The Churching of Women: Postpartum Support Catholic Style

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Once upon a time in colonial America, there was something called a “lying in” period. This was the time, typically a month or so, following childbirth when a community would rally in support of a new mother. She would rest, regain her strength, and bond with her baby while the community kept up the household. Many of her attendants would be relatives, none of whom were paid, and the favor was returned following their own deliveries.

My, how times have changed! Maybe we are just a wee bit sensitive given that Lisa is just four weeks postpartum, and what she wouldn’t give for a couple of extra hands just a few hours per week. Even so, we have been reflecting on how this postpartum experience, Lisa’s third, is significantly different from the first two.

The Loss of Lying In

Long story short, after moving to a major metropolitan area six years ago, we are finally feeling settled in our local Catholic community. With no extended family in the immediate vicinity, friends are our primary means of support. While there were certainly good people who helped out here and there after the births of our first two, the level of support this time is different. There seems to be a genuine sense of the community rallying around us. We feel that in a way we haven\’t before.

Where the custom of lying in once sounded like a fantasy, now it seems almost remotely feasible. Historically, the practice was ordered to being surrounded by a large close-knit community, composed primarily of family members. Today, this is generally not the case, as fewer families live within close proximity of extended relation.

It is no wonder the practice of lying in has all but disappeared. If not family, who remains to maintain it? As families become more transient, a stable institution is required to transmit the custom from one generation to the next. Considering the value it places on motherhood and childbirth, who is better to do this than the Church?

Welcoming Back New Mothers

Let’s take a step back. What can we do in our parishes to cultivate a culture that esteems motherhood as it should? We recently attended a baptism in the extraordinary form, as it would have been celebrated until the mid-1960’s in most parishes. Included in the celebration was a largely forgotten rite called “The Churching of Women.”

The what of whom?

The Churching of Women is essentially the Church’s way of welcoming new mothers back following childbirth. Why the need to welcome back? Well, do you know the Church permits women to stay home from Mass, without culpability, for 6 weeks after giving birth? Traditionally, infants were baptized within the first weeks, if not days, of life, and the mother was often absent from the Baptism while lying in. The Churching rite not only became a means to welcome the mother back after her postpartum leave, but also a way for the mother to give thanks to God for the birth of her child. Lest ye think “Churching” is some gratefully discarded pre-Vatican II relic, the practice has been carried forward in an altered form as the “Blessing of a Woman after Childbirth,” contained in the Book of Blessings published in 1984.

Churching is an ancient practice having roots in the Jewish tradition we still commemorate on the Feast of the Presentation, February 2, forty days after the birth of Jesus. While Mary went to the Temple in Jerusalem for the ritual purification required under Jewish law, the Christian extension of that practice has an entirely different understanding. The rite is now focused on blessing and thanksgiving rather than any requirement for purification of the woman following childbirth. While the current baptismal rite contains a blessing for the mother, the Churching rite is a more pointed, special blessing and can be given individually or collectively to mothers after a Baptism or Mass.

A Place for Churching Today?

What could the re-institution of this rite potentially accomplish on a parish level?

  • Extends a family-like gesture of support to women who may otherwise not have a built-in community.
  • Provides a witness to the high regard in which the Church holds the vocation of motherhood.
  • Allows the community to come together to pray for the graces to raise each of its children in a manner pleasing to God.
  • Knits together various specific pro-life and family life ministries in the liturgical celebration.
  • Potentially serves as the starting point for a parish ministry offering practical support to new moms (meal train, mother\’s helper, etc.).

Finally, it is worth noting that the Churching of Women is a natural bookend to the new Rite for the Blessing of a Child in the Womb. This rite was drafted at the initiative of newly-elected USCCB president, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, of Louisville, KY, and approved for use by the Vatican last year. Just as the blessing of the child in the womb welcomes that baby into the community by their prayers, the Churching rite then honors the sacrifice of the mother.

While the Church may not be able to single-handedly revive the custom of lying in, there is a place for the Church to step in and provide a measure of postpartum support. This can be accomplished through prayer and by witnessing to the sanctity of motherhood, particularly in the immediate postpartum period. The Churching rite is simply an existing means to do that.

How does your parish community support and celebrate new mothers?

We’ll leave you with the concluding prayer of the rite:

Almighty, everlasting God, through the delivery of the blessed Virgin Mary, Thou hast turned into joy the pains of the faithful in childbirth; look mercifully upon this Thy handmaid, coming in gladness to Thy temple to offer up her thanks: and grant that after this life, by the merits and intercession of the same blessed Mary, she may merit to arrive, together with her offspring, at the joys of everlasting happiness. Through Christ our Lord.

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12 thoughts on “The Churching of Women: Postpartum Support Catholic Style”

  1. Pingback: How to Handle Maternity Leave as a Cantor - The Spiritual Cantor

  2. Pingback: Savoring the Respite: Pray, Work, Rest & Play | The Practicing Catholic

  3. In 1965, after the birth of our 5th child, I called our parish to request the “Blessing for New Mothers” after the noon Mass I was planning to attend on Sunday. I was informed that they were too busy counting the collections on Sunday and so my request could not be granted. I quickly found a new parish!

    1. Interesting anecdote; thanks for sharing it. I suspect your experience may not have been uncommon. Last weekend, a friend whose children are grown mentioned to me with astonishment, “I’m a lifelong Catholic, and I’ve never heard of this.” Sounds like many parishes may have dropped it rather quickly around that time. Praise God the same basic idea was re-instituted as the Blessing of a Woman after Childbirth. Now, we just need to get more parishes to implement it.

  4. Many Asian and Muslim cultures still practice this wonderful support for new mother’s. The new mother’s mother would move in and care for her daughter and grandchild with other relatives and friends bringing food daily and doing household tasks.

    1. Interesting phenomenon, isn’t it? Hillary Brenhouse wrote a fine article a few months ago over at the Daily Beast addressing this specific topic (http://www.thedailybeast.com/witw/articles/2013/08/15/america-s-postpartum-practices.html ). She writes, “This country is one of the only utterly lacking in a culture of
      postpartum care. Some version of the lie-in is still prevalent all over
      Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and particular parts of Europe.”

  5. The ritual fell into disfavor because some people (incorrectly) understood it to imply that childbirth made women “unclean” or made them otherwise unwelcome in Church until the ritual, which is a shame.

    1. Indeed. Msgr. Charles Pope has a good discussion of this on this blog (http://blog.adw.org/2010/02/lost-liturgies-file-the-churching-of-women/). He writes, “The reasons for the discontinuance are many. I remember my mother
      and other women of my mother’s generation saying they had been taught
      the Jewish history of this rite and thus rejected it for that reason.
      But the Catholic Church was clear to distinguish its practice from the
      Jewish roots. Pope Gregory as early as the 6th Century protested any
      notion that defilment was incurred by childbirth. Further, the prayers
      of the old “Churching of Women” Rite never mentioned a need for
      purification and spoke only of blessing and thanksgiving. So those who
      taught women of my Mother’s generation against this practice were
      probably engaged more in polemics than true Church history. Another
      reason for the discontinuance was probably and simply that so many
      things were dropped during the changes in the wake of the Council.”

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    1. Thanks Diane. That’s precisely why we felt it was important to include mention of the modern Blessing of a Woman after Childbirth and the seemingly obvious relationship to new Rite for the Blessing of a Child in the Womb. It is our sincere hope that Catholics would begin to request these in their parishes if they’re not already been done.

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