By James Tomek
The following is a review of Stephen Rossetti’s The Priestly Blessing: Rediscovering the Gift (Notre Dame U: Ave Maria P, 2018). Sacraments are signs or events that are imbued with the presence of God. Rossetti substitutes sanctifying grace for God — the grace that allows us to transform material earthly presences into a more divine presence. Whenever we use any material resource like water and food for the benefit of humankind, we transform these resources into the body of Christ. Sacramentals are sacred signs that resemble the sacraments like blessings, crucifixes, rosary beads, and holy water. They are instituted by the Church rather than directly by Christ. They do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit the way sacraments do. Stephen Rossetti’s book is a discussion of how blessings join into the nature of sacrament.
Father Rossetti’s elements of Blessings conform to Richard McBrien’s three essential elements of Catholicism: sacramentality, mediation and communion. Sacramentality sees all creation as sacred. Mediation adds that sacraments cause what they signify – like Mary, transforming worldly things into heavenly things. Communion sees us as Church being the sacrament of Jesus and, acting as a community, working together to achieve a heavenly communion of all saints, living, dead, and to come. (McBrien, Catholicism 9-13).
Father Rossetti defines priestly blessings as acts of singling out or consecrating persons, places, events, or things to a sacred or liturgical use. When we bless, we approve or God approves! Rossetti is talking mostly to priests, citing the greatest blessing when the priest imparts God’s consecration of the gifts of bread and wine at the Eucharist.
Stephen Rossetti begins with the use of blessings in the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, blessing is a reciprocal action. We first bless or praise God. The berekah is the source of all blessings. Jesus continues this idea with the beatitudes, telling us what we should bless. Jesus lays hands on the food and on the apostles, giving them the power, in turn, to continue to set things aside for sacred use. Father Rossetti counsels us to be generous with blessings so we can evangelize or encourage others to pray.
A major theme of the former collection or book of blessings was exorcism, driving out evil (apotropaic) from things blessed. The newer book of blessings, revised at Vatican II, emphasizes that we bless the people using the objects blessed, de-emphasizing magical elements and encouraging more positive actions rather than just eliminating evil. Rossetti does not include the blessing of graves, but here is an important synthesis of where we not only bless the people, but also the ground where we all will be buried. The Church encourages us to be a community when receiving blessings stressing the liturgical prayer aspect.
Who can bless? Clergy vs Laity? As a lay ecclesial minister at Sacred Heart in Rosedale, how can I properly preside over the final blessing at our services in the absence of a priest? The priests “impart” blessings. The laity “invoke” them. While priests are more direct sacraments of Jesus in Holy Orders, imparting blessings directly, I feel no inferiority in that I have to ask God to bless us. Blessings are sacramentals. Are they “lower” than sacraments in imparting grace? Father Rossetti sees sacramentals as radiations of the sacraments with blessings standing in the fore front. I surely hope I can evolve to be a sacramental, clutching on to a grace from Jesus. Father Rossetti prays for “piety,” A BIG WORD. Joan of Arc says that we bless because Jesus did, and He commanded us to do his work. Piety’s root word goes back to compassion or sensitivity to those who are hurting (pity’s root meaning). When we feel piety for others we are close to blessing our neighbors. Saint Joan – Pray for us that we may feel this piety. Bless us Father for we have sinned.
By James Tomek