Eucharistic thoughts, at three

My son is named after St. Thomas Aquinas. We had expected his baptismal name to get abbreviated in short order to “Tom” or “Tommy” like most other American Thomases, but it never happened. One thing he shares with his namesake is an aptitude for asking the right questions. He asks, you answer, he changes the subject, and you wonder if he’s understood — until, days, weeks, or months later, he says “Remember when you said…?” and asks the followup question.

Recently it’s been (along with biology, math, and death) the eucharist. I’ve been answering eucharistic questions for 13 months, since the day he realized he didn’t receive. He seemed to come to his own understanding of things this week, and I’m working to keep up with him.

It began in the car on the way home from school, Friday. “How can Jesus be there in the bread at church?” After I try to translate Thomas, Rahner, Schillebeeckx, and Kilmartin into three-year-old, he is silent for a moment. “That sounds like it would hurt,” he says reflectively.

“Not exactly,” I answer. “You see, after Jesus came back to life he lives in a different kind of body than we do, and can’t get hurt…” After a couple of minutes, Thomas falls silent and changes the subject.

Today, he comes home wailing that he hates church, then wants to “play church” in the playroom. We give the sign of peace first (his favorite part). We sing songs, and in his church we can play musical instruments (“instumebentes”) ALL through the mass. “And NOW it’s time for the bread and wine,” he announces. Even babies can receive in his church, he decides. When he’s done, he perches on the bean bag chair. “I’m going to tell them I know.”

“Know what?”

“Know about the bread and the wine!”

“What are you going to tell them?”

He considers. “I’m going to tell the priest, ‘I know that God is in your bread, and I want some.'”

“You do that, kiddo.”

“What will happen?”

“I don’t know, but it will be interesting to find out.”

34 comments

  1. I love this story. I will probably get in trouble with some, but I have a hard time understanding why we deny sacraments to young people. In my office, I deal specifically with this issue when it comes to confirmation. If we truly believe and teach sacraments are gift, then why are we so stingy?

  2. I did tell Thomas that a long time ago the eucharist could be received by little kids and even babies. “Why not now?” Well, at some point, I said, people started to think that if babies ate the bread and didn’t understand what it really was, they would get in big trouble.

    I have to admit, talking about this in three-year-old language made this age-old fear seem even more absurd than it already did to me.

  3. I would be happy if the order of the sacraments of initiation were to be restored to Baptism, Confirmation, Communion; I would also have no problem with infant Confirmation and Communion.

    I’m curious what the people who are heavily invested in religious education would do when they find out there is no more need for “sacramental prep” – that is, preparation for receiving the sacrament (of Holy Communion and Confirmation) for the first time. Instead, you’d be continually educating them about a mystery they’re already taking part in – like with Baptism!

    In addition, there would then need to be greater emphasis placed on the sacrament of Reconciliation, I think. Talk about a new paradigm of religious education / faith formation!

    1. I’d be curious, too. All too often, even with the best of intentions, sacramental preparation ends up being the primary focus, rather than formation in the faith. I wonder how much this is connected with the drop off in practice?

      It would also drive a different approach to adult formation — since in many parishes this is tied into sacramental preparation (for marriage and for childrens sacraments). Again, I think that’s a huge error, since you have incredibly heterogeneous groups and one size really doesn’t fit all when it comes to faith formation!

      1. “sacramental preparation ends up being the primary focus, rather than formation in the faith. I wonder how much this is connected with the drop off in practice?”

        My thoughts exactly, Michelle, both in terms of the focus and the drop-off.

    2. I think we just need to rethink religious education. I would like to see a mystagogical approach. So yes, I am with you about restoring the order and focusing on whole community catechesis in a mystagogical method.

    3. Or the arguments you get when you tell one of them that you have to fully initiate the 8 year old. “But we will never get him to come back to class.”

      If I am ever graced to have a family who is devout and practices their faith come to me and say they would like their 4 or 5 year old son to receive Holy Communion–I am all for it!

    4. Jeffrey

      We already have infant Confirmation, we just don’t admit it. The chrismation following Baptism is in act and in fact Confirmation.

      1. Since antiquity the Roman Rite has had two anointings after Baptism, the second of which, reserved for the bishop, evolved into Confirmation. So in act and in fact the anointing after baptism is not confirmation, but rather simply the anointing after baptism, which is Christic, not Pneumatic.

  4. I was five when I asked this question of my mother. She went to the pastor, he talked to me and satisfied that I knew what I was doing, I received the Eucharist for the first time shortly thereafter at a regular Sunday Mass.

    This seems like a perfect spot to ask this — someone told me last week that because Roman Catholics believe that the Eucharist is a Sacrament, baptized Catholics who feel ready to present themselves for the first reception of Eucharist cannot simply do so, as apparently you may in the Anglican Rite.

    I didn’t argue, but nothing I know indicates this is the case. Other than being baptized a Roman Catholic and in a state of grace, are there any canonical or theological hoops that must be gone through before the first reception of the Eucharist at a Roman Catholic Mass?

    1. Here’s the relevant canon law article:

      http://www.intratext.com/IXT/ENG0017/_P38.HTM

      I am not a canon lawyer, but the interpretation seems to hinge on “so that according to their capacity they understand what the mystery of Christ means, and are able to receive the Body of the Lord with faith and devotion”: what do “according to their capacity” and “understand” mean here? In general practice, first communion is given after the age of reason, i.e. about 7. (Actually, in general practice, it’s often given by grade in school!)

      Your source is misinformed at least on one point: the Eucharist is a sacrament for Anglicans as well. Some Catholics think that First Communion is a sacrament (rather than Communion), and this may have confused him or her.

      1. I did actually point out that the Eucharist is a sacrament for Anglicans, but the response was “but it’s not really one”. I suspect you are correct when you suggest the root of the confusion is the “First Communion” versus Eucharist.

        It’s very hard for some, I think, to untangle what’s cultural (girls in whiate dresses processing in) from the essentials of form and matter, which I think in this case (and I’m no canon lawyer either) appropriate matter would a baptized Catholic of an age to understand in a state of grace and the Eucharist itself.

  5. I’d also like to weigh in in favor of infant confirmation and Eucharist. Your son certainly sounds like the seed of faith has already sprouted. Would that religious formation of children emphasized more the life of faith.

    Jeffrey’s comment on reconciliation is interesting. We assume a second grade catechesis is adequate for life. This might well be the most serious flaw in the religious education connection with the sacrament. There should easily be at least two other significant catechetical moments for reconciliation: at the age when children truly perceive sin and the notion of penance, and when adolescents face their own self-centeredness and recognize the need to make amends to those whom they have harmed.

    1. I totally agree that “liberating” reconciliation from its role as a pre-communion hoop might also lead to much deeper catechesis about sin and penance for all ages.

  6. Just a couple of thoughts: first, Kim, it was age five for me, in the car, and after church. I’ll never forget asking my mother, “What did he mean?” “What did who mean?” she asked. “What did the priest mean when he said ‘this is my body’?” I don’t remember the answer she gave then, but I knew my vocation from that moment on.

    Second, just as a foil to the conversation here, in The Episcopal Church, we tie the sealing associated with Roman Catholic confirmation into baptism, and associate it both with the washing and with the postbaptismal chrismation. (Confirmation, then, administered in High School, has the character of a mature affirmation of baptism — sometimes we even speak of “sacrametnal confimration” in baptism and “catechetical confirmation” later.) So doing, we’re able to say that baptism is full initiation in water and the Holy Spirit; and since all the initiated have a baptismal right to receive communion, we don’t withhold it from infants and children. Whether or not a child receives, either at baptism or at any point thereafter, we leave to the discernment of the parents, and provide the support and education they need in deciding when their children should begin receiving.

    As many parents do decide to defer communion until around age six or seven, most parishes do make the Eucharist the focus of second grade religious education, and provide a suitable celebration to mark both the first communion of some, and a greater understanding of communion for others — without drawing that line too sharply (so nobody on either side feels like they’ve been or are being left out.)

  7. Is it too simplistic to ask why, if the Orthodox can administer Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist (under the form of wine!) in the same celebration to babes-in-arms, after which the whole of the person’s remaining life is one great mystagogia, we can’t also do the same?

    1. I don’t think that’s simplistic at all!

      I received First Communion in 1st grade, because I turned 7 then; the other half of our class received First Communion in 2nd grade because they had turned 7 after the cut-off date.

      We had first confession before First Communion; then there was a period where we had First Communion before the first confession…now we’re back to the other way.

      We had Confirmation in 7th and 8th grades (the bishop came every other year); now confirmation is reserved to that busiest and most complicated of all time, junior year in high school; somehow we ask kids to make the “big decision” when they’re also running ragged & sleep deprived from classes that start far too early in the morning for teenaged body, jobs, college applications, sports, extracurricular activities…

      We certainly make these sacraments seem quite arbitrary with the constant changes.

  8. Our diocese is currently preparing to reorder the sacraments with children. I welcome this, not for any aetiology or theological reason, but because in so many parts of the UK First Communion has become a sham. For many children it has become a Rite of Farewell: from that day, we won’t see 80% of them ever again!

    1. We too were studying this, but the Bishop decided it wasn’t time. I hope some day. We learned the biggest obstacle for us were our catechists. They were vehemently opposed so we figure we need to start catechizing them first.

      1. The biggest problem is catechising the parents. Ours is one of those parts of the world where people (mostly not church-goers) book baptism AFTER they’ve booked the hall for the party. The same is true of Communion – it’s just a big party with the women of the family looking as if they’re just on their way to a nightclub – one year we had a row of women in hair curlers: Well, they were going to the party afterwards! If the re-ordering goes ahead, it could mean the children are slightly older, will already have experienced confirmation, and perhaps the vastness of the dress and amount spent on the party will matter less. But I’m discussing social custom while all you cleverer types are talking theology and education!

  9. I love this story! It reminds me of Jesus saying to let the children come to him. Thomas is too insightful for his own good. 🙂 There is something so beautiful about Catholic communion to me. I think Thomas summed it up.

  10. I donn’t understand the need to change the order and age of first communion. Confession followed by First Communion at the age of reason (age 7). If a parent feels that the child is ready for this Sacrament earlier they can appeal to their priest and if he agrees then the child may participate. And if he does not agree, this must be accepted with charity. As has been stated, the child must have sufficient knowledge but also careful preparation so that they know the Eucharist is not common food and they recieve reverently with faith and devotion. (can 913) The next canon states that in addition to this the person must have made a sacramental confession. This was a big problem in my former parish where they offered the Sacrament of pennance in fourth grade after first communion in second grade. Confession can be a wonderful teaching moment for children and does not prevent good catechesis in the follwing years up to and after confirmation. How about a little obedience to what is?

  11. When I was a child in the 1950s, I was bored with the Latin low Masses, and catechism, we had no parish school. One parish summer school a seminarian taught some of us boys how to sing Gregorian chant. Wow! It seemed like rocket science; (I was also interested in astronomy). I was recruited by my best friend to be an altar boy. After we had tired playing Mass, I decided there must be something that one can do to pray worthily (i.e. ritualistically) without being a priest. I began to compose ceremonies for my home altar, unknowingly major elements of these were from the Divine Office (Magnificat, Te Deum) found in various prayer books. One day I found the Short Breviary and decided I did not have to reinvent the wheel.
    It’s not only about teaching, and understanding. We need to reposition the Holy Spirit at the center of liturgy and faith formation. In retrospect at least, I can see the Holy Spirit entering into my conscious life as discernment even in the boredom of the Latin Low Mass.

  12. I’ve long wondered why we have to understand that the Eucharist isn’t common food, but we don’t have to understand that Baptism isn’t common water. I’m also amazed that your Thomas believes that what the priest has in his hand is actually BREAD. (Unless your parish is using the real baked stuff.)

    1. But the waters of baptism are not substantially different from other waters. Ideally, baptismal water is blessed and all, but in the end, it is water in accidents and substance.

  13. The baptismal water is blessed “and all” (does that mean filled with the power of the Holy Spirit?) – so it is NOT common water. If I were to do a survey of post-age-of-reason folks in the pews at my parish about the Aristotelian categories of accident and substance, I’d guess that most of them would score as well as three-year-old Thomas.

    1. I didn’t say baptismal water is common water, I just said that it does not undergo a change in substance the way the bread and wine used for the Eucharist do.

      I’m not concerned that a three-year-old thinks the Eucharist is “special bread” or that “God is in the bread”. That level of comprehension is sufficient for someone his age. But a higher level is necessary for someone who is an EMHC. I’m not saying they need to have taken a course in Aristotelian metaphysics (or whatever it’s called), but they should know what the Church means when she says that the bread and wine are substantially changed into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ.

      A decent starting place would be Paul VI’s “Credo of the People of God”, followed by his “Mysterium Fidei” (written during the Second Vatican Council, no less).

  14. My 8yo daughter just received First Communion on Saturday. Her PSR program is doing a fine job in forming kids in the faith, both head and heart. Over the summer I’ll be building on what she has learned so far–using Kevin Irwin’s Models of the Eucharist. Both of my girls have a strong natural interest in the faith. Teaching liturgy & sacraments to my kids has been by far the most rewarding use of my master’s degree.

  15. Happily, I have been associated with Eastern Rite Catholics who fully initiate their infants through Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist. The ones I know are committed to their faith and continue their child’s formation in the faith. But in terms of the culture of the Latin Rite, especially today, I fear that we would have a tremendous number of parents who after having their infant baptized, confirmed and given Holy Communion, would not continue with Catholic formation. We have the problem today with those who wait for First Communion before placing them in a catechetical program and then wait again for confirmation classes then seem to think this is a “graduation event.” I appreciate the original order and if we went the route of the Eastern Rite, I do fear we would have a smaller Church, but maybe more dedicated? There’s something about the dragnet of spreading it out and keeping people coming for the subsequent sacraments that appeals to me too and the Church of the dragnet sorted out later by God.

  16. The mechanics of infant communion have always been messy. In the eighth century, the church demanded that infants fast from the breast. How well did that go over, I wonder? The orthodox give communion dipped in consecrated wine on a spoon; how many parents in our hyper-germ-conscious Catholic churches would accept this today? We don’t use a spoon at all; if implemented for infants would it be used for everybody? Gulp. Understood or not understood, one wants communion to be swallowed and not spit up or spit out. I decline to believe that people who are concerned about this are merely nit picking.

    This having been said, I’m all in favor of it. The work of Sofia Cavalletti and the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd are convincing (although she doesn’t advocate a change in the practice of communion as far as I know). The spiritual life of young children is rich; their relationship with God is something adults ought to serve and not to hinder.

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