Catholics now have a tangible way to reach out to the baby in the womb -- and to witness in prayer to the value of his or her immortal soul and very existence. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved the Order for the Blessing of a Child in the Womb in English and in Spanish on the first day of its fall meeting in Baltimore earlier this month.

Those who work hard to promote respect for all human life are praising the bishops' action.

"I think this is a wonderful idea," said Mary Maselko, an Ellicott City, Md., mother of three children whose car has carried the bumper sticker "Abortion stops a beating heart" for two decades. "That life is a gift and blessing is already expressed at Mass. And this new blessing will specifically mention pregnancy and delivery -- what encouragement to gain a greater respect for new life," said the parishioner of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in the Baltimore suburb.

"I am happy that the Church now officially recognizes the child in the womb with his or her own prayer," said Dorothy Walsh, a San Francisco mother of nine children who has worked with pregnancy support centers for years and opened her own home to young women with unexpected pregnancies. "Perhaps this will help the world to acknowledge that, yes, this is a human life the mother is carrying, and we were all in that position at one time."

"By adopting an official prayer for blessing a child in the womb, the bishops of the United States are affirming the consistent teaching of the Church; that a unique and blessed human person was formed by the creative power of God at the very moment of conception," Colorado Springs Bishop Michael J. Sheridan told Our Sunday Visitor.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., praised the new blessing as "a tangible way to witness pastorally and sacramentally to the life of the unborn child," and said it could also serve as an opportunity for parishes to bring together expectant couples for mutual support. Bishop Michael D. Pfeifer of San Angelo, Texas, said the document could present "a great catechetical moment for all of us" and said he hoped it might lead the bishops to declare an annual day of prayer for the unborn in the future.

Specifically requested

The blessing, which can be invoked during the order of the Mass or in a special ceremony outside of Mass, required a two-thirds vote of the Latin-rite members of the bishops' conference. The Nov. 11 vote was 223-1 for the English version and 224-0 for the Spanish version. It will now be sent, after about a month of preparing appropriate supporting documentation, to the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments for recognitio, or confirmation, said Father Rick Hilgartner, associate director of the Secretariat of Divine Worship at the USCCB in Washington, D.C.

The Blessing of a Child in the Womb was approved within days of the election of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, who has promised to sign into law a federal Freedom of Choice Act. As currently written, the proposed legislation would revoke all legal protections of the unborn and endanger health care workers' right of conscience. The vote to approve the blessing came at the same general assembly where the U.S. bishops declared a unified front in fighting the Freedom of Choice Act.

However, Father Hilgartner said the blessing did not spring up in reaction specifically to the political situation, but arose from the parish and diocesan level, where many had requested a special blessing for the unborn. A search of documents had found a blessing for expectant parents, but not for the baby specifically, he said. The Secretariat of Divine Worship and others have been crafting the blessing for nearly two years to prepare it for the final vote, he said.

"This is really meant to focus attention on the child itself," said Father Hilgartner. "It's meant to be a pro-life witness."

Possible applications

"The Blessing of a Child in the Womb was prepared to support the parents awaiting the birth of their child, to encourage in the parish prayers for and recognition of the precious gift of the child in the womb and to foster respect for life within society," according to the Secretariat of Divine Worship's documentation presented to the bishops' conference.

The Blessing of a Child in the Womb Within Mass and Outside Mass will be included in the Book of Blessings once it receives Vatican approval. In one form, the blessing could be used at Mass in the Prayers of the Faithful and then, at the end of Mass, a prayer of blessing would take the place of the final blessing, Father Hilgartner said. In addition, there is a ritual for an order of blessing the child in the womb outside of Mass, which includes a Scripture reading and intercessions.

Some parishes might have special Masses during Respect Life Month in October or in January, near the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling, he said. In addition, the blessing would be appropriate as part of a baptismal preparation class. "There are lots of possibilities of how this could be applied," Father Hilgartner said.

Dolores Meehan, co-chair of the Walk for Life West Coast, an annual 2.5-mile walk along San Francisco's waterfront that drew more than 25,000 pro-life walkers last January, said she was delighted with the bishops' move.

"Too often it seems Catholics in the pews view abortion as a matter of individual rights of the 'already born' rather than the protection of the unborn who face a grisly end to their lives (to the amount of almost 4,000 a day)," she said. "The bishops' move to remind Catholics on a regular and ongoing basis that it is, indeed, a person in the womb is a definite step in the right direction."

Valerie Schmalz is an OSV contributing editor. Catholic News Service contributed to this story.