The chief sacramental actions of the Church next to the sacraments themselves are her blessings. As sacra mentals they are sacred signs that render holy various occasions in life (see Vatican Council II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 60). Like the sacraments, blessings are acts of worship of the Church. In keeping with the Biblical notion of blessing they have a twofold direction: (1) that of humanity's joyous praise and glorification of God, and (2) that of God's sanctifying action on all of humanity. Those members who are involved in such specific blessings are called to participate in the Church's praise and glorification of God, in addition to calling upon God's sanctifying action. In this sense, the recipients of blessings, as they are sometimes called, might better be described as participants in the prayers of blessing. While it seems that the external participation of those other than the minister is materially slight (perhaps no more than saying "Amen"), this is no indication that its significance is of minor importance. Any tendency to regard the blessings as affording those who receive them only a passive part reflects a misunderstanding of these actions of the whole Church.
For this very reason, i.e., their ecclesial nature, the blessings of the Church are intended in the first place for her members. This term is not to be interpreted too strictly, however. Catechumens are subjects of blessings; those prior to Baptism are meant directly for them. In addition, those whose relationship to the Church is less than complete may on occasion receive these, e.g., ashes and palms.
In the Early Church. There are formulas of blessing in the earliest post-Apostolic documents. Especially significant are those within the celebration of the Mass as seen in Hippolytus's Apostolic Tradition. Here we find blessings of oil for the sick, milk, honey and water (to be taken at Communion by the newly baptized), lights, new fruits [5, 6, 21, 25, 32; B. Botte, ed., La Tradition apostolique de saint Hippolyte: Essai de reconsitution (Liturgiegeschichtliche Quellen und Forschungen 39; 1963) 19, 57, 65, 78]. Serapion attests to the blessing of the people, especially the sick, and that of oil and water [Euchologion 4, 6, 8, 17; F. X. Funk, ed., Didascalia et constitutiones apostolorum (Paderborn 1905) 2:163, 165, 167, 179].
The inclusion of such blessings in the Mass itself by the early Church teaches an important truth concerning the relation of blessings to the Eucharist. Most probably, the fruits of the earth were blessed at this particular point in the Mass to show the relationship of such blessings to the greatest of all God's blessings, Christ himself and his work of redemption." J. Jungmann suggested that in the final blessing at the end of the eucharist, the Church drew the faithful to herself and imparted a blessing as source of grace and strength for them. This was a practice not limited to the eucharist but carried out on other devotional occasions as well. (See Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite 1:173–174).
Types of Blessings. Among her sanctifying actions some constitute a person or object to service in the Church. These are known as constitutive blessings and result in a permanent deputation to worship. Some constitutive blessings are more solemn than others, indicated by the use of the holy oils in their celebration; these are called consecrations in contra-distinction to simple constitutive blessings. The consecration of an altar, a church, or a chalice are examples of this same type of blessings for objects.
In addition to these there are many blessings that call on God to bless the persons who make use of objects or who are in certain needs. In these the person or object is not permanently changed. They are known as invocative blessings. The prayers seeking God's protection for a home or a sick person are of this class. Since the blessings she imparts consist primarily in her impetration, these (blessings) are what one means first of all in speaking of her sacramentals. The term is used in a secondary sense of the objects to which she gives her blessing.
Minister. Until the provision for laity as ministers of sacramentals in some cases by Vatican Council II (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 79) only clerics could fulfill this function. Vatican Council II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy requested that "reserved blessings be few in number and only in favor of bishops or ordinaries: provision is also to be made that some blessings, at least in special circumstances and at the discretion of the ordinary, be given by qualified lay persons" (Sacrosanctum Concilium 79). This proviso has been implemented in the Book of Blessings, which provides both clerical and lay blessings in various contexts. Thus, the Book of Blessings contains blessings to be used within a domestic setting (e.g. the blessing of children, of the family, of food, of the Advent wreath in a home).
The Roman Pontifical contains those blessings and consecrations either strictly reserved to the bishop or whose ordinary minister is the bishop. The Roman Ritual contains those blessings given by the priest either as an ordinary minister or as an extraordinary minister delegated by the bishop or by special indult. Traditionally, there were three types of reserved blessings in the Roman Ritual: (1) those reserved to bishops and other Ordinaries and to priests with special faculties; (2) blessings given by priests having an apostolic indult; and (3) blessings proper to certain religious communities (Chapter XI). The 1964 Inter oecumenici, Instruction on the Proper Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy permits all priests to bestow the majority of these blessings. The recent revision of the sacramental and other liturgical rites has also extended to priests certain blessings once reserved to the bishop. Thus in case of necessity any priest may bless the oil used in the Anointing of the Sick. The 1977 Rite of a Dedication of a Church and Altar allows the priest to consecrate a chalice or paten.
Blessings given by the deacon have also been extended. "It pertains to the office of a deacon, in so far as it may be assigned to him by competent authority, to administer Baptism solemnly, to be custodian and distributor of the Eucharist, in the name of the Church to assist at and to bless marriages, to bring Viaticum to the dying… to administer sacramentals, and to officiate at funeral and burial services" (Lumen gentium 29). Thus the deacon, whether permanent or transitional, may give the blessings contained in these sacramental rites. When he is an ordinary minister for the exposition of the Eucharist, he may bless the people with the Sacrament. He may also preside at the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours and bestow its concluding blessing.
Bibliography: a. g. martimort, L'Église en prière (Tournai 1961). Book of Blessing Approved for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and Confirmed by the Apostolic See (Collegeville, Minn.1990).
[l. j. johnson/
j. r. quinn/eds.]