“The presence of new life in the womb of the mother brings unique joy and hope to the center of our families, our Church, and our world. It is never too early to give thanks for the gift of new life and to ask the LORD for His blessing.”
That’s from the introduction to The Gift of Joy, a small booklet published by Our Sunday Visitor, introducing “The Rite for the Blessing of a Child in the Womb.” (Which I’ve written about previously here.) This new rite, Gift of Joy authors Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz and Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield explain, “is a special moment to ask God for His blessing and to be a witness to the absolute wonder of the gift of new life.
About it, they continue:
The blessing of the child in the womb is above all a pastoral moment: it is the ﬁrst time that the child is evangelized and is a time of new evangelization for the parents, family, and friends. The blessing warmly extends the love of Jesus Christ as a family prepares for the birth of a child. At the same time, this sacred gesture can serve to announce, in a hope-ﬁlled way, the marvelous gift of human life and to encourage preparation for baptism.
Archbishop Kurtz is the current president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and this Sunday in New York City at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, his predecessor in the job, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, will bless the unborn children of mothers and families gathered for Sunday Mass.
Daniel Schreck is among the parents whose children will be blessed by the cardinal on Sunday. His wife Annie is pregnant with their fourth child, who is due in May. “I’ve often thought that the most important day of the liturgical year was the Annunciation,” Daniel says, capturing the Marian and invitational aspect of the Rite.
Schreck continues: “It’s the day God became man. Mary was the first to accept Jesus as Lord and to know him as only a mother can. In an analogous manner, expectant mothers understand the significance of their child – a significance only fully realized by everyone else at the child’s birth. In blessing the hidden reality of the child, the mother that knows the child, and the father who cares for them, it gives everyone present the opportunity to contemplate the divine mission of the family. Basically, our destiny is heaven and we need our family and the Church to get us there.”
Schreck says that the cardinal’s presence is important because of his office as a teacher and shepherd and as a tangible sign to the world of what the Church values — the dignity of the human person and the family.
The message of the blessing and the event with the shepherd of the archdiocese and one of the most well-known religious leaders in the country, Schreck says is “that life is beautiful and precious. That we are not simply isolated individuals, but persons who need love. That children are testaments of the love of a father and a mother. I hope people see that the Church attends to and is critical to fulfilling every stage of person’s life.”
Chris Bell, who will be in attendance with expectant mothers from his Good Counsel homes for homeless mothers who have courageously chosen life, notices, too, that you can’t miss the reverence the Church has for women as we bless the new life within them: As we pray for both mother and father, that they may answer their calls to stewardship of the new lives entrusted to them:
From the early time of the Catholic Church women have been honored and revered. More so than in secular society. Even in the Middle-Ages, women abbesses had as much responsibility, materially and spiritually, as their male counterparts.
The Church also highly praised the gift of life coming from mothers and seeing every person, male and female, as reflecting the image and likeness of God.
One of my favorite reflections on mothers was written by Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty who said, “The most important person on earth is a Mother. She cannot claim the honor of having built Notre Dame Cathedral…she has built something more magnificent. . .a dwelling for an immortal soul. . . .
KJL: Why is the blessing important?
PFUNDSTEIN: The Church in its sacraments and sacramentals has a rich tradition of using visible signs of invisible realities so that those of us who see only in a glass darkly will be encouraged to continue to lift our gaze to the things above. They remind us of things hoped for. Pregnancy is the ultimate natural experience of things hoped for, of powers beyond our ken. A sacramental rite to recognize and sanctify the expectation of the arrival of a new member of the family and community is a beautiful confluence of nature and grace, a true sign of things hoped for.
KJL: Have we lost a sense of the importance of fatherhood?
PFUNDSTEIN: I am not sure we have lost a sense of the importance of fatherhood. What we have lost is a cultural norm that compels biological fathers to be present as fathers to their children. The advent of the notion that women have a choice about whether to deliver babies they have conceived coincided with the advent of the notion that men have a choice about whether to stick around to care for the babies they have conceived. Abortion and abandonment are two sides of the same coin. Nobody suffers like the children, those dead and those left fatherless. It is a notion of freedom without responsibility. To be a father is to take responsibility, to a mother, to a child, and to a community. What we have lost is a sense of responsibility. Marriage is what we used to call that covenant of responsibility. Now marriage is just a lifestyle choice.
KJL: How do we recover and renew a sense of the importance of fatherhood?
PFUNDSTEIN: I can’t see how you bond fathers to their children without bonding them to their mothers. Fortunately virtually every culture in the history of the world has developed a simple social structure that privately and publicly commits men and women to love and honor one another as they raise their children. It is called marriage. Unfortunately, first no-fault divorce and now gay marriage have wreaked havoc on this simple notion and left everyone with the impression that marriage is a superfluous arrangement and a lifestyle choice for the rich and famous. The real victims of this new ethos are those who for generations and millenia were protected by this lifestyle choice: the children of the poor and the marginalized. To be a father is to be a husband. There is nothing superfluous about it.
KJL: What’s the best part of being a dad?
PFUNDSTEIN: A friend of mine recently posted a picture of herself on Facebook with her newborn son. The caption read, “My love just grew by a whole person.” I never imagined before I married and had children what it was like to love beyond your imagination. I have a daughter who is four and a son who is two. When we were waiting for my son to arrive, I was worried, because I couldn’t imagine ever loving anyone again the way I loved my daughter. It seemed impossible that I could do any more loving. But when my son Sebastian arrived my love literally grew by a whole person. It is like I imagine it must be like to go to the moon. You just reach an entirely new frontier.
I should also note that when my wife Becky and I met we were freshmen in college. Our relationship grew through friendship to courtship and then to marriage. We were certainly united by our public commitment to be faithful until death. But nothing has made us one like being mother and father to our children. We now participate together in something so far beyond ourselves and our love for one another with all its weaknesses and small selfishnesses. We are parents. That’s something we do together, and something that binds us forever.