Children in the Roman Catholic Church generally celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation before sharing communion for the first time. But not everyone is happy with it. To read canon law and the catechism, the issue seems settled. But to speak with some religious educators and parents, the sequence is unsettling.
A debate over the sequence of these two sacraments peaked after the Second Vatican Council. Many dioceses experimented with communion before first reconciliation, with satisfactory results. But by the end of the twentieth century the experiments had ceased, largely due to pressure from Rome.
The question of sequence has not completely died away because there are strong arguments for offering first communion first.
Eastern rites. Throughout their entire history, Eastern Churches have given communion to infants at their baptism. Offering communion to young children would draw the Roman Church and Eastern Church practices closer together.
Historical precedents in the West. In the Roman Catholic Church, we gave communion to infants for well over a thousand years of our history. It used to be required. Now it is forbidden.
Theology of Baptism. Baptism forgives sin. Without baptism, one is not entitled to the Eucharist. But we refuse communion to babies baptized into the Body of Christ and freed from the stain of original sin. Calling this “excommunication” is too strong, but you get the idea.
Theology of communion. Sharing the Eucharist forgives venial sin. A young child can experience forgiveness simply by celebrating first communion.
Spiritual development. In the spiritual development of children, their desire for the Eucharist comes earlier than their awareness of sin. Young children at mass figure out very early that everyone else is getting something they are not. That yearning could easily be answered with communion.
Understanding. Although it is frequently argued that young children cannot understand the meaning of Eucharist, the same could be said about the meaning of reconciliation. And what adult understands the meaning of Eucharist? Or of reconciliation? We share sacraments with those who have an imperfect knowledge of them.
Still, there are reasons for offering first reconciliation first.
The right to forgiveness. Young children do commit sin at their level of moral formation. As Christians they have a right to the sacrament of reconciliation.
Catechesis. In their early formation, young children already learn about sin and conversion, penance and pardon.
Disposition. Reconciliation disposes a child toward sharing the Eucharist.
Worthiness. The sacrament of reconciliation safeguards a worthy participation in the Eucharist and assists parents and pastors in judging a child’s readiness for communion.
Historical precedents. The tradition of confession before communion was beginning to form in the Roman Church by the eighth century.
Canon law. The canon law of the Church says first communion should be preceded by sacramental confession (canon 914).
The question of the sequence of these two sacraments is fairly recent in pastoral dialogue. The Church was disinterested in it for centuries.
At first, communion was offered to infants at their baptism, probably under the form of the Blood of Christ. This practice can be documented from the second century and probably existed even earlier.
Placing confession before communion began to take shape in the eighth and ninth centuries. At the time, very few people shared communion at all. Belief in the real presence of Christ had reached a new height, and the faithful thought they were not worthy of the Eucharist. So they attended mass, but infrequently shared communion.
During this same time, the practice of individual confessions spread, but only gradually did it become preparation for infrequent communion. For more than the first thousand years there is no evidence for confessing sins before a first communion because first communion was still happening with baptism.
At the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) the Church addressed the issue of infrequent communion. The council required those who had obtained the years of discretion to share communion at least once a year. Because communion was not required of infants, parishes stopped offering it. In a short space of time the long history of giving communion to infants in the West all but evaporated.
The council did not put a number on the age of discretion. Theologians over the next few centuries argued for ages ranging from 7 and younger, to 16 and older. But no one required that confession should precede first communion – not even the Council of Trent (1545-1563).
Charles Borromeo (1538-1584) encouraged starting confessions at age 5 or 6, so that children could be forgiven several times before first communion. Gradually first reconciliation came to precede first communion, but the age of first communion had settled around 12 and catechists had years to prepare children for both sacraments.
In the twentieth century new difficulties arose. Near the beginning of the century the age for first communion lowered from around 12 to about 7. That forced preparation for both sacraments in a short space of time. After the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) some church leaders experimented with communion before first confession, asked Rome to approve that sequence and received negative replies.
The main legislation governing the sequence of first reconciliation and first communion is in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Canon 913 says children are required to have “sufficient knowledge and careful preparation” to understand the Eucharist according to their capacity and to share communion with faith and devotion. Canon 913 does not require confession of sins.
Canon 914 says it is the duty of pastors and parents to prepare children properly for communion and, “after they have made sacramental confession,” children are to share the Eucharist as soon as possible. This canon made confession a part of preparation.
Canon 916, though, obliges those conscious of grave sin not to share communion without previous sacramental confession. Canon 988/2 says confession is “recommended” for the faithful guilty of venial sins.
Now, let’s see. The law of the Church obliges confession for those in serious sin. It also asks that children confess before first communion. Taken to an absurd conclusion, it looks like the law expects young children to commit serious sin so they can confess before first communion.
It is difficult to conclude that the law uniformly obliges confession before communion in every case. In fact, if a child were coerced to confess sin, it would cast doubt on the validity of the sacrament. People have a right to the sacraments (canon 213) and ministers must not refuse them (843/1).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church said it stronger: “Children must go to the sacrament of penance before receiving holy communion for the first time” (1457). Must go. But it cites canon 914 as its source. That is not precisely what canon 914 says. In fact, that’s not even what the catechism says. In Latin, the catechism uses the verb “debent”. “Debent” need not mean “must”. It can also mean “ought to” or “should”. But the English translation makes it look like the catechism has strengthened the law of the Church.
The intent of church leaders is clear. Children ought to confess sins before sharing communion. But the questions about the prudence of this sequence have not gone away, and the law cannot completely enforce confession before first communion.
Catechists today face a situation that the Church never envisioned prior to the twentieth century: preparing children for two sacraments around the age of seven. If it feels hard, there’s a reason for that. It is.
The discussions concerning sequence should continue with clear ideas about the meaning of baptism, the entitlement of young children to the Eucharist and the saving grace of reconciliation.
Paul Turner writes “Bulletin Inserts” for Ministry
and Liturgy. He is the author
of Ages of Initiation: The First Two Christian Millennia (Collegeville:
The Liturgical Press, 2000).
This article first appeared in Liturgical
Catechesis 5/3 (June – July 2002):8-9.
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