ASK FATHER: The “churching” of women after childbirth and the blessing of expecting mothers

From a reader…


I recently had a conversation with an Episcopal priest about the approaching Feast of the Purification. He said that he would not emphasize the Churching of Women connection. There is such a ceremony in the old Episcopal Prayerbook. So it must have been a Catholic practice in the Middle Ages. Is that so? Do you know when it stopped as a regular Catholic practice? (Feminism, perhaps?)

The custom of “churching” is making a comeback.  A very good thing.

For those who don’t know, “churching” is an act of thanksgiving after child-birth, in wedlock.  The mother comes to church to receive a special blessing.

Surely the custom stems from the ancient Jewish laws about ritual purification and how 40 days after the birth of the Lord, to fulfill the Law, Mary brought the Lord to the Temple – which we celebrate at Candlemas on 2 February.

However, the “churching” of women doesn’t have anything to do with ritual purification, for that is all done with and superseded.  This is an act of thanksgiving.

How does this take place?

The woman kneels at the end of the church with a lighted candle.  The priest sprinkles her with Holy Water and recites Ps 23 and then leads her to the altar rail. He recites the Kyrie and Pater Noster with verses and responses and concludes with a prayer and blessing.

Of old, the blessing was not given to women who allowed their child to be baptized outside of the Catholic Faith.   The blessing can be given to women even if the child dies or was stillborn.

Also, it should not be done outside of a church, or a chapel where Mass is said.

Sometimes this blessing is conferred immediately after the baptism takes place, which is a reasonable time to do it.

Here is a prayer from the Rituale for “churching”:

Let us pray.

Almighty everlasting God, who by means of the blessed Virgin Mary’s childbearing has given every Christian mother joy, even in her pains of bringing forth her child; look kindly on this servant of yours who has come in gladness to your holy dwelling to offer her thanks. And grant that after this life, through the merits and prayers of that same blessed Mary, she and her child may be deemed worthy of attaining the happiness of everlasting life; through Christ our Lord.
All: Amen.

That’s the how.

How about when?

There was for a long time a FALSE idea that women were not to come to church until they came for churching.  NO!   Also, churching is not obligatory.   I can’t imagine why a woman would not want to go to church as soon as possible and to obtain this blessing.  But there is no obligation one way or another.

The Collectio Rituum for these USA there is this blessing for the child (children, I guess, if they are twins, etc., mutatis mutandis):

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, begotten before time was, yet willing to be an infant within time; who love childhood innocence; who deigned to tenderly embrace and to bless the little ones when they were brought to you; be ready with your dearest blessings for this child as he (she) journeys through life, and let no evil ways corrupt his (her) understanding. May he (she) advance in wisdom and grace with the years, and be enabled ever to please you, who are God, living and reigning with the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, forever and ever.
All: Amen.

There is another prayer in the case of a still born child as well as a fine prayer for an expectant mother.

I am very happy that, as happens pretty often these days, women who are with child have been asking for the special blessing for expecting mothers.   There is a phrase in Latin in that prayer – Benedictio Mulieris Praegnantis –  which, every time I read it, blows my mind.

… custodi partem tuam, et ab omni dolo et iniuria duri hostis defende; ut obstetricante manu misericordiae tuae fetus eius ad lucem prospere veniat ac sanctae generationi servetur, …

… guard Your (unborn) individual and defend it from every evil plot and injury of the heartless enemy; so that, as the hand of Your mercy is working like a midwife, her unborn child (fetus) will favorably come to the light and be protected in a holy generating.

You can hear how the Latin, Roman mind works in that super literal version.

That image, “obstetricante manu misericordiae tuae” is spectacular.  It describes the hand of God, hence God, acting as a obstetricius or obstetrix.  The verb is obstetrico “to perform the office of a midwife”, in turn from obsto, “to stand before”.

I invite you Latin scholars out there to dig into that use of “partem“.   It seems odd to refer to the unborn child as a pars, a portion or part.  The only way to make sense of it, it seems to me, is to take it as being like the English word “party”, that is used now only in juridical contexts, for a “person”, as when the “party of the first part” and the “party of the second part” enter into a contract.   In the Rituale Romanum, describing the Sacrament of Matrimony, uses partem for individuals in the case of a Catholic marrying a non-Catholic: “Matrimonium vero inter partem catholicam et partem a catholicam extra ecclesiam…”.    Hence, there is in the prayer a way of underscoring the separate persons, mother and child.  Just some thoughts on a tricky word.  Priests ought to understand what they are saying.

But I seem to have strayed from the question.

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  1. Emsley says:

    Perhaps “partem” also contains some wordplay, being similar to “partum” (partus, partus-offspring): your (God’s) party, but her (the mother’s) offspring?

    [I thought of that, of course. But I don’t think that’s it. Right away my Latin ear and eye is struck by the difference in gender in the noun, immediately followed by TUAM.]

  2. Pingback: An Act of Thanksgiving & Blessing of Mothers – St. Marys Confraternity of Christian Mothers

  3. Volanges says:

    I first heard of “churching” sometime in the late 90s when I came to my present parish. A woman was telling me of having been churched after each child until her last, sometime in the 60s, when the new priest didn’t know what she was talking about. She was certainly under the impression that she couldn’t return to church without it.

    I grew up in a Francophone area of New Brunswick (Canada) and I don’t think it was something that was done there. Pretty sure if Mom had been familiar with it she would have questioned why I wasn’t having it done before I returned to Mass shortly after our first was born. But there were things that were done in French parishes (Solemn Communion, for example) that were unknown or rarely practiced in English ones and vice versa.

  4. teachermom24 says:

    I first heard of this ceremony in the 1970s when at a Lutheran university. I thought it was beautiful then and would loved to have received such a blessing after the births of my four dear children.

    Also, I think there’s some wisdom in a mother staying home for 40 days with her precious newborn. Such an important time for mother and baby! If I had it to do over again . . .

  5. Bthompson says:

    This may also be a misunderstanding, but I would appreciate it if someone more knowledgeable than I had insight: I had the understanding not so much that a new mother was not allowed back to church unless she received the blessing, but that she was excused from the Sunday Obligation to hear Mass for up to 40 days so to recover and care for the newborn.

  6. JakeMC says:

    My thought on “partem” (the form of this accusative suggests the nouns “pars, partis,” rather than “partus, -us”) is that, the first translation of the noun at William Whittaker’s Words is “part.” Perhaps it’s referring to the fact that, during the pregnancy, the child was quite literally a part of the mother, by virtue of being connected via the umbilical cord?

  7. JPCahill says:

    In the suburban parish in southern California that I grew up in (this was before the meteor hit, um, I mean before The Council) it was a regularly scheduled thing. My recollection is that it was once a month after the Sunday noon Mass but I may have the exact schedule wrong. That was a while ago and the churching of women was not high on the list of things a 12 year old altar boy was intent on remembering. Although, one of us did stand next to Fr Molloy to hold the aspersorium.

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