“God bless you!” During the Christmas break, when colds and flu start to peak, our houses may echo with the blessing of sneezing children. But the New Year is a great time to remember and reinstate an old custom once practiced daily, in sickness and in health. Parents, when was the last time you blessed – really blessed – your children?
The tradition of invoking God’s blessing on children as they start their day or settle into sleep is as old as the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. The image accompanying this article, for example, is Rembrandt’s Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, showing the patriarch blessing his grandsons after the family is reunited in Egypt. Entrusting our children (and grandchildren) to God’s care is one of the great privileges of parenting, a domestic liturgy that only we can perform.
St. Ambrose reminded parents that their blessing was the one precious gift all parents, no matter what their circumstances, can impart to their children. “You may not be rich,” he said. “You may be unable to bequeath any great possessions to your children, but one thing you can give them: the heritage of your blessing, and it is better to be blessed than to be rich.”
Parental blessing can take many forms. Most commonly, parents rest one or both hands on their child’s head and pray a brief prayer, such as “May the Lord bless you and keep you in His care.” Sometimes, parents substitute tracing a cross on the child’s forehead (with or without holy water) for the laying on of hands, praying “May God bless you, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The blessing can even be wordless, with the prayer prayed silently if the child is asleep.
Common times for blessing children are at the end of the day, as part of night prayer, or first thing in the morning. You might bless school- or work-aged children and teens as they leave home each day. You can adapt your blessing ritual to your family’s schedule. Parents can bless each other, too, as an example to their children.
You might develop special blessings for occasions such as welcoming a new baby, birthdays, sacramental celebrations, travel, or leaving home for college. Many parents incorporate blessing their daughters and sons into the ritual of “giving them away” at marriage. You may include in your blessing the names of children who are away from home and children who have died. You can send your blessing to children in letters and texts, as a reminder that you are always entrusting them to God’s care.
Why bless your children? In an ever-perilous world, it is one important sign of trust in God’s loving providence. Blessings are not magic, but they are deeply powerful generators and sustainers of faith. Children who have grown up with the tradition of parental blessings describe feeling cared for, protected, safe – all qualities that help our children grow in wisdom and grace.
Pope Francis, in his catechesis on the works of mercy, urged parents to take up this ancient custom as a way of fulfilling the admonition to “pray for the living and the dead.” On November 30, 2016, he told the audience in St. Peter’s Square: “I think in a particular way of the mothers and fathers who bless their children in the morning and at night. This custom still exists in some families: blessing one’s child is a prayer.”
Here are some traditional blessing prayers you may adapt for your own use:
“The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”
(Numbers 6:24-26, the Blessing of the Patriarchs)
“May almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless you, my child, for time and eternity, and may this blessing remain forever with you.” (The Catholic Gentleman)
“May God in heaven bring you safely there and return you in good health; and may his angel accompany you for your safety.” (Travel blessing based on Tobit’s blessing of Tobias, Tobit 5:17)
For more on parental blessings, other family prayers, and the use of holy water and other sacramentals at home, see Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers: A Companion to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (USCCB).