When thinking about initiation, it’s a good idea to distinguish between the “first evangelization period” in different regions and the patterns of Christian initiation afterwards. In any given region, during the first evangelization period adult initiations will drastically outnumber infant initiations. After this period, though, when a Christian population has been established, adult initiations decline and the initiation and formation of children is emphasized. The questions that arise about initiation are clearly going to be different.
Early Middle Ages (500-1200 AD)
Within the Roman Empire, this latter state was the norm by about 500 AD. In the early Middle Ages, Christians generally received communion weekly, and this was true for children as well as adults. In many parts of Europe, lay people received communion in a fragment of the consecrated loaf, which was made of leavened (ordinary) bread, and a sip of the blood of Christ taken by a communion spoon or a straw called a fistula. For children too young to chew, communion was possible by giving the child the consecrated wine with spoon or straw. (If you are a parent, you have probably used both these methods on your children in restaurants!) We have fistulae, and therefore evidence of lay communion from the chalice, through at least the late 1200s, although most scholars believe that from the fourth century on there was a slow decline in frequency of communion and numbers of communicants in most places. It may be that in many places, as in some Eastern Orthodox communities today, only children were presumed to be worthy communicants!
From a church order of uncertain date and provenance now known (misleadingly) as the Apostolic Tradition comes another practice: that of offering new initiands a cup of water, a cup of milk and honey, and finally a cup of the consecrated wine at their first Eucharist immediately after baptism. This practice, only found in the Latin Verona manuscript, is echoed by a text in the Gelasian Sacramentary (8th century) that calls for the blessing of a cup of water and a cup of milk and honey on Pentecost (see Johnson, Rites of Christian Initiation, 100; Jasper and Cuming, Prayers of the Eucharist, 166-7). In addition to the milk and honey representing the promised land (Israel, heaven), milk and honey evokes the sweetness of human breastmilk. So here is one place in history we can see infant communion specifically enriching the church’s practical understanding of the meaning of the Eucharist.
Later medieval (1000-1500 AD)
The main development in this stage of history was the final loss of regular lay communion. In most regions, the chalice was the first thing to be restricted from the laity, because of concerns that lay people were unworthy to touch the sacred vessels (thanks for this correction, Paul Inwood). Of course, if laity could not receive from the chalice, then infants could not receive before they were able to chew. Since infants were being baptized as soon as possible because of fear of unexpected death, the removal of the chalice from the laity made it physically impossible to commune infants immediately following baptism. (There were a few other factors as well, but this is the key point.)
The council of Lateran IV, in 1215, mandated that lay people must receive communion at least once a year, in response to the pastoral crisis that lay people were basically not receiving communion at all, ever! This canonical requirement, of course, was considered binding on Christians only following the age of discretion, since moral obligations can only become a matter of personal responsibility following the age of reason (Lateran IV, canon 21). In this rather accidental fashion, it became the law of the church that lay Christians must receive communion once a year following the age of discretion. What was meant to be the absolute minimum for reception of communion became the norm, and as a result, Christians before the age of discretion were considered unable to receive communion.
Church disciplines and doctrinal development
At every stage, of course, reflection developed that explained why, for example, lay people did not receive communion from the chalice or why children could not receive communion. One of the challenges (and opportunities) of the contemporary age is that we know enough history to know how things came to be, and yet we also have developed doctrinal insights through these practices that we rightly want to maintain. We need to find a way to differentiate between the theological truths expressed in these practices and the disciplines that can change with the church’s needs over time.
For example, in 1910, Pope Saint Pius X issued Quam singulari, an encyclical that lowered the age of first communion from 12 to 7, the age of discretion. As one of my doctoral students documented in a seminar paper, this swiftly and drastically changed the books and artifacts associated with first communion preparation and celebration in the United States. It respected the developed doctrine that communicants needed to be able to distinguish the Eucharist from ordinary food by continuing to proscribe infant communion, but it lowered the age because of a sense that children, like other Christians, need the Eucharist:
This 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. And even if a thorough instruction and a careful Sacramental Confession should precede Holy Communion, which does not everywhere occur, still the loss of first innocence is always to be deplored and might have been avoided by reception of the Eucharist in more tender years.
Pius X made a distinction here between the good of the Eucharist (and thus the benefit of early communion) and the potential dangers of childhood reception. I think, as I will argue in the next set of posts on this topic, that we can now understand the recognition of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist differently (and hence earlier) than Pius X did. I also think that, if carefully considered, this change is pastorally feasible – not immediately and in every case feasible, but feasible as a set of steps towards a long-term goal of restored full initiation for all Roman Catholics.
This series on full infant initiation begins here: “5 quick reasons we should restore infant communion.”