The Priestly Power to Bless
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Besides the power to offer sacrifice and to teach with authority, the priest is also invested with special power to bless both persons and things. This power is a natural outflow of the priestly character, and is inseparable from his office. In the solemn hour of his ordination, the bishop anoints the hands of the young priest with oil which he himself has consecrated with wonderful and mystical rites upon Maundy Thursday. At the same time he prays that God may "consecrate and sanctify these hands, through our unction and Thy blessing, that whatsoever things they shall bless, they may be blessed, and whatsoever things they may consecrate, they may be consecrated and made holy, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."
Catholics feel instinctively that a priest's blessing is no empty ceremony, but has a deep significance and bestows real benefits upon them. But all are not able to render unto themselves an intelligent account or the faith that is in them.
In Scriptural language, to bless a person or thing signifies very often "to take a pleasure in it," or "to look upon it with approval." Thus, we read in the opening pages of our Holy Books that, when each of the days of creation came to a close, God looked upon His work, and saw that it was very good, and blessed it. In such wise does Moses express in words of human language the complacency and delight which God was pleased to take in His work: He found it very good and blessed it, that is, pronounced it to be in perfect accord with His plan and design the world was what He wished it to be.
Another meaning of the word may be gathered from countless instances taken from the Old Testament, when it evidently expresses a prayer or good wishes in behalf of the person blessed. When the Patriarch Jacob blesses his sons, he does not so much bestow his own blessing, as invoke the favor and blessing of heaven upon them. The word also expresses the praise and homage which we owe to the Majesty of God. When the Psalmist exclaims: "Bless, my soul, the Lord," he calls upon his own spirit to sing the praises of God and to take its delight in Him.
Effects of the Priestly Blessing
When the Church exercises her divinely given power of blessing persons and things, she bestows upon these persons or things a special consecration or holiness. The priestly blessing is akin, in its efficaciousness, to the virtue of the Sacraments in the sense that, just as in the Sacraments the carrying out of an external rite signifies and actually produces an inward grace, so the external rite or ceremony of blessing bestows upon the soul certain special, though passing, helps of grace. The priestly blessing does not directly cause an increase of sanctifying grace, for this is the effect of the Sacraments; it bestows what is called actual grace that divine energy which the soul needs in the countless emergencies and difficulties of our daily struggle with the devil, sin, and our own fallen nature.
There is, therefore, a vast difference between the sacrificial acts of the priest and the act of blessing. It is in the nature of a sacrifice that the object sacrificed should henceforth be utterly removed from its ordinary uses (when it is not wholly destroyed, as was the case, for instance, in the offering of holocausts). When the Church blesses a thing, she does not take it away from the ordinary uses of human life; she merely takes it up, so to speak, and in addition to its natural properties gives it an added virtue of a supernatural character, whereby it becomes for man a means of heavenly grace. Thus, for instance, water that has been blessed by the Church, while retaining all its natural virtue of purifying or of allaying thirst and so forth, receives through this blessing a new and added virtue, so that, when it is used by men in a spirit of faith, it becomes to them a means of grace. The virtue of things blessed by the Church is like the virtue that issued from the garments of the Saviour: contact with His adorable Person gave these lowly objects a healing power which did not belong to them by nature, but was wrought through them by the Lord of life. In like manner the blessing of the Church charges with a supernatural energy if one may so put it the lowly elements which man uses for his bodily comfort, so that henceforth, whenever they are used with suitable dispositions, they no longer benefit his body only but even the immortal spirit within him.
What Objects May Be Blessed?
There is scarcely anything in the wide world which may not, at one time or another, become the object of the Church's blessing. Whatever ministers to the needs of man, may also be the object of a blessing. However, all the things blessed by the Church may be roughly brought under two headings. Some things the Church blesses for a wholly spiritual purpose (as, for instance, holy water, the consecrated oils, rosaries, and so forth), and, once they have been blessed, these are no longer to be used for ordinary purposes, at least normally, but solely as means of grace. These things are called "Sacramentals" that is, they are akin to the Sacraments and endowed with an efficacy which very closely resembles that of the Sacraments themselves, though the supreme difference between them and the latter is always that the Sacraments directly restore or increase sanctifying grace, whereas the sacramentals procure us those passing helps of God which we need during our state of trial.
There is also an immense number of things which are blessed by the Church with a view of rendering them harmless, rather than of making them actual means of grace. To understand this, one must bear in mind that there is around us an invisible world, made up of very powerful beings, whose every intent and purpose tends wholly towards evil. Catholic teaching in regard to the evil spirits and their power and influence in the world may be unpopular; men may laugh at it and call it a crude survival of medieval credulity, but that does not alter the truth of things. Who can read the Gospels and fail to note the terrible encounters between the Son of Man. and that grim, determined wholly evil power of the fallen Angels? The natural power of these spirits suffered no loss by their fall, and is as great as the natural power of good Angels. But, whereas the latter are all "ministering spirits sent to minister for them who shall receive the inheritance of salvation" (Heb., i. 14), those others are forever "wandering through the world for the ruin of souls." Nor do they only seek to encompass the soul. Satan has no direct influence over the soul: he can reach it only by acting upon the body and its senses, both external and internal. His hatred for God ever inspires him with a desire to destroy God's handiwork, and, if he cannot hurt the soul directly, he is content with destroying or harming the body. Since he is out of harmony with God, the world, and himself, he ever seeks to do evil:
. . . . . . . of this be sure,
To do aught good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight;
As being the contrary to His high will,
Whom we resist. If then His providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labor must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil;
Which oft-times may succeed . . .
(Paradise Lost, I.)
The Church is fully conscious of the great power for evil of these fallen spirits; she is aware of the undying hatred with which Satan pursues mankind. But she also knows that "the prince of this world" has been met in open fight, and has suffered a grievous defeat. The Cross of Jesus Christ is the weapon which defeated the dread enemy. In the Cross, therefore, the Church has a weapon, both defensive and offensive, that enables her to meet the enemy in all his guises. Now the devil often makes use of the lowly elements which minister to the needs of man in order to hurt him. Sin has brought down a curse upon the world and all it contains, so that the enemy has a subtle but very real power to make use of material objects to our hurt.
Why Does the Church Impart Blessings?
With these facts in mind we readily understand the prayers and blessings of the Church. Whenever she blesses anything, she always begins with exorcisms that is, solemn imprecations against the evil spirits, bidding them depart from or cease from exercising any influence upon the objects of her blessing. No blessing is ever given without the sign of the cross. The symbol of the cross is an all-powerful weapon in the hand of the Church. It is a sign that must ever remind the devil of his utter defeat and consequent impotence. We find all this expressed most forcibly in the prayers with which the Church blesses holy water. "I exorcize thee," says the priest when blessing the salt which is to be mixed with the water, "created element of salt, by the living God, by the holy God . . . that thou mayest be made salt from which the evil spirit has been cast out, for the health of the faithful, and mayest bring to all who partake of thee wholeness of soul and body: and that there may be banished from the place in which thou hast been sprinkled, every kind of hallucination and wickedness, or craft of devilish deceit, and every unclean spirit, in the name of Him who will come to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire."
Over the water the priest pronounces this exorcism: "I exorcize thee, created element of water . . . that thou mayest be made water from which the evil spirit has been driven out, for the banishment of every power of the enemy, that thou mayest be able to uproot and cast out entirely that enemy himself, together with his rebel angels, by the power of the same Lord Jesus Christ who will come to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire" (Rit. Rom., Ad fac. aquam bened.).
One more prayer from this rite of blessing water to illustrate the nature and efficacy of the priestly power to bless: "O God, who for the salvation of mankind hast appointed water to be the foundation of the greatest mysteries, graciously hear our prayers and fill this element of water, which has in manifold ways been purified, with Thy power and blessing; so that this creature of Thine may be used in Thy mysteries and endowed with Thy divine grace to drive away devils and to cast out diseases; that whatever in the houses or possessions of Thy faithful shall be sprinkled by this water, may be freed from everything unclean or hurtful. Let no spirit of pestilence or baleful breath dwell therein. Let all the snares of the enemy who lieth in wait for us, be driven forth, and let everything that threatens the safety or peace of the dwellers therein be banished by the sprinkling of this water, so that the health which they seek by calling upon Thy holy Name may be guarded from all assaults."
Conferring Supernatural Virtue To Natural Things
It is impossible to express with greater nicety the virtue that resides in the objects which have received the blessing of the Church. Whatever their purely natural properties may be, they have henceforth an added virtue; they are withdrawn from any influence or interference of those unseen yet most deadly powers, which seek to hurt our bodies and souls by the very means which God has provided for the upkeep and well-being of our temporal existence.
This is readily understood by the Catholic mind. Hence it is that a good Catholic asks for the Church's blessing upon every possible occasion. He will not wish to take up his abode in a new house, unless it has first received the priest's blessing. When occasion presents itself, he asks the priest to bless the food of which he partakes. The fields he tills, the cattle that serve him, are all fit objects for a blessing. Could we but know the hidden ways of Providence, we should perceive without doubt that many a catastrophe is averted by a blessing, and many an illness cured by the same means.
In this way the Catholic priesthood, with its wonderful and wholly divine powers, goes on doing through the ages what Christ did during His life on earth: "He passed by doing good" (pertransiit benefaciendo). The priesthood is the one and only great organized power ever drawn up in battle-array against the powers of darkness against "the principalities and powers in the high places." To meet this formidable enemy the more formidable because unseen the priest is equipped with weapons forged in the armory of God. With these he is able to neutralize every influence and ward off every open assault of the relentless enemy of mankind. Well does the enemy know it; hence his hatred of the priest and his tireless efforts to lower him in the estimation of men. Hence also, whenever and wherever religion is attacked, the first blow invariably falls upon the clergy. In this we may see another proof not the least weighty because it is an indirect one of the beneficial influence of the priesthood, an influence which, after its sacrificial powers, is mainly to be found in its power to bless both persons and things.
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