Children and Eucharist in the Roman Catholic and Episcopal Traditions

Issue XVI April 2011

Children and Eucharist by Genelda Woggon and Ann Garrido “Children and Eucharist” explores the history of welcoming children to the Eucharist in the Catholic and Anglican communions. Receiving the Eucharist has been connected at various times in history to Baptism, Confirmation and/or Reconciliation for both children and adults. These practices are connected to practical, political, pastoral or theological considerations. Ann Garrido carefully traces how these practices have played out for children in the Catholic Church. Complementing Ann’s research, Genelda Woggon helps us to see the young child’s readiness and desire to fully participate in the Eucharist, and her experience with this during the last fifty years in the Episcopal church. As you read this paper, keep in mind Christ’s own desire to be fully united with all people, young and old. Did his eyes also rest on the youngest child in the room when he said, “Take and eat, this is my body…this is my blood” (Matthew 28, 27-28)?

by Ann Garrido and Genelda Woggon

Ann M. Garrido, D.Min. has been part of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd movement since 1996. She established and directed the masters program in CGS at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis and served as a catechist at College Church on the campus of St. Louis University. She is the author of Mustard Seed Preaching and A Year with Sofia Cavalletti.

Genelda Woggon has been ministered to by children for over 40 years in her professional work as a Christian Formation Leader, most especially through the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for the past 20 years. She coordinates the work of the Catechesis at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Asheville, NC and also serves as Consultant for the Catechesis in the Diocese of Western North Carolina. She is the author of The Seed of God.

From the Editor

This paper considers children and Eucharist in two complementary voices. Genelda Woggon brings her pastoral perspective and Episcopalian experience while Ann Garrido offers a scholarly Catholic perspective. Together they offer a history of children coming to communion in these two traditions, some consideration of the practice in our parishes today, and encouragement for all of us to recognize the intimacy of the child’s relationship with God that can be strengthened by a welcome to the Eucharistic table. The writer is indicated at the beginning of each section.

Genelda: The Young Child and the Good Shepherd

It’s been said that we could think of the sanctuary of the church as an extension of the Upper Room, where our Good Shepherd, Jesus, presides and welcomes all who desire to come. Would he not especially welcome the youngest among us to come and sit in his lap where they are fully at home? Could the sanctuary be a place where they remember who they are, and whose they are, and from whence they have come? And indeed, know that they can eat from his plate? How many of you sat with a child in your lap and fed them some of their first solid food from your own plate? So vivid is this unconscious memory that one of our adult children—at about age 30—reached over to snitch a bite of Thanksgiving turkey from my plate and said, “It always tasted better from your plate.”

The image of the child sitting peacefully in her mother’s lap seems appropriate as an image of prayer because we have seen in children an innate knowledge of God that calls us, as adults, into a lifelong journey homeward. Perhaps the voice of the Good Shepherd searching and calling us by name evokes an image of being called back to the lap of God, our true home and a place of belonging.

We can glimpse mystical moments by watching the young child and the ease with which she is able to be still and listen. This seems to arise from a deep inner connection with God to whom she has immediate, instantaneous, and familiar access. Perhaps the younger the child, the more accessible the connection can be. The experience of time is different for young children, for whom past and future have little reality. Their ability to live in the present parallels a deep state of contemplation or mystical prayer where there is a sense of time standing still and a true sense of the present moment. For them it would be a short stretch to see the altar table extend all the way back to the Upper Room and hear the voice of the Good Shepherd call them to the table by name.

When our oldest grandchild was about 18 months old, I took care of him while his parents had their first night away since his birth. The day before they left, my daughter and I sat with this child on the floor and I had my first opportunity to share with him an introduction to the Good Shepherd using the sheepfold and movable figures. After the scripture was read, the figures moved, and a few meditative questions posed, the little guy got down on his belly in front of the model sheep fold and rocked himself back and forth in front of the gate. Not quite knowing what to make of this, I looked at my daughter and said quietly, ”I think the gate is a bit narrow.”

Then to my surprise, as if he had fully understood what I was saying, he got up, grabbed my hand and assisted himself as he carefully and decidedly stepped first one and then two of his nimble feet into the center of the sheepfold. There he stood making his first bold witness of faith.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Was it possible that this young child really knew that he was one of the sheep called by name and that he belonged in the Good Shepherd? I knew Cavalletti had said that young children intuitively know the Good Shepherd and will begin to show this relationship in their drawings and the way they work with the materials, even though it may not be consciously verbalized until about age four. I still had a hard time believing that a child this young, only eighteen months, was really demonstrating his understanding. I surmised that he was intrigued by the challenge of stepping into the inviting circle of the enclosed sheepfold.

Whatever doubts I had at that time were answered the next day after his parents left. This was the first time that he had begun to bond with someone outside the circle of his immediate family. During his waking hours he never left my side for one minute. He insisted on following me down the long basement stairs to fetch something from the freezer. Coming back up the steep climb, he followed step by step closely behind me. He was a child with early verbal skills and prone to process his thoughts out loud. I could hear him saying to himself, “….but they will never follow a stranger,” I knew in that moment that this strange out-of-town grandmother had been fully accepted and that he was integrating the Good Shepherd parable into his daily life. And yes, he did know that he was one of the Good Shepherd’s precious sheep.

Ann: Children and Eucharist in the History of the Roman Catholic Church

Visit a Roman Catholic parish almost anywhere in the world during the Easter season and you are likely to find an eager, if slightly nervous, gaggle of seven-year-olds counting down the days till their “first communion.” From the experience of “first confession,” they await the day when they can receive the bread and the cup at Mass, alongside their family and friends. The sight is so common, and the particular practices each parish has developed around this event so ingrained, that one would be tempted to conclude all Catholic Christians throughout all of history have come to the table at this age, with the same sequence of sacramental preparation as they do at present. But such a conclusion would be misleading.

In order to understand contemporary Catholic practice around the reception of first communion and the theological values involved, it is important to go back in time to the earliest Church and trace not only the history of its Eucharist, but Baptism and Reconciliation as well. It requires engaging a story that—even when painted in the broadest of brush strokes—cannot avoid a lengthy cast of characters and complicated plot.

Scriptural evidence of how the sacraments were celebrated by the earliest disciples of Jesus Christ is sparse, yet immensely valuable in laying a foundation. We know from the earliest Christian texts—the letters of Paul the apostle (40-60 C.E.)—that Christians were initiated into the Body of Christ through the experience of baptism and then sustained their life in the Body of Christ through regularly participation in an Eucharistic meal. In Baptism, as Paul noted, the Christian died with Christ “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, [the Christian], too, might live in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Likewise, in Eucharist, the Christian, in eating the bread and drinking from the cup, “proclaim[s] the death of the Lord until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). Baptism and Eucharist were inexorably linked, both initiating the Christian into a life centered in the Paschal Mystery.

We have no evidence from this time period regarding children and the sacraments. The earliest Christians primarily came to discipleship as adults, and yet many had families with children. Both Baptism and Eucharist were initially celebrated in home churches, and there is no reason to assume that children were not part of the fledgling gospel communities—communities that had preserved the sentiment of Jesus: “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them” (Matthew 19:14). The earliest explicit evidence that we possess of infant baptism comes from Tertullian’s De Baptismo (c.a. 200 C.E.); the earliest evidence for infant communion is found in Cyprian’s De Lapsis (251 C.E.).

Throughout the Patristic era, there seems to exist the common assumption that infants, like Christians of any age, would receive communion as part of the Rite of Baptism. Augustine, for example, argued strongly for infant baptism as he developed the notion of original sin. Naturally, he expected infants would then also receive communion. He did not see how the two could be separated, as both were needed for salvation. They celebrated the same paschal mystery. Referring to the Gospel of John (specifically chapters 3 and 6), he preached:

“The Lord says—not indeed concerning the sacrament of baptism, but concerning the sacrament of his own holy table, to which none but a baptized person has a right to approach: ‘Except you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you shall have no life in you.’ Will any man be so bold as to say that this statement has no relation to infants, and that they can have life in them without partaking of his body and blood—on the ground that he does not say, ‘Except one eat’, but ‘Except you eat’; as if he were addressing these who were able to hear and to understand, which of course infants cannot do?’1

During this period, the tradition of infant communion embedded itself in the practice of the church and remained such well into the 12th century. Until they were old enough to receive by hand, children received via a drop of wine placed on their tongue or a tiny parcel of bread dipped in wine and then placed in their mouth—often referred to as “intinction.” Interestingly, however, during this same era, new developments were beginning to take place that would gradually lead to a decline in Eucharistic reception overall, and the end of infant reception in particular.

The first development, alluded to earlier, was a development in the Church’s theology of sin. The Church had long believed that baptism washed away sin. (Augustine, in his writing regarding the importance of the baptism of infants, emphasized the importance of baptism in cleansing original sin.) After baptism, the Christian was to live a new life in Christ. The Church knew that its members were not perfect. They still experienced the regular friction of life together—the squabbles and the daily hurts. But, Eucharist was understood to heal these. It was the primary sacrament of reconciliation within the community. During the patristic period, however, the Church began to know serious sin within its ranks, the kind of sin—apostasy, adultery, murder— that ruptures the life of a community and makes it impossible to break bread with one another, (i.e. puts people out of communion with one another). For some time the Church was not sure it would be able to reconcile members who wanted to return; did it have the power to forgive postbaptismal sin? In the fourth century, it began to develop rituals that we would now recognize as the sacrament of reconciliation. It is important to note that reconciliation presumed that the one to be reconciled had previously been communicated. One cannot be “out of communion” with the church before one has been “in communion” with the church. Reconciliation was never intended as a sacrament for children.

Slightly later in history, however, a separate tradition of ongoing conversion to more faithful discipleship led many Christians to seek lifelong direction in the spiritual life from a spiritual guide—originally a desert hermit, and later, a monk. The guide might prescribe various ascetic practices, small sacrifices, prayers, and so forth that would help one grow in the Christian life. This kind of on-going dialogue about one’s struggles in discipleship and aides for the journey developed into the practice of penance, another strand of our sacramental tradition. Unlike reconciliation, penance was a practice that was intended, over time, for all Christians, including children, but the Church recognized that—in contrast to Eucharist—the child must have some level of understanding, specifically of right and wrong, for the practice of penance to make sense. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 said that children must have reached “an age of discretion” before engaging in penance. The same canon (Canon 21) states that children are not required to go to communion until the same age. It does not forbid communion earlier, but seems to recognize that once one begins to have the capacity to consciously sin, then one needs access to the healing medicine of communion in a new way.

This canon hints at a second development that had been slowly taking place in the church between the patristic era and the medieval period—an evolving concept of Eucharist less as an event and more as an object. Eucharist-as-noun and Eucharist-as-verb have never been entirely separate in the history of Catholicism, but at various points in history one dimension of the sacrament has sometimes been emphasized more heavily than the other, and as the church moved into the medieval age, we find the tenor of questioning and reflection in theological writing tilting toward Eucharist as a sacred object. Such a development led to increased reverence for the Eucharistic elements, separate from the liturgical context. One begins to find practices of adoration of the host outside Mass, creation of beautiful articles to hold the bread and wine, etc. One also begins to see heightened concerned about worthiness to receive the sacrament. Out of a deep sense of respect, people began to avoid the sacrament out of a feeling of sinfulness. They also began to stop communicating their children out of fear they may spit up or dribble or otherwise improperly digest the elements.

Initially official Church teaching resisted this trend. The Eleventh Council of Toledo in 675 mandated that no censure should be passed on infants who were unable to retain the Eucharist. The Gregorian Sacramentary, prepared in the early 800’s, dictated that if the bishop was present, then the baptized infant was to be immediately confirmed with chrism and communicated. If the bishop was not present, then the baptized infant was to be communicated by the priest.2 In the years immediately following the Fourth Lateran Council, however, one finds a string of instructions from local councils and synods denying Eucharist to the young. (e.g. “And let no priest give the Body of the Lord to little children or to a sick person, for they are not able to retain the Body of the Lord or food.”)3

The rise of universities and the Catholic scholastic tradition during the same time period elevated respect for reason and understanding, and unwittingly added further fuel to the efforts to restrict children’s access to Eucharist. Thomas Aquinas, one of the theological beacons of the medieval age, argued that baptism alone is sufficient for salvation for a child before the age of reason and that:

“The Eucharist ought not be given to children who lack the use of reason and cannot distinguish between spiritual and physical food…. But it can be given to children who are already beginning to have discretion, even before they are of perfect age, at about ten or eleven, if they show signs of discretion and devotion.”4

Following Aquinas, much of the discussion in the Church regarding children and the sacraments revolved around what constituted the “age of discretion” with some theologians arguing for as young as seven and some arguing for as late as sixteen. Some noted that there might be a different kind of discretion needed for penance (i.e. the ability to tell right from wrong) than for Eucharist (i.e. the ability to distinguish not only Eucharistic bread and wine from regular bread and wine, but also the ability to perhaps recite certain prayers, know certain Church teachings, understand the nature of Eucharist). Slowly, a consensus began to emerge that the optimal age for Eucharistic discretion and learning was around the age of twelve. Interestingly, the Council of Trent in the mid-1500s did not make such a distinction, nor did it try to make a link between penance and Eucharist for children. Confessing one’s sins to a spiritual guide and the reception of Eucharist were not inherently connected to one another.

Nevertheless, in the period after Trent, popular piety did increasingly link the practices of penance and Eucharist. Spiritual movements, such as Jansenism in the 17th century, emphasized significant spiritual preparation, including confession of sin, before each communion. Antoine Arnauld’s widely disseminated book The Frequent Communion (1643) contended that reception of Eucharist when not in a state of absolute moral purity was itself as serious sin. As a result, Eucharist-as-a-noun and Eucharist-as-a-verb became progressively more separated in the minds of Catholics. Many attended Mass, but did not receive; a practice that would have been utterly perplexing to earlier Christians. Despite official condemnation of Jansenism, reception declined to such a degree that the Church had to continue issuing statements requiring Catholics to receive communion at least once a year in the Easter season.

In the early 1900’s, Pope Pius X made it his special mission to reverse this trend. In 1905, he issued Sacra Tridentina Synoda (On Frequent and Daily Reception of Holy Eucharist)encouraging Catholics to frequently receive Eucharist. While it is desirable to be free of even venial sin in life, he reminded Catholics that only mortal sin—sin truly fracturing the life of the Church communion—bars one from the table. Indeed, Eucharist itself is “the antidote whereby we may be freed from daily faults”5 —i.e. Eucharist is the primary sacrament of reconciliation in the Church. In 1910, he supported the promulgation of Quam Singulari (Decree of the Sacred Congregation of the Discipline of the Sacraments on First Communion) which lowered the age for first communion to the same age for penance, acknowledging that in attempting to determine a precise age of discretion “not a few errors and deplorable abuses have crept in during the course of time.”6 The document continues:

“[The] practice of preventing the faithful from receiving on the plea of safeguarding the august Sacrament has been the cause of many evils. It happened that children in their innocence were forced away from the embrace of Christ and deprived of the food of their interior life; and from this it also happened that in their youth, destitute of this strong help, surrounded by so many temptations, they lost their innocence and fell into vicious habits even before tasting of the Sacred Mysteries….

“Moreover, the fact that in ancient times the remaining particles of the Sacred Species were even given to nursing infants seems to indicate that no extraordinary preparation should now be demanded of children who are in the happy state of innocence and purity of soul, and who, amidst so many dangers and seductions of the present time have a special need of this heavenly food.”7

Quam Singulari tried to honor two sets of values and principles, both well established in Catholic tradition: The first—dominant in the Church’s first millennia—upholding that Eucharist is a gift that belongs to all the baptized regardless of age and understanding, simply by virtue of their baptism. The second—dominant in the Church’s second millennia—upholding that Eucharist is most meaningful when there is spiritual preparation and understanding. In trying to endorse both sets of values, it advocated for a single age of discretion at which time the child should be able to have access to both the sacraments of penance and Eucharist, “the time when a child begins to reason, that is about the seventh year, more or less.”8

In the decades following Quam Singulari, the Church began to experience a widespread liturgical renewal that flowered in the Second Vatican Council. One of the first efforts of the Council was to reconsider all of the Church’s liturgical rites in light of new historical scholarship regarding the early and patristic celebration of the sacraments. The Council hoped to find liturgical revitalization by drawing from its most ancient roots. At the same time, it wanted to look at the emerging fields of psychology, anthropology, and the other social sciences, to see what might be helpful in making the rites meaningful in a contemporary context.

In the years following the Council, a great deal of liturgical experimentation took place as Catholics tried to find ways of practicing their sacramental tradition that were both faithful to their roots and relevant to modern society. One of the more significant experimentations took place around the sacrament of penance. In its revision of the rite, the Church struggled to figure out how to blend the history of reconciliation for the “ex-communicated” with the history of ongoing growth as a disciple through regular confession in one single rite. If the more ancient motif of reconciliation were the primary one, then it made sense to not introduce this sacrament until later in life, after children had already received communion. Additional information from psychologists about when children are really able to understand concepts of sin and wrongdoing, led many U.S. dioceses to ask whether the sacrament of penance shouldn’t be introduced perhaps at the age of 9 or 10.

Repeated letters from Rome discouraged these efforts.9  In the course of the correspondence, the Church was able to articulate with ever greater clarity the values and principles that animate its decision-making around the appropriate age for first communion at this moment in history. These principles are now embedded within the most recent Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1983. And, it is by looking at the nuanced words of three canons in this Code, that we can perhaps best discern and summarize what the Catholic Church wants to uphold in its practices at the start of this new millennia: 

c. 912—“Any baptized person not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to holy communion.”  

This canon, grounded in the most ancient roots of Christian practice, leaves open the possibility of infant communion. The Church recognizes the right of all the baptized to participate in the sacraments. 

c. 913—“§1. The administration of the Most Holy Eucharist to children requires that they have sufficient knowledge and careful preparation so that they understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity and are able to receive the body of Christ with faith and devotion. §2. The Most Holy Eucharist, however, can be administered to children in danger of death if they can distinguish the body of Christ from ordinary food and receive communion reverently.” 

This canon, rooted in the thought of Thomas Aquinas, preserves the importance of having arrived at some sense of “discretion” but it does not set a high bar. It recognizes that each of us understands the mysteries of our faith according to different intellectual and emotional capacities, and each of us is always growing and changing in these capacities. Who among us can really say we understand the nature of Eucharist? At the most essential level, all one really must possess is reverence and the ability to distinguish between ordinary bread and communion bread. 

c. 914—“It is primarily the duty of parents and those who take the place of parents, as well as the duty of pastors, to take care that children who have reached the use of reason are prepared properly and, after they have made sacramental confession, are refreshed with this divine food as soon as possible. It is for the pastor to exercise vigilance so that children who have not attained the use of reason or whom he judges are not sufficiently disposed do not approach holy communion.” 

Acknowledging the debates of the past century around multiple “ages of discretion”, this canon assumes Pius’ argument that there is only one age of discretion, implying that the point at which the child can distinguish between ordinary bread and Eucharistic bread is also the age at which the child can distinguish right and wrong. In the Church’s legal mind, it follows that if a person can distinguish between right and wrong, then that person has the capacity to choose serious evil as well as heroic good. It may be highly unlikely that a child of seven would commit a sin of such gravity that it could fracture the life of the community and require reconciliation before receiving communion, but the church allows the possibility that this could happen. As such, it requires that the child be prepared and offered the possibility of making a sacramental confession before first communion. One could read this canon negatively and be concerned that the Church has an unwarranted fear around the sinfulness of children, but it also could be read in a positive light, observing that the Church has great respect for the choices that children can make. If one does not have the capacity to choose great evil, it also implies they do not have the capacity to choose great good, and few would want to argue the latter. 

At the same time, it is important to read c. 914 in light of canons 988 and 989, which note that only those bound by serious sin are obliged to confess at least once a year; those living in venial sin are recommended to confess. If a child has not committed serious sin, the child is not bound to confess and it would seem that first communion should not be contingent upon having gone to confession.10  The child, as a baptized member of the Church, still has a right to the sacrament of Eucharist.


Genelda: Children and Eucharist in the Episcopal Church

Our grandson, born in the late 1980s, was blessed to belong to a church that did indeed honor the rich spiritual potential of the young child. At their Sunday morning Family Eucharist he was welcomed at the Table of the Lord to receive the Bread and the Wine along with his parents and the parish community. It is his generation that will be among the first in the Episcopal Church to never remember when he was not fed at the Table of the Lord. 

It was his mother’s generation, however, that came of age at the time that The General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 1971 asserted that “admission to communion is to be based upon baptism alone, not upon baptism plus Episcopal confirmation.” This was not a decree that came to fruition overnight—but a long… slow…. process that is still unfolding in various stages in different places around the country. Lest we grow impatient we remind ourselves for any change in the social structure the greater the shift the longer it takes to unfold. 

The action of the 1971 General Convention represented an enormous paradigm shift. It came to us at a time that the practice of receiving Communion for many generations was not until age 12 or 13 or later. Children—or youth—were confirmed and then admitted to Communion. The focus was more on Confirmation than on the Communion that followed. 

This had been the long held practice in the Episcopal Church with roots in the Church of England, and before that in the English Catholic Church. In the 13th century, the archbishop of Canterbury wanted to bring the English Church more in line with Rome. To exercise greater control over the parishes, he insisted that no one could receive the Sacrament unless he or she has been confirmed by a bishop. This was a clever means to give the bishops more power in the parishes. The bishop had to visit the parish in order to confirm so that the people could receive the Sacrament…the good bishop’s intent was to encourage Confirmation by his bishops and not to exclude persons from Communion. But what happened was a postponing of Confirmation and Communion to the traditional “age of reason”. This resulted in it becoming an adolescent rite for the Anglican Church.11

Political reasons, once again, caused this pattern to be disrupted during the Colonial Period of American history where bishops were absent and priest were few. 

With this long history even with its interruptions—we had a pattern of receiving Communion only after the onset of puberty. So in 1971 we had a lot of catching up to do. First of all we had to address the older children, ages 6–12, who would now be welcomed to the table. We had no real precedent for doing this kind of preparation and so initially there were very few resources to draw upon. However, some of our key theologians and educators were in close conversation with their Catholic counterparts, and one of the Episcopal prophetic voices who set the pace was Urban T. Holmes, in his seminal work, Young Children and Eucharist. 12 He along with Thomas Talley, who were both seminary professors, were given permission to adapt the Roman Catholic material, Its All About Celebration. Their material was called It’s All About Eucharist.13 No work has influenced my appreciation of the Eucharist more than this one small packet of leaflets with a parents’ guide for $2.50. It was perhaps the most widely used resource of its kind in the Episcopal Church during those days. 

The decision in 1971 that “admission to communion is to be based upon baptism alone” grew out of Prayer Book Studies 18 in preparation for the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. But as I have stated earlier, it took a while to warm up to that seemingly radical idea. It was almost 10 years until this new Prayer Book would declare, ”Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church.” It took almost another ten years for this to really begin to sink in. In 1988 the General Convention found it necessary to make yet another statement saying it “unequivocally affirms that all baptized persons, regardless of age, may receive communion.” 

This was the turning point for infants and toddlers to be really invited to the Table—but always at the parents’ discretion as to the exact and most appropriate time for each child to receive. Another important and seminal resource helped this process—a video published in the Diocese of Colorado in 1989 called Celebrating God’s Love—Children and the Eucharist. At that time my husband was engaged in Intentional Interim Ministry, which took us to various parishes and diocese around the Episcopal Church on the east coast and in the Midwest. We used this video routinely in each of our parishes and it was quite interesting to see the differences in how parishes responded—to some degree based on geography and cultural dynamics more than on liturgical or theological reasoning. 

In a Midwestern university community there was such openness to change that they were already ahead of the norm and indeed had much to teach us. A few years later we found ourselves in an historic village on the east coast that had been geographically isolated. The attitude there as stated by one young mother was, “My grandmother was confirmed at age twelve and then received communion, my mother was confirmed at age twelve and she received communion, and I was confirmed at age twelve and I received communion and my children will be confirmed at age twelve and then they will receive communion”…end of conversation! But in the same small congregation, a family new to the area and to the Episcopal Church quite happily brought their newly baptized young children to receive communion, kneeling beside other children whose parents asked only that they receive a blessing. 

As catechists of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd we do have to wonder what the loving heart of Pope Pius X, who died in 1914, would do for even younger children today, were he able to walk into an atrium with 3-6-year-old children most any place around the world and listen in. What if he could hear the words and observations and see the remarkable work of Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi over these past 50 years? What if he could sit with us today and hear the amazing things that Silvana Montanaro is telling us about the spiritual insights, experiences, and expressions of the child, birth to three years? What if he considered the following accounts? 

There is the story from Texas of the four-year-old who bolted forward down the aisle when the priest lifted the elements and said, “the gifts of God for the People of God.” As the child knelt there alone by the altar rail with hands up lifted and eyes fixed, the priest turned to the congregation and remarked, “Would that all might be so eager to come to the table.” 

There is the young mother who tells of taking her restless and fidgety two-year-old out of church so as not to disturb “the proper people at prayer” during the Eucharist. As she drags the balking child down the back aisle screams can be heard all the way down the front aisle as the child cries at the top of her lungs, “But I want to see Jesus, I want to see Jesus!” 

And there is the four-year-old in New Orleans who had been able to receive the Bread and Wine at diocesan events with his mother but was not able to receive it at his home parish. His mother tried to explain that it would be unfair for the other children if the priest were to make exception for him. Four-year-olds know about “what is fair”. They learn it first on the playground. So on the playground that Sunday morning he organized a kneel-in. During the Eucharist that followed, there at the altar rail knelt every child with their parents, who were taken by surprise, to see the lifted hands held high, asking for the Bread of Life. No one was more surprised than the priest— who was absolutely overcome and lovingly placed the Bread into the begging hands of these hungry hearts. 

Finally, there is Aspen who was 21 months old with early verbal skills. When his mother brought him to church and brought him to the Nursery downstairs he kept trying to break away from her and climb up the stairs to the sanctuary, saying “Upstairs. Amen. Amen.” I thought it was curious that “Amen” was the one word that he was associating with our worship, thinking that this congregational response had made a great impression on him. During the Eucharist when the time was right Aspen’s mother and grandmother came down to the Nursery to bring Aspen up to the altar rail. What a joy to see little Aspen standing on tiptoes reaching up to meet our Good Shepherd in the Sacrament. As he received the Bread he said “Amen!” and then he lovingly touched the cup and received the Wine with an approving “Amen!” Now I knew why he was so eager to go up stairs to say, “Amen.” Not just to chime in with the congregational response, but to voice his own personal affirmation that Jesus is present for him in the Bread and in the Wine. 

How nice it would be if the Episcopal Church today could honor this privilege of welcoming young children to the table by also encouraging their full presence at the Liturgy. This is done quite well in those larger churches that also have a Family Eucharist, happily including infants and toddlers, then a time for Christian Formation followed by a more traditional late service. Some smaller churches also attempt to work a compromise, with a more child friendly atmosphere within a traditional worship experience. But in many places there is still the struggle between worship and education taking place simultaneously. One wonders if it might not be the children who get compromised in this squeeze. They are denied a full experience of Eucharistic worship. There is not an easy answer, but one to be seriously pondered if we genuinely do want to invite our children to the table for the full meal. 


Ann: Personal Comments from a Catholic Perspective

Catholic practice regarding the age and requirements necessary for participating in Eucharist has varied significantly over time. As a theologian, I am able to see how the Church over the course of its history has had many good intentions and honorable values, some of which occasionally seem to compete with each other. It doesn’t mean that one set of values is right and one set is wrong. Both can be good and problematic at the same time. Part of the beauty of Catholicism is that it has been able to adapt accordingly to different times and different pastoral needs, though as a well-known liturgical historian once said, “Whenever the Church adapts to solve one problem, it inevitably ends up creating another one.” This has certainly been the case in the question of children and Eucharistic reception. And, it probably will continue to be the case until the Parousia comes. The most consistent, fundamental principle in Catholic canon law is, “Do whatever is most pastoral in the situation.” 

As a catechist working in a Catholic setting, I do experience many younger children expressing a desire for Eucharist. Some of these requests are verbal: “Why can’t I have Jesus, too?” Many of these requests are pre-verbal: the infant reaching out from his mother’s arms toward the cup. These gestures and questions indicate to me a core reverence and understanding of Eucharist, even if it is not at a conscious level. And, the Catholic Church at present seems to recognize that there is nothing to bar even infants from communing, but at the same time, it finds that the child’s experience of Eucharist is perhaps more meaningful with the increasing consciousness and intentionality that come with reaching an “age of reason.” I do see many children reach a certain heightened “readiness” and desire for the sacrament around the age of seven, though I see many more at the age of six, and some who—honestly—never give me an indication of desire, though I wouldn’t want to be the judge of that. If the above paragraph sounds ambivalent, I suppose it is: as a Catholic I see no hindrances to communicating infants and I also recognize there is something beautiful that happens in a child’s life around the dawning of “reason” that makes them particularly receptive at this age as well. In reading Quam Singulari, I suspect Pius shares that ambivalence. 

From personal observation, I am not sure if Pius’ insistence on one “age of discernment” is accurate. I do see children who are able to tell the difference between ordinary bread and Eucharistic bread, but do not seem to yet have a very firm grasp of the difference between right and wrong, or at least not much understanding of the impact of their actions on others. From a historical perspective, I am not inclined to think that reception of communion should be connected to participation in penance. Both are good for children, but it doesn’t seem that— except in extraordinarily rare circumstances—communion should be contingent on confession of sin. Eucharist remains our primary sacrament of reconciliation. I am grateful that the Catholic practice of canon law gives clear guidance regarding the order of first confession and first communion, but also pastoral flexibility in this regard. Occasionally, in my experience, the potential for flexibility has been necessary and welcome. It is hard to say what the future will hold for Catholic children and their participation in the Eucharist. The only thing that we know with relative certainty is that it will continue to evolve with time.




1 Augustine of Hippo, i.20.26f (CSEL 60.25f), citing John 6:51, qtd in Mark Dalby, Infant Communion: The New Testament to the Reformation (Cambridge: Grove Books Ltd, 2003), 13. 

2 Ibid., 17. 

3 From the Provincial Council of Treves in 1227, qtd in Dalby, 22. 

4 Thomas Aquinas, Scriptum super Sententiis, repeated in Lectura super Evangelium Joannis and Summa Theologia, qtd in Dalby 23. 

5 Council of Trent, qtd by Pius X in Sacra Tridentina Synoda (issued December 20, 1905) available at

6 Congregation for Discipline of Sacraments, Quam Singulari (issued August 8, 1910) available at

7 Ibid. 

8 Ibid. n.b. It should be noted that Quam Singulari holds particular importance for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd movement. The lowering of the communion age sparked wide-spread conversation and conferences about the catechetical implications of preparing children to receive at an earlier age. One such conference inspired Maria Montessori to launch the “Barcelona Experiment” in 1915. 

9 See http://www.ewtn.vcom/library/liturgy/firstcc.htm for a listing of the various correspondence that took place between Rome and the U.S. bishops on this matter. 

10 The English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church #1457 does apparently state the matter in stronger language: “Children must go to the sacrament of Penance before receiving Holy Communion for the first time.” Even this, however, must be read in a discerning manner. The original Latin text uses the verb “debent” which can be translated “must” but also “should” or “ought.” 

11 Russell, Rev. Joseph, Children’s Involvement in the Liturgy: History and Implications, (New York: Episcopal Church Centre, 1987. 

12 Holmes, Urban, Young Children and Eucharist, (New York, Seabury Press, 1972). 

13 Holmes, Urban and Talley, Thomas, It’s All About Eucharist, (MN: Mine Publications, 1971).

Occasional Papers

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The Moral Formation of Children Ages 0-12

Issue IV May 2000 This paper extracts principles of moral formation from the catechetical work of Sofia Cavalletti and the pedagogical work of Maria Montessori. Together the work of these