My two-and-a-half-year-old son has never liked to be still. Everywhere he goes, he runs. So taking this little rambunctious boy to Mass on Sundays has often been a chore. For months we never made it through an entire liturgy without someone having to take him outside to run. I hated being relegated to the cry room, so I engaged him in what was going on. I would whisper in his ear, drawing his attention to the statues, the candles, or the stained glass. “Is that Jesus? Look, there’s Mary and Joseph.” I would attempt to teach him the responses, whispering, “Lord, hear our prayer.”
And when he lost interest, I would sneak him a cracker.
To my surprise, it worked. He learned how to stay in the pew. He doesn’t sit still, but he does stay put. He loves the sign of peace and even says some of the responses, loudly and usually a beat too late.
So, one Sunday I whispered in his ear about the Eucharist. “We’re going up to receive Jesus now,” I said. Not long after being told about Communion, he began asking about it and for it. When we carried him up to receive a blessing he said, “Please, can I have some Eucharist?”
I wanted to tell him, “Yes, it’s Christ’s body given up for you.” But Canon Law forbids Catholic children under the age of seven from receiving. I didn’t know what to say.
He was insistent. Many Sundays, after I had received, he would ask me, “Can I have a little bit?” Sometimes he would even try to open my mouth with his tiny fingers to extract a piece. On several occasions, in the car on the way to church he asked, “Is the Eucharist for me?”
I am not someone who is uncomfortable saying “no” to my child. I say “no” to him a dozen times a day. In fact, other parents often look askance when I make him say “please” and “thank you” or reply with “yes, mama.” But the Eucharist isn’t something I want him not to want.
So as my son persists in asking, I can’t stop thinking about his request. The Eucharist is, according to Lumen Gentium, the “source and summit of the Christian life.” If as Jesus says in John 6:54, “He who eats my body and drinks my blood has eternal life,” what does it mean to deny it to our children? Children in the hospital cannot receive the Eucharist before going into surgery. Catholic children who may be ready but are not quite seven years of age are denied. Why are we withholding this source of grace from the youngest members of our community?
In the early church, infants received Communion. The practice is noted by Augustine, who preached in one of his sermons: “Yes, they’re infants, but they are his members. They’re infants, but they receive his sacraments. They are infants, but they share in his table, in order to have life in themselves.”
For the first thousand years or more, the rites of initiation (baptism, first communion and confirmation) were given all at one time to children. (The only people not present for the Eucharist in the early church were catechumens and penitents.) Parents brought their children up with them to receive the body and blood of Christ. To this day, this remains the practice in the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic rites, as well as in many Reformed churches and some Anglican ones.
In the Middle Ages, receiving communion became more rare as many people were in such awe of the consecrated host that they preferred to pray before it, rather than consume it. Lay people tended to receive infrequently or only on their deathbeds. So in the thirteenth century, completion of the rites of initiation came to be postponed until the age of reason, which was determined by the Scholastics to be seven years of age. The separation of the single sacrament of initiation was made Church law in the mid-sixteenth century, at the council of Trent.
Canon Law states that before first communion children must understand what the Eucharist is, that the consecrated host is no longer ordinary bread but has become the body of Christ. Canons 913-14 are worth quoting at length:
The administration of the Most Holy Eucharist to children requires that they have sufficient knowledge and careful preparation so that they . . . are able to receive the body of Christ with faith and devotion. It is primarily the duty 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.
Stressed here is the value of formally instructing older children (those “who have reached the use of reason”) as to what the sacrament means, so that they might receive it reverently. One wonders, however, if this emphasis on reason hasn’t become wrapped up in what Pope Benedict XVI once called a “Baroque Thomism.”
Children learn by doing. They learn by lighting candles in the darkness around the Advent wreath. They learn by putting bills in the collection basket. They learn by saying prayers before bed. As parents, we don’t wait until they can fully understand the concept of almsgiving before giving them money to put in the collection basket. The practice of almsgiving necessarily precedes and reinforces its explanation. What’s more, if almsgiving, or any other virtue, is to become a deeply ingrained habit, it’s best to begin at a young age. If something is the most sacred part of one’s week since early childhood, it is hard to imagine life without it; if a habit is picked up later in life, it can be more easily shed.
Is infant communion so different from infant baptism? We already teach children who have previously been baptized what their baptism means, and yet, baptism is a gift freely given. It is not dependent on one’s intelligence or comprehension. Formal instruction occurs after the sacrament has been experienced.
My son was baptized into the Church as a newborn. As a two year old he has expressed a desire for Jesus in the Eucharist, and I think he understands, insofar as any of us do, that the Eucharist is not just ordinary bread and wine, but Jesus’ body and blood in the form of a meal. I have told him so and he believes me.
Perhaps now is the time to rediscover the practice of infant communion. Pope Francis has said that the Eucharist is “not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” He has also written in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel that, “The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded. . . . Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason.”
In the meantime, I hope that my son will always desire Jesus in the Eucharist as much as he does now. He has been asking every Sunday for many months “Is the Eucharist for me?” but last Sunday he stayed quiet. I think he has finally realized that the answer would always be no.
Anna Nussbaum Keating is the co-owner of Keating Woodworks in Colorado Springs, Colo., and is co-writing The Catholic Catalogue, a field guide to Catholic practice and culture.