The formation of the Ritual was the same as that of the Missal; its contents were not in the beginning found in their present form, nor even in one book. The early Rituals—for such they really were—went by a variety of names, according to the nature of their contents and the sacred functions in which they were used, and embraced a more or less complete collection of the rules for the rites and ceremonies to be observed in the administration of the sacraments, funeral services, blessings, etc. At length, however, the name Ritual came to be regarded as the most appropriate term, and as such superseded all others in the Western or Latin Church.
But to whom, it may be asked, do we owe the Ritual in its present form? A Sacerdotale—another name for Ritual—was edited by Castellanus and printed at Rome in 1537. Previously different dioceses were free to follow their own Rituals, but in 1614 an edition with the title Rituale was drawn up under Pope Paul V., who, in the bull Apostolicæ Sedi exhorted all prelates, secular and regular, to conform to it exactly.1 But the fact that all persons of whatever rank are only exhorted in the Lord—hortamur in Domino are the words of the bull—to use this one to the exclusion of all others, would indicate that the use of the Ritual is not of so strict obligation as that of the Missal. But this is a point which, though warmly discussed among the rubricists, and not yet definitely settled, would not be of interest to the general reader.
But who was it that reduced the Ritual to its present form? It may be remarked in passing, that the Ritual, like the Missal, was revised in accordance with the recommendation of the Council of Trent, for the sake of securing uniformity, as far as possible, in the administration of the sacraments and the performance of the other sacred functions of religion. The Ritual was finally reduced to its present form by a commission of Cardinals appointed for that purpose by Pope Paul V., who were assisted by many other eminent divines; but, as we learn from the bull of the Pope, prefixed to the Ritual, and dated June 17, 1614, it was mainly the work of Julius Antonius, Cardinal Priest of St. Severinus—a man, as the same bull declares, of remarkable piety, zeal, and learning. From the time it came from his hands it has undergone little change, although it was revised by Pope Benedict XIV., who prefixed to his revision a bull—Quoniam autem—dated March 25, 1752. Several additions, for the most part in the form of appendices, have since been made to it, consisting of various blessings, etc.
Before discussing the blessings of the Ritual, it will be advisable to give the reader an idea of its divisions and contents.
After certain decrees of Sovereign Pontiffs with which the Ritual opens, there is a short chapter devoted to general remarks on the administration of the sacraments. The sacrament of Baptism is then taken up, with all the prayers and ceremonies for its administration to infants and adults by a priest or a bishop. Then follows the manner of administering the sacrament of Penance, with the form of absolution from censures in case a person has incurred any. A chapter follows on the manner of giving Holy Communion outside of Mass, and to the sick, with remarks on Easter Communion. After this comes Extreme Unction, with the Seven Penitential Psalms and the Litany of the Saints, which those in attendance in the sick room are directed to recite during the administration of the last sacraments. To these is added a chapter on the visitation of the sick, with prayers and selections from the gospels, to be read on such occasions, as far as time and circumstances permit or render advisable; also the method of assisting the dying, giving the last blessing, and recommending the departing soul to God. Then follows all that relates to the funeral obsequies, which the reader will find treated at length in the essay on that subject.
The sacrament of Matrimony, with churching, or the blessing of a woman after child-birth, closes that part of the Ritual which relates to the administration of the sacraments. And here it may not be out of place to remark parenthetically that for the convenience of priests on the mission, who have to go on frequent and often distant sick-calls, those portions of the Ritual necessary for such occasions are printed separately in a smaller book, that may be easily carried in the pocket. These books are sometimes, though improperly, called Rituals. The remainder of the Ritual is devoted principally to the blessings of various objects, from the majestic cathedral or extensive cemetery to the diminutive medal. But before treating of these it will be advisable to complete the survey of the contents and divisions of the remainder of the Ritual. The numerous blessings will then be discussed in detail.
A number of blessings, some of which are reserved to a bishop, or a priest having special faculties from him, come next; and these are followed by the ceremonies, prayers, psalms, hymns, etc., for the processions of Candlemas Day, Palm Sunday, the Greater Litany, which takes place on the feast of St. Mark, April 25, and Corpus Christi; the procession praying for rain, for fair weather, for the dispelling of tempests; in time of want or famine, in time of mortality or pestilence; prayers to be added to the Litany of the Saints in time of war; for whatever necessity, with prayers to be added when it is made in thanksgiving for favors received; and, finally, a procession for the translation—or solemn removal from one place to another—of sacred relics. Then comes in order an exorcism—which is quite long, and consists of prayers, psalms, and selections from the gospels for expelling the spirit of evil from those who are possessed or obsessed by him. Next are given the various formulas for making registries of marriages, baptisms, confirmations, etc., in the several books required to be kept in the archives of every church. With these the Ritual proper closes; but there are two appendices and a supplement which aggregate three-fourths its own size.
The first of these opens with a short form for blessing baptismal water for the use of missionaries who give stations in places to which they cannot conveniently carry water from the font in the church. This is followed by the ceremony by which a priest, with the necessary faculties—very rarely granted by the Holy See—administers Confirmation where there is as yet no bishop; instructions for a priest who is permitted to celebrate Mass twice the same day; and the Litanies of the Saints, of the Blessed Virgin, and of the Holy Name of Jesus. Then begin the blessings for various articles, some of which may be performed by any priest, others by a priest having special faculties, some by a bishop only, others by the members of certain religious orders or congregations, while not a few are peculiar to certain dioceses. But of these more anon.
The second appendix comprises an additional number of blessings. The Ritual closes with a brief supplement, which does not, properly speaking, form a part of it, but is given for the convenience of priests in this country, and will, therefore, be passed over without comment.
Such is the Roman Ritual, according to the latest revision. We shall now take up the principal blessings, and to these the reader’s attention is earnestly invited, as they constitute a rich treasure for those who will draw from it in a spirit of lively faith.
The blessing of various objects by the Church proves three things: First, the fall of man, and the passing of the world into the power of him who is called “the prince of this world”; secondly, the solicitude of the Church that whatever is used by her children should be “sanctified by the word of God and prayer”; and, thirdly, it proves the faith of Catholics in times past; because many, if not all, of these blessings would never have been instituted had they not been asked for by the piety of the faithful. It may be further remarked that the prayers recited in the several blessings as a rule indicate or express both the desire that the article blessed may be conducive to the spiritual and temporal welfare of those for whom it is intended, and also the special grace for which the blessing petitions. The number of blessings in the Ritual is much greater than the majority of Catholics imagine, being at least one hundred and twenty-five. These are so many sacramentals or vehicles of grace, which the Church makes use of to impart not only spiritual but also temporal blessings to her children.
The general rules for the blessing of articles are: that the priest who performs the sacred function should be vested in surplice and violet stole, commonly, though another color is sometimes required; that he should stand, with head uncovered, attended by an acolyte carrying the holy-water pot with the sprinkler; and that he should begin with the versicle—in Latin, of course : “Our help is in the name of the Lord;” to which the acolyte responds: “Who made heaven and earth.” V. “O Lord! hear my prayer.” R. “And let my cry come to Thee.” V. “The Lord be with you.” R. “And with thy spirit.” Then follow the prayer or prayers; for in many cases there are three or even more, but seldom two, for the Church prefers odd numbers, as was said above with regard to the collects of the Mass. Sometimes also an additional number of versicles and responses is found; or again, one or more psalms or hymns form part of the blessing; or, in certain cases, there is an exorcism. At the conclusion of the blessing the object is usually sprinkled with holy water, and in the more solemn blessings—as those of ashes, candles, palms, etc., to which the reader is referred—incense is also used.
So great is the variety of blessings found in the Ritual that it is not easy to classify them; but some attempt will be made to group those together that seem most nearly related to one another. And first, of blessings of persons. There is a blessing for those who make a pilgrimage to the holy places of Palestine and another for them on their return; a form of absolving and blessing persons and fields by a special indult from the Holy See. But these are special, and are rarely given in our day, at least in this country. Those that follow are in more general use. Of these is the blessing of St. Blase, which is commonly given on the feast of that saint (Feb. 3d) to children as a preventative against diseases of the throat. Next comes the blessing of sick adults, which is followed by that for pregnant women, for the grace of a happy delivery—a blessing that should be more frequently asked, when the natural difficulties of parturition are borne in mind, the transmission of original sin, and the unscrupulous methods resorted to by too many physicians, and permitted by irreligious or indifferently instructed mothers, which practices, called by their right names, are nothing more nor less, in most instances, than the wilful murder of the defenceless. Why should not mothers have recourse to the Creator to save His creatures from the peril in which they are temporarily placed rather than use improper means to destroy, most probably, their frail lives, and doom them to an eternal separation from God? Then there is a blessing for infants, that they may live to grow up in innocence and holiness, uncontaminated by sin; another for a child, that it may obtain the mercy of God, and increase, like the divine Child, in wisdom, age, and grace with God and men, and attain to a ripe old age; and still another for children, assembled in the church for that purpose, in which the virtues suitable for their age and state of life are besought of God. After these comes a blessing for sick children who have come to the use of reason, that they may be restored to health, to the Church, and to their parents. Finally, there is a blessing for boys and girls on the feast of the Union of the Holy Infancy, asking especially for spiritual strength and the grace to guard against temptation.
Next are found the various blessings of religious articles, several of which the reader will find treated in separate essays in this work. Among these may be mentioned the blessing of a new cross; the blessing of a statue of Our Lord, His blessed Mother, and the saints, in the countless styles in which they are designed; the blessing of a church-organ; of a processional banner; of the metal for a new bell; and of a girdle in honor of the Blessed Virgin, for health of body, purity of soul, and the divine protection. Then there is another blessing for a crucifix or a picture of the crucifixion; the simple blessing of a bell, which is not intended to be used for a church; and, lastly, the blessing for crosses, crucifixes, rosaries, chaplets, statues, etc., and imparting to them what are called the Papal indulgences.
Another class of objects to which the blessings of the Church are imparted are the several kinds of buildings. And first, there is the blessing of houses on Holy Saturday, in the performance of which the priest, clothed in surplice and white stole, and attended, as usual, by an acolyte, passes from house to house, begging that as the blood of the paschal lamb, which was a figure of the true Lamb of God, protected the Israelites in their houses in Egypt from the destroying angel, so God would deign to send His angels to guard the inmates of these houses from all harm. Besides this, there is an other blessing for dwellings, which may be given at any time by a priest; another for a house; another for a place, which may also be applied to a house; and a blessing for a bed-chamber. Would it not be well for Christians, who spend so much of their time in their houses, particularly in their bed-chambers, where perhaps they were born, and where they expect to die, to have these fortified with the blessings of religion? It is the pious custom of many persons, and it should be that of all; and it is with a view of increasing their knowledge, and thus stimulating their piety and their confidence in the divine protection, so liberally imparted by the Church, the dispenser of the graces of the Redemption, that this essay is written. Still another blessing for houses is given, which is assigned to the feast of the Epiphany, in which reference is made to the mysteries which that solemnity commemorates.
The Church, the patron of education and all useful knowledge, has also a blessing for a new school, in which the spiritual and temporal favors desirable for the pupils are besought of Almighty God. Lastly there is the blessing of the first stone of any edifice, no matter for what purpose it is intended, begging of God that what is undertaken for His honor and glory may be brought to a successful termination.
Blessings of articles of food shall next be considered. There is, as has been said, a number of blessings in the Missal for eatables and a few other things; but they are reproduced in the Ritual, and properly come up for treatment in this place. Of living things, there is a blessing for the paschal lamb, beseeching God that He would deign to bless it through the resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ, for the welfare of those who wish to partake of it. Also a blessing for fowls, with a reference to the action of Noe in sacrificing of the animals and fowls saved in the ark from the ravages of the deluge, and to Moses, at the command of God drawing the line between clean and unclean creatures in the Old Dispensation. This benediction asks that those who partake of these creatures may be replenished with the divine benediction, and may merit to be nourished unto eternal life. Among the blessings for other articles of food may be mentioned a blessing for fruits and vines; for eggs; two for bread; for new fruits; for any eatable; for simple oil; and for wine, on the feast of St. John the Evangelist. This blessing, where it is given, usually takes place at the end of Mass, while the celebrant is still vested, with the exception of the maniple, which he lays aside. It is imparted in honor of the apostle St. John, who is said to have drunk poisoned wine without being injured by it; and the special favor asked is that all who partake of it on that day may be protected from the evil effects of poison, and from all else detrimental to their health, and may also be preserved from sin. To these must be added a blessing for bread and cakes; for cheese and butter; and, finally—peace to the ashes of Father Mathew—one for beer, introduced, no doubt, through the influence of some pious Bavarian.
There are many other blessings in the Ritual which cannot be brought under distinct heads, but which will be treated in some kind of order. Taking, in the first place, those which relate to living creatures, there is one for bees, containing a reference to the mystical use of their wax in the service of the altar, begging that they may be preserved from everything hurtful to them, and that the fruit of their labors may redound to the glory of the three Divine Persons and of the Blessed Virgin Mary; a blessing for herds of cattle and oxen; for horses and other animals; for animals attacked by a plague; and another somewhat similar to it for herds of cattle and oxen afflicted with any disease. Then there is a deprecatory blessing against mice, locusts, grubs, and all noxious vermin. While the worldly-minded may smile at these things, talk about the Pope’s bull against the comet, and be joined, tacitly at least, by some nominal Catholics—for it is hard for Catholics to live in the world without some of them becoming contaminated by its sinister influences—the devout child of the Church will ever bear in mind that “every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights;”2 that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof;”3 and that all things are under the direction of an all-ruling Providence, by whose command or permission everything takes place, in the irrational and inanimate creation as well as in the angelic spheres.
Among the many other blessings of inanimate things are the blessing of a new ship; of gold, frankincense, and myrrh on the feast of the Epiphany; of chalk for writing the names of the three Magi on the doors of houses; of seeds and sowed fields; two for railroads and the cars to run on them; of a new bridge; of a fountain or spring of water; of a well; of fire; of a limekiln; of a smelting furnace; of seed grain; of a granary and harvested grain; of a bakery; of linen or bandages for the wounded; of every kind of medicine; of salt and vegetables for animals; of a stable for horses, oxen, and other draught animals; of a telegraph; and, lastly, there is one for anything whatever for which no special blessing is given.
Besides these and many others not mentioned—for all could not be introduced—there is a large number reserved to bishops and to the members of religious orders or congregations, which cannot be imparted by any other priest, unless he receives special faculties for that purpose. These faculties are commonly given, or may be easily obtained for certain articles; as, for example, investing with the Brown Scapular, erecting the Way of the Cross, blessing the Beads of St. Dominic, etc.
Not a few of the above blessings might readily and naturally have been made the subject of interesting comments or marginal notes, but it was thought better not to interrupt the course of the essay too much, and only to give what was deemed necessary for a proper understanding of the subject. Such, then, are some, though not all, of the treasures which the Ritual of the Church places at our disposal, kind reader; examine them carefully, and try to avail yourself of them as far as your necessities may require or your piety prompt; remembering that no matter how largely you draw from the treasury of divine grace it can never be exhausted. “Hitherto,” says Christ, “you have asked nothing in My name; ask and you shall receive, that your joy may be full.”4
1 “Catholic Dictionary,” p. 721.
2 St. James, i. 17.
3 Psalms, xxiii. 1.
4 St. John, xvi. 24.