First Communion

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By the fourth century infants and adults generally celebrated baptism, anointing, and Communion in the same ceremony, as is maintained today in many Eastern Rite churches. In the course of time, confirmation became an independent rite, reserved to the bishop. Infant baptism, quam primum, gradually became a universal practice. Infants continued to receive communion but the practice varied and eucharist began to be separated from baptism, severing the unity of the sacraments of initiation. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 (c. 21) stated that communion was not obligatory until one reached the "age of reason," (about the age of seven), the age in which children are supposed to be capable of distinguishing right from wrong and therefore responsible for their conduct. Theologians and canonists of the time differed in their interpretation of this canon but the discussion resulted in the age of reason as important criteria for determining the obligation of receiving the sacraments. The Council of Trent confirmed the Decree of the Lateran Council but did not condemn the ancient practice (Council of Trent, Sess. 21, chap. 4).

By the High Middle Ages, denying Communion to infants was no longer a question. The focus on the transcendence of the Eucharist and the fear of receiving an unworthy communion led to such strict requirements for reception of communion that adults themselves only rarely received the sacrament. The Jansenist movement in the 17th and 18th centuries demanded a rigorous preparation comprised of a precise recital of the catechism, rigorous penitential practices to insure a worthy communion and the delay of first communion until adolescence. This regimen made the Holy Eucharist a reward for virtue and not the "remedy by which we are freed from our daily faults and preserved from serious sin" (Council of Trent, Sess. 13, chap. 2).

The decree of St. pius x Quam Singulari (Aug. 8,1910), changed the age for First Communion from adolescence to about seven years of age in the Latin Rite. Pius X determined three criteria for reception of first communion: the child can distinguish between good and evil, knows the difference between ordinary bread and eucharistic bread and is able to receive communion with devotion "becoming his years." The change in age met with negative reaction in many parts of the Catholic world. Concerns were raised about the capability of younger children to understand the doctrinal concepts and whether the children would continue catechism classes once they had received their first communion.

The French clergy as well as other episcopates dealt with these issues by distinguishing between a "private communion" celebrated within the family and a "solemn Communion" that took place during adolescence and was preceded by an extensive catechesis and thorough knowledge of the catechism as requirement for reception of communion. First Communion, since the 17th century, had already taken on a life of its own, becoming a public ritual, a solemn ceremony undertaken by all the members of a same age group at the same time, usually adolescents. In many countries, First Communion also symbolized the passage from childhood into youth. The ceremony of solemn communion included rituals such as the renewal of baptismal promises, the lighting of candles and a consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The youth usually wore white clothing or armbands as a symbol of the innocence of childhood. White also symbolized that the child be as pure and sinless as possible for the reception of a worthy communion. Children were given prayer books, rosaries and holy cards as well as a certificate of First Holy Communion. Gradually, the Solemn Communion ceremony of adolescents, with almost no change, became the First Communion celebration for younger children.

The Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity, the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests of Vatican II, the Order of Christian Initiation of Adults, the Code of Canon Law (1983), and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) restored the early church understanding of the unity of baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist as sacraments of initiation. The Order of Christian Initiation of Adults mandates their reception in one ceremony for unbaptized adults and children of catechetical age. There is no uniform sequence of reception of the sacraments of initiation for those baptized in infancy. The practice in the United States and many other countries admits of wide variations in age and sequence of reception. The First Communion rite, since it is not a universal ritual, has therefore never been revised and consequently never explicitly linked to baptism and confirmation. In many countries, the expectation that confession precede the first communion of children gives First Communion a closer relationship to penance than to baptism or confirmation. The Instruction on the Worship of the Eucharist (May 25, 1967) 14, encourages a liturgical catechesis based on the principal rites and prayers of the Mass (particularly the eucharistic prayer) and emphasizes the relationship of the Mass to daily life. The instruction states that these principles should be noted particularly with regard to First Communion so that it will be seen as the full incorporation into the Body of Christ. The primary focus of First Communion preparation is to enable the children, as full members of Christ's Body, to take part actively with the people of God in the eucharist, share in the Lord's table and in the community of their brothers and sisters (DMC, 12). The ecclesial significance of First Communion at the present time is that it gives the child a sense of belonging and a new relationship with the Church.

Bibliography: l. andrieux, La Premiere Communion (Paris 1911). c. casper, g. lukken, and g. rouwhorst, eds., Bread of Heaven: Customs and Practices Surrounding Holy Communion. Essays in the History of Liturgy and Culture (Kampen, Netherlands 1995). j. delumeau, ed., La Premiere Communion: Quatre siecles d'histoire (Paris 1987). p. turner, Ages of Initiation: The First Two Christian Millennia (Collegeville, Minn. 2000).

[c. dooley]

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First Communion

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