Have you ever heard of “Churching“?
Churching, officially Benedictio mulieris post partum (The blessing of women after giving birth), is an old Catholic tradition to purify a mother after childbirth. Countless generations of women participated in it as ritual to be accepted back into the pew for Sunday mass.
But far from being a rite to diminish women, Churching is a prayer of thanksgiving for the gift of a new life, a celebration of femininity, and a blessing for mother and child. Let me explain.
The tradition of Churching emerged in the early centuries of the Church. Pope Gregory the Great mentions it already in the 6th century. It was meant for the mother to return to church after a time of lying-in, for about 4 to 6 weeks, which matches the 40 days of the Levitical law for purification.
For centuries, newborns were baptized within hours or days of their births, which meant their mothers could generally not attend the baptism. Churching was an occasion of thanksgiving for the lives of the mother and the child in a time when maternal and infantile mortality were high.
The time of lying-in before churching was a time of rest for the new mother, since the first few weeks after delivery are critical to the health of the mother for a complete recovery. A network and support system of midwives, neighbors, and family members helped the young mother with the care of her household.
Churching then marked the return of the mother to her social life. She resumed her duties to their full extent. The celebration was often followed by a meal (in French, the word for churching, “relevailles,” is also the word for the feast that follows).
So what does Churching consist of exactly?
The mother would kneel in the church, holding a lit candle, and wait for the priest. He would then come to her, sprinkle her with holy water, and recite the 23rd Psalm. Then the priest would have her stand back up, and she would hold on to his white stole as he leads her towards the altar where she receives the formal blessing.
It was customary to then celebrate Mass, said for the benefit of the young mother and her family, even if the Rituale Romanum doesn’t mention it.
The Book of Blessings published in 1984 contains a now seldom used “Blessing of a Woman after Childbirth” and a blessing for parents during the baptism of their child. It is now rare that the mother be absent from her child’s baptism, reducing the need for the practice of a separate special blessing.
The proposed blessing in the 1984 book of blessing is also just a simple blessing; there is no ritual associated with it.
Nevertheless I believe the older version of the rite has a very profound meaning that could benefit Catholic mothers in today’s society in a way that was maybe not the original purpose of Churching but answers to its original intents:
1) A celebration of life in a culture of death
By celebrating the gift of a new life, and the woman who just went through pregnancy, labor, and delivery – and let us not forget the slow post partum recovering process – we celebrate life from its firsts stages, with all the messiness of being alive.
In a culture that sells us surrogacy and IVF, this is a very good reminder that procreation should not be separated from the union of spouses and that infants are not goods to be sold but literally “fruit of their mothers’ womb.” In a society that want to see women behaving like men, having a baby and wearing perfect make up and pre-pregnancy clothes the day after, it is good to remember that it takes time to recover from a birth. We are incarnated.
2) A celebration of femininity
We celebrate Mary’s own purification on February 2nd. That ritual purification was necessary under Jewish law (Leviticus 12.1-8).
But purification takes a whole new meaning in the light of Christianity: we purify what has touched Holiness. For example, the chalice is purified after each mass, not because it was dirty! The chalice is also veiled. And that is also not because it is ugly. It is veiled, and purified because it touched to the sacred, the three times Holy.
The liturgical color for this rite is white, white for the joy of resurrection, not purple for penitence.
The liturgical reading of Psalm 23 is not a penitential psalm; it’s a triumphant psalm about the Temple and the coming of the King.
This also explains why the ritual in Leviticus requires twice as long after the birth of a baby girl. It’s not because having a girl is even worse! It’s because it’s doubling on the sacred gift of life!
3) A celebration of motherhood
Pregnancy, labor, and childbirth are not the most glamorous part of a woman’s life. They are not easy, to say the least, and they take a toll on her body, mind, and soul. And that is only the first stage of motherhood. Then comes a lifetime of caring for your children, giving thanks for them but also worrying and praying for them.
In the midst of our self-centered, pleasure-based society it can be a life changing experience, a traumatic one, or both. Let us remember this quote which St. John Paul II loved to mention: “Man is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, [and he] cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” (Gaudium et spes 24)
The celebration of Churching is asking for a special blessing upon the mother:
“Almighty, everlasting God, through the delivery of the blessed Virgin Mary, Thou hast turned into joy the pains of the faithful in childbirth; look mercifully upon this Thy handmaid, coming in gladness to Thy temple to offer up her thanks: and grant that after this life, by the merits and intercession of the same blessed Mary, she may merit to arrive, together with her offspring, at the joys of everlasting happiness. Through Christ our Lord.”
We pray that the hardships of motherhood are turned into joy, joy for this life and the next, for the mother and her child.
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This is just my personal interpretation, but I like to think that as the child receives a new light for his life as christian for his baptism, the mother receives a candle during the churching celebration, for her new life as a mother.
The ritual also includes for the mother to be taken under the priest’s stole and led to the altar in the church. What a beautiful image of Christ leading the new mother to His altar! An image that certainly speaks to me as a mother, to follow Christ to the altar, in my calling as a wife and mother, to willingly give myself, day in and day out.
I wish I had had a special blessing after childbirth, and the Church, in her great wisdom offers just that.