It’s time

Contemplative baby.
Hildegard right after her baptism, fascinated with the stained glass windows of the Abbey Church.


Anna Nussbaum Keating suggests that it’s time we reconsider the Latin Catholic tradition of withholding communion until age 7. I couldn’t agree more. Here are three little historical facts about “age seven communion” you might not know:

1. The Roman Catholic Church communed infants for over a thousand years. Gradually the laity stopped receiving communion except in rare cases or in imminent danger of death. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century we restored regular communion to the laity — except for children under seven, who are still, somewhat oddly, governed by the “only in danger of death” custom.

2. Before 1910, first communion happened between age 12 and 20, right after confirmation. Pope Pius X’s Quam singulari reduced the age of first communion to 7, separating it from confirmation. This change was codified for the first time in the 1917 canon law.

3. St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11 have sometimes been used to argue that communicants must be able to articulate clearly their faith in real presence: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” However, from the context, he clearly meant that those who divide the Body of Christ, the Church, especially by favoring the rich over the poor, “eat and drink judgment.” Moreover, this was the meaning the early Church interpreters gave the statement as well, since infants receiving communion was normal for them. The cognitive interpretation (“without understanding what the body is”) is a much later development.


  1. I have had many, many conversations about this topic, about sacraments of initiation and age in general. There is so much confusion, not enough education, and that makes for some real challenges.

    Thanks for posting this, which I will share.

  2. I have run into situations where some priests have used the same reasoning for not giving children under seven for withholding communion to developmentally disabled teens and adults. We I think over emphasize the cognitive and ignore other forms of understanding.

    The other issue is the order of the sacraments of initiation. In the eastern rites the priest confirms (chrismates) at baptism so Eucharist is also the culmination of infant initiation. The west has reserved confirmation to be administered by the bishop. Which may also have contributed to first Eucharist taking place between 12-20 years of age. The Keating article did not seem to grasp the sacramental order as being baptism, confirmation then Eucharist. She because of our inconsistent practice assumes the order is baptism, Eucharist and then confirmation. Because most people experience confirmation as a type of Catholic Bar Mitzvah. It’s a problem that won’t be resolved unless there are either more bishops or priests are given the regular authority to confirm at baptism.

  3. The Keating article did not seem to grasp the sacramental order as being baptism, confirmation then Eucharist. She because of our inconsistent practice assumes the order is baptism, Eucharist and then confirmation. Because most people experience confirmation as a type of Catholic Bar Mitzvah. It’s a problem that won’t be resolved unless there are either more bishops or priests are given the regular authority to confirm at baptism.

  4. Couldn’t agree more. Commune children at baptism, then let the parents decide along with the children, when and how often it is appropriate that they subsequently receive. Penance would then be uncoupled from reception of first communion and be celebrated at an age where the children understand what it is they are confessing. And while we are at it, how about Chrismation/confirmation at baptism as well? Restore the sacraments of initiation to initiation. Then the RCIA would truly be about Initiation rather than a make up class for lapsed or uncatechized Catholics, Christian formation could then become an ongoing process throughout life, and confirmation would cease being a kid’s graduation ceremony from church.
    Since these changes are already long established parts of the Catholic tradition (albeit not Roman Catholic) it should not be unthinkable.

  5. A couple of thoughts: (1) If the Roman/Latin Rite decided to go back to giving the Initiation Rites together to ‘babes in arms’ it would correctly put the “Catechetical Industrial Complex” out of business. What would hopefully then replace this situation would be a much greater effort at ‘mystagogy’ and ‘understanding the Faith’ — so that the Christian Life would not be ‘quantitative’ (the Sacramental preparations) but rather ‘qualitative’ — a real growing up and maturing in the Christian Life, a lifetime process. It would stop the truly unTraditional ‘idea of Graduation’ connected with youth instruction and Confirmation. (2) Saint Pius X when he insisted on ‘early Communion’ said ‘in the 7th year’ (which for an Italian speaker means after the 6th Birthday). And that was indicated as the ‘upper limit’ before giving the Eucharist to a child (so given proper understanding, etc, it could/would normally be given younger). All this was ‘rather revolutionary’ at the time (and still now is a serious ‘ressourcement’) — but if it were taken seriously, and Communion were understood as ‘the normal Divine food for the normal Christian life’ — a liturgical spirituality would be common and meaningful — not only for the children but for everyone.

  6. Kimberly, good luck with that…

    I’m sympathetic, and I hate to be a wet blanket, but this idea has not only the “catechetical establishment” to oppose it. It is also opposed by many of our bishops and great numbers of the faithful who are traditioning their children into receiving the “childhood sacraments” as markers of Catholic upbringing and in the case of confirmation, the carrot and the stick for adolescents to stay in religious ed.

    Some bishops who were forward thinking 20-30 years ago took the modest step of restoring the order so that Eucharist would be the crown of Christian initiation, thus confirmation and eucharist celebrated together at about age 7. In at least one of these dioceses, the policy reverted because the people insisted on it, despite good success.

    Then I have also learned of dioceses that lowered the age to avoid “graduation” mentality who have gotten new bishops whose will it is to raise the age. Regardless. They just come in and want to do it. The bishops are the biggest obstacle to completing initiation for infants or young children. Newer ones have tended to favor even later ages, up to 16.

    The best hope for this initiative is to cultivate the RCIA. It’s only when the RCIA flourishes that this question even gets a hearing.

  7. I agree with Philip Sandstrom wholeheartedly, while recognizing the political realities Rita Ferrone just noted. My experience with many bishops is that they are blissfully ignorant of sacramental-liturgical theology and so blissfully do what they want about these fundamental sacraments, on the assumption, of course, that the chief liturgist of the diocese may and can do what he wants.

  8. I could not agree more with Rita’s comments. I have met bishops who frankly acknowledge that a huge portion of their episcopal identity is dependent on confirming teenagers. They argue that it’s the only way they can get to know the people of the diocese. But it seems that if they want to know their people, they might consider getting in their cars and spending a weekend in each parish. A handful of bishops do this, and it it is a powerful experience for both bishops and their people.

  9. the current practice of Confirmation in the western church both historically and practically makes no sense as it is.As mentioned above, the Initation sacraments are baptism/crismation/eucharist…all given at the same time. Confirmation, bby itself, has always been ‘ a sacrament without a theology”. We have restored this for RCIA and it has worked out well. It’s time to restore it for everyone. Our Eastern Church brothers & sisters would concur!

  10. I think it all boils down to the cult of Eucharistic Adoration that had built up by the 19th century and the fear that anyone too young or mentally undeveloped/challenged might unintentionally cause the appearance of sacrilege by spitting communion out, dropping it, etc. Remember that before Vatican II it was argued that only priestly hands that had been anointed at ordination should even touch consecrated hosts! That may not have been that case in the early Church, but I think before Vatican II many Catholics thought that the Church had slowly come to the realization over centuries of just how reverently the Sanctified elements had to be treated. I personally am all for confirmation and Eucharist right after baptism, regardless of age.

    1. @Pierre Font – comment #12:

      Yes, and considerably earlier than the 19th century in fact. I personally rejoice that we are now back in an age where we can follow the words of the master, “You, take this and eat it”, rather than “Don’t you dare touch it: it will be placed on your tongue and then you can let it dissolve”. Whenever I watch young children who approach Communion and receive in the hand with great reverence and awe, I am moved almost to tears and wish I could rediscover in myself something of their innocence and their wide-eyed sense that something of immense value is going on here.

  11. Having been in this conversation with @Kimberly Belcher and others in other online forums recently, there are arguments to be made on either side. I don’t really have any answers, but I am left feeling frustrated over catechesis that is akin to a child getting a passport, and when they get enough stamps they can leave… I detest that I continue to sound like such a crank! Yet, I do worry about this.

    Maybe I should write a post about my challenges with baptism questions at the parish; it is the one area in which I, despite my focus on hospitality and welcome, where I end up offending the most people. They call about baptism, and when it is not at all to their liking about the process. (Usually about scheduling, often about godparent requirements, since so many want non-Catholic, and often non-Christian godparents), preparation and scheduling. It is often my most depressing job duty. And it should be most joyful. This is followed by phone calls from parents that come in March or April, wanting to have their child receive first communion with their friends in May, despite no preparation. Before I veer any further off topic, I will close here, but it is somewhat related, isn’t it?

  12. There is nothing more challenging to the status quo than the fact that it is not working. And yet we persist. We can argue all we want about what is “traditional” and “right” and “appropriate”. But the cold fact is that our current practice of separating the sacraments and holding them out as carrots for the “good Catholics” who jump through our hoops has not given us generation upon generation of committed Catholics. The RCIA practice has been much more successful in this regard:

    And yet I watch pastor after pastor (it’s not just bishops who want to do what they want to do, regardless of what came before!), work to dismantle well done initiation processes in favor of catechetical programs where they can be sure those about to be initiated can answer enough questions on a test to prove they “know their faith.” It’s important that they get it all before initiation because practically nothing is offered or expected after initiation.

    And here’s the thing about well done RCIA processes – they are different for different people with different needs. I know – too messy and too much room for variability. Heaven forbid one parish do it one way and the neighboring parish another. But really, treating every kid as “ready” because of an age, or saying they aren’t because of an age, does not seem to have helped our “cradle Catholics” feel “somewhat” or “strongly” that they are proud to be Catholic.

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