For many Christians, the Eucharist (or Communion) is one of the three rites of initiation which incorporate an individual into the body of Christ–that is, membership in the Christian church (Matthew 26:26–28). The others are baptism and confirmation. The Eucharist, which means "thanksgiving," is the recalling of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus (paschal mysteries) that guarantees eternal life for faithful disciples. Eucharist was considered to be the culmination of the initiation rite–the most important sacrament after baptism. For Roman Catholics, it is the source and summit of the faith. A few Christian denominations maintain a belief in the "real presence" of Christ in the Eucharist, including Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Lutherans. Most Protestants, however, reject the doctrine of real presence and maintain a belief in a spiritual or symbolic presence or simply a memorial. Roman Catholics regard the First Holy Communion of children as a rite of passage that marks the attainment of reason or discretion.
The Council of Trent's 1563 conception of the Eucharist evolved from the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, by which both boys and girls who had reached the age of discretion (seven) were required to confess their sins and to receive the Eucharist annually. It is assumed that before Trent both baptism and confirmation preceded the reception of the Eucharist. Children who had not attained the age of discretion could not receive the sacrament of the Eucharist validly because they did not understand its purpose and could not give assent to it. Thus the Western church in the High Middle Ages viewed young children under the age of discretion as catechumens, individuals who were intermediate between infants and adults. They were free from original sin but stained by concupiscence. Though infants were soldiers of Christ, they were not permitted to receive the Eucharist. The Council of Trent reinforced the Lateran decree and rejected the efficacy of infant communion. Since baptism protected the child from accountability, there was no reason to administer communion to infants.
Due to the ambiguity of language in the decrees of Trent, the Catholic Church has offered latitude in the age at which children should receive the sacrament of the Eucharist. In theory children could receive communion as early as the age of seven, but in the nineteenth century it was delayed frequently until a child was ten or twelve. The point to be made here, however, is that the Catholic Church, unlike most Protestant churches, has promoted the reception of the Eucharist before a child reaches puberty. The Eucharist introduced the child to public life within the Church and the assumption of adult responsibilities, but it had nothing to do with the child's physical maturity.
Martin Luther developed a concept of the sacrament which was peculiar to himself and distinct from the mainstream of later Protestant theology. In addition to retaining the sacramental nature of the Eucharist, he taught that the purpose of the sacrament was to nourish the faith of the recipient and that its validity did not depend on the character of either the recipient or the minister. Moreover, Luther restricted the reception of the sacrament of the Eucharist to adolescents who had been instructed in the truths of Christianity. He required that all children should study the meaning and obligations of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer, and that they assume a catechumen status until they understood exactly what was expected of them. Admission into the Christian community depended on physical maturity as well as intellectual readiness.
For most Protestant churches, spiritual maturity is equated with physical maturity. Their rites of confirmation and the Eucharist are in effect twin rites of puberty–a public acknowledgement that the physically mature Christian is also spiritually mature and morally responsible.
See also: Catholicism; Protestant Reformation .
DeMolen, Richard L. 1975. "Childhood and the Sacraments in the Sixteenth Century." Archiv fuer Reformationsgeschichte 66: 49–71.
Patterson, Lloyd G. 1990. "Eucharist." In The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, ed. Peter E. Fink. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.
Power, David N. 1980. Gifts That Differ: Lay Ministries Established and Unestablished. New York: Pueblo Publishing.
Wainwright, Geoffrey. 2001. "Eucharist." In The Encyclopedia of Christianity vol. 2, ed. Erwin Fahlbusch, et al. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans.
Richard L. DeMolen