Recovering the Betrothal Ceremony and the Churching of Women

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By now, it is no longer headline news that traditionally-minded Latin-Rite Catholics are finding our access to the public life of the Church shrinking as the new spate of regulations ban or limit the older forms. There is much still to be done and even more to hope that this is not the end of the story and that more gracious and truly pastoral minds will eventually prevail at the end of this era of modernist iconoclasm.

As part of our push to save traditional forms of Catholic life, why don’t we begin asking—insisting, even—that our priests perform for us the old and beloved rites and customs that have never been abrogated but only forgotten in the course of the twentieth century? There are many of them, from processions to house blessings to blessed salts and oils, but I believe that two in particular, namely the betrothal ceremony and the Churching of Women, would be of immense value for individual laity, parish communities, and the Church—Western and Eastern—at large.

The Eastern part of the Church still celebrates its ancient betrothal ceremony, but as far as I understand it (and in my own wedding), the rite has become attached to the beginning of the wedding ceremony itself. However, the once-neglected betrothal ceremony of the Latin-Rite Church has begun to see a come-back among younger Catholics. Differing from a private engagement, the Catholic betrothal involves vows before a priest as the couple seeks the blessing of the Church in preparation for their upcoming marriage. 

Colette Gas, who was betrothed in an FSSP parish a few years ago, explained to me that the betrothal ceremony helped her and her now-husband prepare for their marriage:

The priest’s exhortation was beautiful and helped me reflect on the meaning and beauty of what we were doing and the marriage we were anticipating. It was pretty powerful to not just promise but to vow to marry this man. A vow is more meaningful than a promise in the eyes of the Church. Making that commitment to my future husband in the eyes of the Church meant a lot to me.

My sister, Margaret Schuhriemen, was just betrothed to her fiancé this past weekend. She highlighted for me the deeply vocational, Christ-centered emphasis that a betrothal imparts upon a couple:

In a betrothal, the couple places their hands on the crucifix and promises to consecrate this period of their lives to a preparation for the sacrament of marriage, and if all goes as planned, to marry each other. Getting betrothed is a formal way for us to bring our relationship to Christ so that He can guide us as we take this very important step. Having a betrothal ceremony emphasizes to us and our parish that marriage is a sacred commitment akin to the priesthood and religious life. Just as steps like temporary vows and diaconate are blessed and formalized by the Church to help prepare an aspirant for final vows, so, too, does a betrothal help prepare the couple for marriage.

In addition to the much-needed graces received by the couple, one of the beautiful things about the betrothal ceremony is that it can take place during a normal Mass—allowing the parish to participate in—and celebrate—the budding vocation of two of its members. In turn, the public nature of the ceremony allows the couple to witness to their parish the sacramental nature of their upcoming marriage, as well as emphasize the importance of individual marriages to the entire body of Christ. Additionally, in an era where parishes do not typically celebrate the wedding ceremony with their individual members, due to the more exclusive and private quality that weddings have taken on, the betrothal ceremony can bolster a parish’s sense of community with its individual members. 

Finally, while many betrothals these days end up occurring in Tridentine settings, this is by no means a requirement—there is nothing stopping an exclusively Novus Ordo parish or couple or priest from participating in the betrothal ceremony. Engaged couples should boldly ask for this beautiful, traditional opportunity for grace and witness.

While the Latin-Rite betrothal ceremony has received an uptick of interest recently, the equally ancient and beautiful rite of the Churching of Women is all but extinct. In the Eastern Church, Churching is still quite common, though not universal. The Churching of Women has its roots in the older Jewish practice, but without continuing certain assumptions—such as the idea that the postpartum woman was impure. Christian Churching, East and West, is, rather, an act of blessing and of thanksgiving by the Church for a woman’s safe delivery from the pains and dangers of childbirth. The rite of Baptism does include blessings for the parents, but Churching is focused in a special way upon the ordeal that the mother has just passed through.

It appears that Churching became unpopular only after the dawn of the feminist movement with the myth that the ceremony was all about washing away the “sin” of pregnancy. No doubt this was fueled by poor education on the part of the faithful themselves in places. Long ago, Pope Gregory the Great put this myth to rest in his letter to Augustine of Canterbury, and it is a very dangerous habit to discontinue a practice rather than educate the ignorant. If the Church cancelled everything that might be mistaken for something else, then the Eucharist, the saints, Our Lady, Confession, the pope, and religion itself should be on the chopping block!

Hannah Ketcham, a Byzantine Catholic, shared some reflections upon the Eastern Churching ceremony, which differs somewhat from the Latin-Rite one in that it also contains a presentation of the baby.

I love the thought that Mary would have done a very similar thing with Jesus. My favorite part of the ceremony was actually the presentation of the baby! The priest takes the baby through the holy doors (only the priest is ever allowed to enter those doors) and around the altar while singing the canticle of Simeon. Only if he becomes a priest will a boy pass through those holy doors again, but it is such a special thing to witness. I imagine Jesus might have been presented to His temple in a similar way!

Not all Byzantine parishes promote Churching, and Hannah wishes that she had asked for the ceremony at her current church. Most Latin-Rite parishes probably do not even know that Churching exists, but it is a valid ceremony that a Catholic woman can ask for herself.

Both the Byzantine and Latin ceremonies are beautiful. A postpartum woman can request it at any point after the birth of her child, but it is typically done within or at six-weeks postpartum. As I learned more about Churching, I also discovered that the Church traditionally grants women a dispensation from the Sunday obligation for up to six weeks in order to recover—something I wish I had known before I suffered through the longest homily of my life on a torturously hard pew two days after giving birth to my eldest!

The Latin-Rite ritual, like its Eastern counterpart, is rich with biblical allusions emphasizing the almighty power of God the Creator who saves and preserves His people. The Latin ceremony ends with this beautiful prayer: 

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.

In the sanitized production of modern childbirth, it might be hard to remember at times everything that a new mother goes through. Asking the Lord’s blessing upon a new mother, who might be suffering physical or psychological difficulties, should be a priority for the parish community. Churching is also extended to a mother mourning the loss of her baby and could be both a consolation at the promise of everlasting reunion and an affirmation of the little life, which she has given birth into eternity.

While Baptism tends to be segregated away from the public, Churching can be attached to a normal Mass or Divine Liturgy and is, thus, a perfect opportunity for the parish to celebrate its individual members. It is also an effortless and organic way for a parish to be introduced to a new mother and so be able to offer its help in other ways. New mothers often experience isolation, even at our parishes, slipping painfully into the pew with a new bundle of noise for the cranks to glare at. Bringing back the Churching of Women is a beautiful, holy, and traditional way a parish can help reach out and affirm new mothers and the joy and sacredness of new life.

All the women I spoke to about their betrothals and Churchings agreed on one thing: the response by family, friends, and the parish was overwhelmingly positive. These two ancient traditions of the Church can serve as a positive, non-threatening, and deeply personal introduction to the beauty of Tradition itself. Let us laity reclaim these rituals as our patrimony and by doing so gain their graces for ourselves and for our Church.

[Image: “A Woman’s Solemn Churching after Childbirth” by Christen Dalsgaard]

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Mary Cuff is an independent scholar, wife, and homeschooling mother. She holds a PhD in American literature from the Catholic University of America and has published in the Southern Literary Journal, Five Points, Mississippi Quarterly, and Modern Age.

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