree to bless, to praise, and to give thanks; and we could all do with more of that, couldn’t we?

I now have more information about what happened in Palermo and wish to correct the misleading impression given by my words, viz. that ‘the pope refused to give the customary Apostolic Blessing’. Although the pope did not give a blessing in Trinitarian form (as he would have done had he used the liturgical format) he did indeed bless all the young people present, using the name of God and adapting his words to the occasion. I am sorry that some have used this as an opportunity to attack the pope. In any case, my post is about our blessing of others, not the pope’s!


24 thoughts on “To Bless or Not to Bless”

  1. Your words ring so true. And as well as blessing others in our daily lives we also need to be ready to acknowledge our own blessings too. This doesn’t come easily to some people…

  2. I bless people, things, and situations all the time, usually silently, but saying “Bless you” to people, an expression of thanks, seems to be considered quite normal. When told of a death, I will say “God rest her/his soul”, which seems to take people by surprise, but then I don’t know many believers.

  3. I’ve found over the years that context is important in such matters. The courageous but, I suspect, largely unproductive street preachers who occasionally set up in the High Street don’t indeed find a receptive audience. However, in my experience a quiet “God bless you” in response to a kindness, or a promise of prayer when someone has shared a worry or a sadness, usually evokes a grateful reception even from non-believers. It won’t always feel like the right thing to do, but then I reckon part of Jesus’ promise that the Spirit will give us the right words when we’re called on to speak about our faith also covers (a) the right manner to adopt in doing so and (b) the ability to judge when *not* to introduce the subject.

  4. I love reading your words and am moved to respond or affirm this time.
    I bless silently, write ‘love and blessings’ in greetings cards, ends of letters etc; also speak blessing to those who seem to need it. I offer prayers and blessings to those in difficulties (whose faith or lack thereof is their own business) and this has always been accepted with gratitude. On later occasions of need, I have been asked for prayer on facebook, messenger etc.
    I think the ‘well wishing’ aspect, that another human is caring about me, is always warming and there can be that sneaking feeling of wondering just what this God stuff might mean and hedging one’s bets.
    Absolutely better than the alternative, the cursing!

  5. May God Bless you. May you continue , through God’s grace, to share with us your profound wisdom, your sorrows and your ready wit, for a long time to come. Thank You for the inspiration you give us.

  6. I am (officially) an Anglican but I was delighted to have the opportunity of attending a Papal Audience in Rome and very honoured to be blessed by Pope Francis.

  7. You are right again, Digital Nun.
    I am low to mid Anglican but have received a blessing from High Anglicans and a Roman Catholic nun.
    The latter belonged to a plain clothes order and helped me into teaching in late life. Her acts made a profound difference to my family and me.

    Be well and sharing your insights for a long time yet.

  8. I have found that people are very uncomfortable in my area (USA) if I say “God bless you” after they sneeze! Never used to be like this. I still write “love and prayers” on cards, but don’t receive the same on all cards sent to me. Many times I have asked the priest or deacon to bless my seriously ill Mom, 94, before Mass. They are happy to do so, but people sitting around us in church are shocked; are we the only ones asking for blessings? One more thing I would like to add: A friend became a minister and hospital chaplain. She often came to me with questions about Catholicism, and things she felt uncomfortable asking her instructors about. I helped her as much as I could; I was happy she came to me for help. I saw her about a week after she was ordained, and asked her for a blessing. She froze! My minister friend said, “You, a Catholic, are asking me, a Church of Christ minister, for a blessing?” I told her I was. She began to cry, hugged me, and gave me a blessing. Our hospital co-workers were uncomfortable seeing this. They didn’t know what to make of an African-American Church of Christ minister blessing a Caucasian Polish-American Catholic. They just walked away. So much discomfort over blessings! Sorry this is so long. God bless everyone.

  9. We pass by a mosque on our way to Mass on weeknights and weekends and are often greeted by their members, just as we, in turn, also say hello. “Out for a walk?”, no, we are on our way to our church, also to pray, and invariably they will bless us, and we them as we continue on. Sometimes prayer requests are exchanged as well.

    It is a sign of our times that outside of our faith community those folks are the few with whom it is safe to exchange blessings without ridicule. No banners or flopping down in public here, but definitely living our faith openly in all situations can be a challenge. I believe blessings can serve as an invitation to someone in need of hearing the Good News and who knows but perhaps one blessing can heal any number of curses?

  10. In Central Europe, “Grüß Gott” is a standard greeting. Literal translation is Greet God, but means God bless.
    Twenty years ago l would have parted company with people by saying “Cheers, mate” or “Thanks love” depending on their gender.
    Now I just say, “God bless”. It winds up some people, but I don’t say it to offend. I am genuinely offering them God’s love whether they want it or not. Similarly, I value the offering of the Peace during the service of Eucharist. It is as important to me as receiving Communion.
    Thank you dear Sister Catherine for your views on this very important aspect of life. As usual your wisdom is illuminating. God bless and care for you. Peace and love be with you now and forever xx.

  11. I find that if I use the Term “God Bless you” to people, most are generally receptive. And people that I know, who may not be in a church, are still receptive to such a good will wish for them or for their activities.

    The same with offering to pray for someone is generally received with thanks. I most certainly appreciate prayers for me or my needs, often unasked, but people have an intuition that prayers might be needed and appropriate.

    For instance, tomorrow, I am to spend three days on retreat at the Anglican Benedictine establishment at West Malling. People have prayed that I will find the time useful, peaceful and to comeback refreshed for the challenges of our parish without a Parish Priest from November, and the burden they seem to believe that will fall on me to keep the boat afloat.

    The fact is that in the vacancy, which will probably last upto a year, we will have retired priests and others from across the Deanery visiting to celebrate the Sacraments, and my role will be to support their ministry.

    The mechanics of discerning the needs of the parish in a new Parish Priest will fall to the Parochial Church Council and Church Wardens, with a contribution from me, but I don’t have any personal responsibility for the choices made, after consultation with the whole parish.

    So, the weight on me will be relatively light, compared to the weight on those exercising the responsibilities, which include the upkeep and maintenance of the church itself, the church hall and the Grounds, which includes an area consecrated for the interment of the ashes of of the departed.

    So, I believe that I am blessed in not having the heavy weight, although I suspect that my preaching demands will increase, as will commitments to schools and external meetings normally met by the Parish priest will have to be met, but other lay leaders will also share those responsibilities.

    So, I will be praying for your ministry as I do regularly and for the health and well being of our own parish as we face the uncertainty that goes with not having a parish priest in post.

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