BENEDICTION (Lat. benedictio, from benedicere, to bless), generally, the utterance of a blessing or of a devout wish for the prosperity and happiness of a person or enterprise. In the usage of the Catholic Church, both East and West, though the benediction as defined above has its place as between one Christian and another, it has also a special place in the sacramental system in virtue of the special powers of blessing vested in the priesthood. Sacerdotal benedictions are not indeed sacraments—means of grace ordained by Christ himself,—but sacramentals (sacramenta minora) ordained by the authority of the Church and exercised by the priests, as the plenipotentiaries of God, in virtue of the powers conferred on them at their ordination; “that whatever they bless may be blessed, and whatever they consecrate may be consecrated.” The power to bless in this ecclesiastical sense is reserved to priests alone; the blessing of the paschal candle on Holy Saturday by the deacon being the one exception that proves the rule, for he uses for the purpose grains of incense previously blessed by the priest at the altar. But though by some the benediction has thus been brought into connexion with the supreme means of grace, the sacrifice of the Mass, the blessing does not in itself confer grace and does not act on its recipients ex opere operato. It must not be supposed, however, that the Catholic idea of a sacerdotal blessing has anything of the vague character associated with a benediction by Protestants. Both by Catholics and by Protestants blessings may be applied to things inanimate as well as animate; but while in the reformed Churches this involves no more than an appeal to God for a special blessing, or a solemn “setting apart” of persons or objects for sacred purposes, in the Catholic idea it implies a special power, conferred by God, of the priests over the invisible forces of evil. It thus stands in the closest relation to the rite of exorcism, of which it is the complement.
According to Catholic doctrine, the Fall involved the subjection, not only of man, but of all things animate and inanimate, to the influence of evil spirits; in support of which St Paul’s epistles to the Romans (viii.) and to Timothy (1 Tim. iv. 4-5) are quoted. This belief is, of course, not specifically Christian; it has been held at all times and everywhere by men of the most various races and creeds; and, if there be any validity in the contention that that is true which has been held semper, ubique, et ab omnibus, no fact is better established. In general it may be said, then, that whereas exorcism is practised in order to cast out devils already in possession, benediction is the formula by which they are prevented from entering in. Protestants have condemned these formulae as so much magic, and in this modern science tends to agree with them; but to orthodox Protestants at least Catholics have a perfect right to reply that, in taking this line, they are but repeating the accusation brought by the Pharisees against Christ, viz. that he cast out devils “by Beelzebub, prince of the devils.”
Though, however, the discomfiture of malignant spirits still plays an important part in the Catholic doctrine of benedictions, this has on the whole tended to become subordinated to other benefits. This is but natural; for, though the progress of knowledge has not disproved the existence of devils, it has greatly limited the supposed range of their activities. According to Father Patrick Morrisroe, dean and professor of liturgy at Maynooth, the efficacy of benedictions is fourfold: (1) the excitation of pious emotions and affections of the heart, and by their means the remission of venial sins and of the temporal punishments due for these; (2) freedom from the power of evil spirits; (3) preservation and restoration of bodily health; (4) various other benefits, temporal and spiritual. Benedictions, moreover, are twofold: (a) invocative, i.e. those invoking the divine benignity for persons and things without changing their condition, e.g. children or food; (b) constitutive, i.e. those which give to persons or things an indelible religious character, i.e. monks and nuns, or the furniture of the altar. The second of these brings the act of benediction into contact with the principle of consecration (q.v.); for by the formal blessing by the duly constituted authority persons, places and things are consecrated, i.e. reserved to sacred uses and preserved from the contaminating influence of evil spirits. Thus graveyards are consecrated, i.e. solemnly blessed in order that the powers of evil may not disturb the bodies of the faithful departed; thus, too, the blessing of bells gives them a special power against evil demons.
Though the giving of blessings as a sacerdotal function is proper to the whole order of priests, particular benedictions have, by ecclesiastical authority, been reserved for the bishops, who may, however, delegate some of them; i.e. the benediction of abbots, of priests at their ordination, of virgins taking the veil, of churches, cemeteries, oratories, and of all articles for use in connexion with the altar (chalices, patens, vestments, &c.), of military colours, of soldiers and of their arms. The holy oil is also blessed by bishops in the Roman Catholic Church; in the Greek Church, on the other hand, the oil for the chrism at baptism is blessed by the priest. To the pope alone is reserved the blessing of the pallium, the golden rose, the “Agnus-Dei” and royal swords; he alone, too, can issue blessings that involve some days’ indulgence. The ceremonies prescribed for the various benedictions are set forth in the Rituale Romanum (tit. viii.). In general it is laid down (cap. i.) that the priest, in benedictions outside the Mass, shall be vested in surplice and stole, and shall give the blessing standing and bare-headed. Certain prayers are said before each benediction, after which he sprinkles the person or thing to be blessed with holy water and, where prescribed, censes them. He is attended by a minister with a vase of holy water, an aspergillum and a copy of the Rituale or missal. In all benedictions the sign of the cross is made. In the blessing of the holy water (cap. ii.), the essential instrument of all benedictions, the object is clearly to establish its potency against evil spirits. First the “creature of salt” is exorcized, “that . . . thou mayest be to all who take thee health of body and soul; that wherever thou art sprinkled every phantasy and wickedness and wile of diabolic deceit may flee and leave that place, and every unclean spirit”; a prayer to God for the blessing of the salt follows; then the “creature of water” is exorcized, “that thou mayest become exorcized water for the purpose of putting to flight every power of the enemy, that thou mayest avail to uproot and expel this enemy with all his apostate angels, by the virtue of the same our Lord Jesus Christ, &c.”; and again a prayer to God follows that the water may “become a creature in the service of His mysteries, for the driving out of demons, &c.” In the formulae of blessings that follow, the special efficacy against devils is implied by the aspersion with holy water; the benedictions themselves are usually merely invocative of the divine protection or assistance, though, e.g., in the form for blessing sick animals the priest prays that “all diabolic power in them may be destroyed, and that they may be ill no longer.” It is to be remarked that the “laying on of hands,” which in the Old and the New Testament alike is the usual “form” of blessing, is not used in liturgical benedictions, the priest being directed merely to extend his right hand towards the person to be blessed. The appendix de Benedictionibus to the Rituale Romanum contains formulae, often of much simple beauty, for blessing all manner of persons and things, from the congregation as a whole and sick men and women, to railways, ships, blast-furnaces, lime-kilns, articles of food, medicine and medical bandages and all manner of domestic animals.
The Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, commonly called simply “Benediction” (Fr. salut, Ger. Segen), is one of the most popular of the services of the Roman Catholic Church. It is usually held in the afternoon or evening, sometimes at the conclusion of Vespers, Compline or the Stations of the Cross, and consists in the singing of certain hymns and canticles, more particularly the O salutaris hostia and the Tantum ergo, before the host, which is exposed on the altar in a monstrance and surrounded by not less than ten lighted candles. Often litanies and hymns to the Virgin are added. At the conclusion the priest, his shoulders wrapped in the humeral veil, takes the monstrance and with it makes the sign of the cross over the kneeling congregation, whence the name Benediction. The service, the details of which vary in different countries, is of comparatively modern origin. Father Thurston traces it to a combination in the 16th and 17th centuries of customs that had their origin in the 13th, i.e. certain gild services in honour of the Blessed Virgin, and the growing habit, resulting naturally from the doctrine of transubstantiation, of ascribing a supreme virtue to the act of looking on the Holy Sacrament.
In the reformed Churches the word “benediction” is technically confined to the blessing with which the priest or minister dismisses the congregation at the close of the service.
See the article “Benediktionen,” by E. C. Achelis in Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopädie (Leipzig, 1897); The Catholic Encyclopaedia (London and New York, 1908) s. “Blessing,” by P. Morrisroe, and “Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament,” by Herbert Thurston, S.J.; in all of which further authorities are cited.