Some traditional customs of the church can raise hackles. One of those of recent memory is something called “the churching of women.”
While no longer common in the church, this ritual took place until the liturgical changes after Vatican II in the early 1970s and involved the return of mothers to the celebration of Mass after the birth of a child.
Many people — incorrectly — believed that women were not allowed to return to Mass after childbirth because of some impurity on their part.
A concern over ritual purity was the case for Jewish women of ancient times. This is why the Blessed Virgin came to the Temple for her own purification (a feast celebrated in the church on Feb. 2) after the birth of Jesus. However, there is no firm evidence that this was the reason why “churching of women” developed in the early Christian community.
What did occur with early Christians was the blessing of women and children after childbirth —as a ritual of thanksgiving. It was not until later, about the fourth or fifth centuries, when anything about women being separated for a period of time after childbirth began to show up. In fact, many sources cite Pope Gregory the Great (elected in 590) as being adamant that women should not be separated from the sacraments at any time after giving birth — lest this seem like a punishment.
Adult baptism and the process of baptismal formation declined toward the middle of the first millennium and the practice of a child being baptized shortly after birth arose. With this, the isolation of new mothers became more common. There are several reasons for this — none having to do with impurity:
- Infant mortality was very high and baptizing a child quickly became important;
- Such prompt action often meant that the mother could not attend the baptism, since she was often still recuperating from birth.
- The time of recuperation — called “lying in” — lasted from two to six weeks, and was often a welcome time of rest for women who otherwise bore a heavy load. During the lying in, women were exempt from attending Mass on Sundays (for up to six weeks) and from fasting.
When new mothers returned to the church for Mass — and since they had missed the baptism which generally included (as it still does) a blessing for the parents — a ritual of welcome and blessing developed.
As “The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes, churching of women (even until the middle of the 20th century), was “not a precept, but a pious and praiseworthy custom (Rituale Romanum), dating from the early Christian ages, for a mother to present herself in the church as soon as she is able to leave her house, to render thanks to God for her happy delivery, and to obtain by means of the priestly blessing the graces necessary to bring up her child in a Christian manner.”
So the mother came to the church in gratitude, seeking support and blessing. The unfortunate link to impurity comes from the Book of Leviticus (12:1-8) where women were pronounced as unclean for a week after the birth of a son (two weeks after the birth of a daughter) and then had to wait for another one to two months before they could be purified. This Law of Moses is why Mary waited for 40 days before presenting herself and her son at the Temple. It was not, however, the law for early Christians.
Msgr. Francis Mannion, a liturgy expert, notes that, even in the early Middle Ages, churching of women involved only “a blessing of women for the gift of new children, and marked their return to the church’s liturgical life.” He added, however, that some problems had also arisen by that time.
“Some commentators,” he said, “linked the absence of the mother from the baptism of her child and her eventual churching to Old Testament notions of impurity and uncleanliness associated with childbirth. … This teaching was not carried over into official Church teaching, but it was carried over unofficially by commentators and preachers trying to explain the rite.”
The churching rite was fairly simple: A woman (usually without her baby) came to the entrance of the church and knelt there with a lighted candle (an allusion to the feast of the Presentation — also Feb. 2 — when candles are blessed in churches for home use.) The priest, wearing a stole, came and blessed the woman with holy water. She took hold of the stole and he led her into the church. There she knelt before the altar and was again blessed with holy water.
Today, blessing of the mother is part of the rite of baptism of children: “God the Father, through his Son, the Virgin Mary’s child, has brought joy to all Christian mothers, as they see the hope of eternal life shine on their children. May He bless the mother of this child. She now thanks God for the gift of her child. May she be one with him/her in thanking Him forever in heaven, in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
If a mother is unable to attend her child’s baptism — or if the child has died — a blessing for a mother after childbirth from the “Book of Blessings” may be used. Its short version is: “May the Lord God almighty, who through the earthly birth of his own Son has filled the whole world with joy, so bless you that the child he has given you will always bring joy to your heart.”
While churching of women has largely disappeared, it is sometimes practiced, most often in groups celebrating the extraordinary form of the Mass (Latin Mass). However, when the blog of the Archdiocese of Washington posted information on churching in 2014, one woman wrote: “I wish I had known when I had my last child, … Many of my friends who attend the extraordinary form receive it but we do not have it available where I live. … I find it a beautiful practice and a special blessing from God to new mothers who need those extra graces during those early months of a baby’s life.”
Whichever blessings are used, through them, the church community acknowledges that a momentous occasion has taken place, offers the support and prayers, and seeks to welcome both the woman and her child into the heart of the people of God.
Sources: The Archdiocese of Washington at blog.adw.org; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; fisheaters.com; zenit.org; “The Catholic Answer;” and “The Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth, commonly called The Churching of Women” at ox.ac.uk.