Prudence and Symbolic Ambiguity

If you knew that the person was going to misunderstand your blessing, would it be right to let him or her be in vincible ignorance?

It was a Friday night in the summer. The painters were not yet finished in the school. A drunk showed up at the door and I dispatched him. Then I got a phone call. Because the man calling was sobbing, it took me a while to understand what he was talking about. Someone had died in the man’s house. Would I come for a blessing? 

What was the address? After several tries, I figured out where the man was calling from. The house was not far from the parish. The janitor, who was talking with the painters when I made my way out of the rectory toward my car, suggested that he could accompany me. “In this neighborhood, you don’t want to go to a strange house.”

I said it was worse when strangers came to my house. I had had five break-ins in the past two years. Once, the thieves broke in at night and ate a pizza I had stored in the refrigerator.

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So, I went alone, preparing myself for a dead body. Which there was, although it was a dog’s corpse that needed blessing. Little did I know that I was actually going to be involved in an “innovative contribution to the pastoral meanings of blessings, permitting a broadening and enrichment of the classical understanding of blessings” (Presentation to the Declaration Fiducia Supplicans). This was, of course, avant la lettre, as they say in French, meaning way ahead of the game, which I enjoy, anyway.

The blessing I gave to the dead body of Fido was spontaneous. I didn’t say that it was not the same as the Last Rites, although I am afraid in retrospect that his owner might have thought it was. I also presided over the burial in the backyard.

Since that canine rite of dismissal, strictly non-liturgical, I have participated in an avian blessing also. This was strictly devotional, although it occurred in the rectory chapel after I heard the pet owner’s confession. With my pastoral focus, I hadn’t noticed that the woman had a parakeet in her hands during the sacrament. After the absolution, she asked me for a special blessing for “Pearl.” I acceded in the spirit that now breathes in the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, but, again, I was ahead of the pack; my prayer was spontaneous.

Blessings are prayers “for God’s assistance, a plea to live better, and confidence in a Father who can help us live better” (Fiducia Supplicans, again). Pearl the parakeet did not articulate her desire for living better, but her owner had the faith for it. The holy water I splashed on feathered head was clearly not a liturgical symbol.

I know some people who are very upset about the declaration about blessing same-sex couples and irregular unions of man and woman. They are distressed about the possible misinterpretation of such blessings. The pope said very clearly that no one should mistake such a blessing for marriage. And I think he implied by saying “living better” that the couple should eventually go for a brother-sister or brother-brother or sister-sister arrangement in their domestic environment. 

The priest who says, “This is clearly not matrimony, nor does the Church want you to think that a sexual relationship which you apparently have is moral, but, what the heck, I’ll give you a blessing,” probably will not be in much demand in such circles. Some couples might want the blessing as a steppingstone to what they see as a future cave-in by the Church, but others might be given pause. They might think: Why can’t we have the whole shebang, with bridesmaids or whatever? There is a fear that the minister be put in a false position. Wouldn’t it be hypocritical to bless people when you know they think the blessing means something different from what it is?

“Yeah, I’ll give you a blessing,” reminds me of the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof who is asked if he can give a blessing to the czar. “God bless and keep the czar,” says the old rabbi, “Far away from us.” Fiducia poses the question: To whom would it be possible to refuse a blessing if the person sincerely, even ignorantly, was asking for God’s help? A concentration camp guard? A man on his way to murder someone or en route to an adulterous rendezvous? Employees of EWTN? We are all, after all, God’s children.  To whom would it be possible to refuse a blessing if the person sincerely, even ignorantly, was asking for God’s help? A concentration camp guard? A man on his way to murder someone or en route to an adulterous rendezvous?Tweet This

There is a trick to all of this, I admit. If you knew that the person was going to misunderstand your prayer, would it be right to let him or her be in vincible ignorance? Even when it is a question of discipleship? The pope’s doctrinal man is obviously very prudent. He says that the Church “must shy away from resting its pastoral praxis on the fixed nature of certain doctrinal or disciplinary schemes, especially when they lead to ‘a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism,’” which is quite a howler of hubris and obfuscation in the light of which no doubt Moses is wondering about his role in relaying the Ten Commandments. But Cardinal Fernandez does not leave us there in the wilderness of relativism.

Prudence comes limping in after, when the Declaration quotes the pope saying that “it is not appropriate for a Diocese, a Bishops’ Conference, or any other ecclesial structure to constantly and officially establish procedures or rituals for all kinds of matters.” In other words, “No paper trail, please.” After all, people might get the idea that these things are not exceptional exceptions to the perennial Christian morality and, pretty soon, you know, it’s “anything goes,” like Cole Porter said.

Pope Francis is a sentimental guy and a man who never wants to make anyone feel at a distance from God (aside from a few bishops and cardinals). But his emotional concern not to reject people should not be interpreted as a rejection of moral principles. He just doesn’t want to let them get in the way of a good feeling. Hugs are not doctrinal statements, but they make people feel better. That is the impression I get from this and other obiter dicta of the Holy Father.

Popes are not always the most prudent of men. Think of St. Peter at Antioch among the Judaizers. God is certainly a risk-taker, pastorally speaking. Look at the history of the popes. Julius II rode out into battle; we are fortunate his successors did not feel compelled to do so. The Church has moved beyond the historic imprudence and symbolic ambiguity of blessing cannons for war. Our chaplains bless the men and women who serve, not the arms they will use against the enemy. 

We will move beyond the imprudence some (and that means me, too) see as implicit in Fiducia. Fido’s master called me when his next dog died, and I rode over for another requiem. I guess the man is reaching out to the Church. Maybe he might come to Mass one day. Pearl’s friend sends me a Christmas card and receives Communion at her nursing home. God bless us all, as Tiny Tim said, unaware of the whole ascending/descending dynamic and all the conditions and cautions of the issue.

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]


  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

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