A Memorable Scene
“It was the first of January, 1842,” wrote M. A. Béchard. “The honorable Auguste-Norbert Morin, then a judge of the Kamouraska court, was making his way to Quebec, intending to get home for New Year’s Day. The bad roads, however, having delayed him, he stopped at the parish church of his birth: St-Michel-de-Bellechasse. It was a little before the New Year’s Day high Mass. Descended from his vehicle, Monsieur Morin at once sets about looking for his respectable father among the crowd round the door of the church. He soon locates him, and there, in front of the whole parish, the Honorable Judge Morin takes off his hat, kneels down in the snow, and asks his father’s blessing.” [Madeleine D. Ferland, Coutumes populaires du Canada-français, p. 88.]
Thus our fathers used to do, and we should too! But what does this French-Canadian custom entail? From time immemorial, on New Year’s Day, the first day of the civil year, a custom has existed in French-Canada of the whole family receiving the father’s blessing. To do it, the whole family gathers, and the eldest boy asks the father of the family to bless the household. The father then lifts his hands and traces the sign of the cross above his children while saying, “May the blessing of Almighty God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, descend on you and remain forever.” “Amen,” the family responds.
This blessing harks back to those of the Old Testament. Under the primitive law, we see the patriarchs and great personages of the Mosaic Law—Noah, Jacob, David, Tobias...—call down blessings upon the heads of their kneeling sons. This supernatural custom of the Old Testament was conserved under the New Law. Jesus Christ did not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it (Mt. 5:19). It is related of St. Thomas More that he asked his father’s blessing daily.
Filial piety is a virtue that comes under the general heading of justice. It is just to honor our parents for all they have given us. “Our parents are our greatest benefactors. What sufferings,” says St. Ambrose, “your mother endured on account of you. The sleepless nights! The privations of food! The anguish when you were in danger! What pains and what labor your father endured to earn your keep and clothing! And if your parents have suffered so much for you, how can you be ungrateful to them!”
To respect our parents means venerating them from the bottom of our heart as representatives of God and expressing this veneration by our words and deeds. The Book of Ecclesiasticus says: “God hath made the father honourable to the children” (3:2-3). And further on: “He that honoureth his father shall have joy in his own children....Honour thy father, in work and word, and all patience: That a blessing may come upon thee from him, and his blessing may remain in the latter end” (3:6, 9-10).
God Himself has taken care to sanction the observance of this commandment, something He did not do for His other precepts: “Honour thy father and thy mother, that thou mayest be long-lived upon the land which the Lord thy God will give thee” (Exodus 20:12). What a shame for a son to despise his mother or his father!
A Father’s Blessing
When a father blesses his son, in a certain way he takes God to witness that his child has respected the Lord’s commandment and that he therefore deserves Heaven’s blessing. The father implores God to bless his son, that is to say, to heap him with the good things of heaven and earth.
“Parental benediction of the children has salutary effects. This is seen in Noe’s blessing of his children Sem and Japhet, the first of whom was an ancestor of the Messias, and the second the root of the Europeans...; and in Tobias’s blessing of his son before his voyage. Honor your father, that he may bless you; this benediction is the foundation of the children’s house (Ecclus. 3:10).” [Francis Spirago, Catéchisme populaire catholique.]
No human respect, then, should hold back the father’s blessing of his children who deserve it. Heaven is full of all the good things pious children need so much. Parents have received from God the power to bring them down upon their children. Not failing to do so is a mark of faith and a gage of prosperity.
The Encouragement of Our Bishops
Our bishops have always shown themselves vigilant in upholding our traditions. Glory be to them! It was they who preserved our people in the midst of so many perils to which it was exposed in a world in which perfidious Albion was expanding its despotic rule. Msgr. Athanasius Forget, the first bishop of St-Jean Quebec, encouraged his priests not to let the custom of the New Year’s Day blessing be lost in these terms:
“The entire family is ennobled, consecrated, and sanctified by the paternal blessing. The parents who give it and the children who receive it are united forever in a supernatural affection that, far from lessening natural affection, renders it unbreakable by giving to all, parents and children, gages of peace, reciprocal generosity, and natural devotion. On the contrary, where they no longer know how, or no longer want, to bless, the home ceases to be a sanctuary, the parents are uncrowned of their authority, and the children deprived of a safeguard and a protection that nothing else will ever replace. The New Year’s Day paternal benediction is a tradition that must be maintained and re-established.” [Msgr. Athanasius Forget, Encyclical Letter to the priests of his diocese, December 3, 1935.]
A Holy Race, a Royal Priesthood
Keeping this tradition means conserving much more than one might think, much more than a pious custom. It is to propagate the “glorious garland of flowers with which our brow is wreathed.” Already in 1882, in the motherland, a priest was encouraging the fathers not to give up, but to hold high the torch of the paternal blessing. This shows us the affiliation of our French-Canadian benediction.
“Certainly, such an institution is for all times and all climes. But when democracy has overthrown every barrier between father and son, and imposed her egalitarianism on them, she thinks she has wrought something wonderful when they are nothing more than comrades. I have come to remind you of what you are, and to tell you once again: Do not abdicate. Remember the sublime name St. Paul gave to the fathers of his time: a holy race, a royal priesthood. Today, alas! dispossessed of everything, chased out everywhere, should we be condemned to see the home without God? Passing from generation to generation, the blessing will perpetuate among you the tradition of faith, virtue, Christian dignity, and the family spirit that causes you to be called a blessed race.” [Abbé Baunard, Closing speech to the Catholic Congress of Lille, November 26, 1882.]