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!