Sunday, May 15, 2011


Clearly, the fact that maternity leave is over has impacted my ability to post on this blog.  Well, that, and the fact that I am assistant editor to the new blog.  (Check us out - 15 or so North American theologians comment on news, liturgy and other reading...)

But today in the communion line, I was definitely confronted with one of those issues that confound both the mom and the theologian in me.  As I was herding my children in the communion line, I looked down to discover that my three-year-old had her hands held together in the typical Eucharist-receiving gesture.  It was clear she wanted some - and equally clear, as the Eucharistic minister leaned down to say (I am quoting) "Hello there, little girl!" - that she was not going to get anything in the communion line.

That makes my heart hurt.  That is not to say that my experience here should govern what we do theologically - while I think that experience has some kind of place in theological questions, I get concerned when experience becomes a driving force for theological thinking.  That said, in this particular case of Eucharistic communion, I don't really get why, in the Roman Rite, children younger than seven can't receive.  I actually tend to "get" arguments about closed communion because of theological disagreements between Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox much more than I get refusing communion to young children.

I know that one of the standard arguments is the "Age of Reason."  Numerous people have made jokes about how strange it seems to proclaim an "age of reason" for Eucharistic communion when one of the things we believe about the Eucharist is that it is mysterious - that the Paschal Mystery itself is bound up in our theology of the Eucharist.  Mystery, here, means something that is not plumbable by human rational standards, though of course we can think about the Eucharist (and we do).  But it isn't clear, ultimately, what an "age of reason" is supposed to confer in this case.

Perhaps we could say it is analogous to driving cars or drinking - both of these have age requirements for our children because we know that certain levels of mechanical skill, experience, practical wisdom, and  mental acuity are required, in varying degrees, for these activities.  But the Eucharist, to me, seems much more analogous to a fine dining experience than to driving cars.  Yes, we want to take care with the fine china and the tablecloth - and there are specific gestures and rituals that go along with fine dining that we wouldn't encounter in the drive-thru.  And maybe that IS the working analogy here, for I know that many families do not use their fine china with their younger children.  Babysitters are called for when some people invite others over for fancy dinner parties; young children are excluded.

That is arbitrary, though.  It is not a given that young children cannot learn to use fine china and cannot care for special table linens. Paul says not to take the Eucharist unworthily - can children equally be taught to respect the Eucharistic table without necessarily understanding it (which is a lifelong process in any case).  I think here of the work I do in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS)- a Montessori-based religious ed program for kids from ages 3 to 12.  In the early years, it is clear that everything the children learn is moving toward Eucharist though it may not seem so at first.

An entering three year old in my Atrium (the name for CGS classroom space) will spend the first few weeks doing what we call "practical life" - lessons in rolling and unrolling mats, walking slowly and carefully, and pouring - first pouring dry beans from one pitcher to another; then pouring liquid.  If they spill, they learn to sweep up or sponge up the mess.  What they are learning is how to control their bodies so they can do the things they want to do (just as in potty training, around the same age) - but more than that, they are helping to create an environment with other children that allows for prayer.

After those first few weeks, then the children learn about the altar table and see, touch and name the objects that are on an altar table - like the chalice and the paten.  A bit later in the year (early in Lent in my Atrium) my three year olds will begin learning some of the mass gestures, with the hope that they become more engaged with the mass they attend.  One of these lessons is called "Preparation of the Chalice".  Here, their pouring exercises come in handy, for now they are pouring wine and just a tiny little bit of water into a chalice.  (When they are four or maybe five, they'll continue to meditate on this mass gesture by learning the words the priest says and thinking about what these mean.) 

This past year, I asked a group of children about the chalice.  "Why is there so much wine but only a little tiny bit of water in the chalice?"  Hmmmm, the children thought.  A couple of them knew that the wine would become Jesus' blood, so they talked about the wine being God.  Ah, I said.  "But what about the water?"  "Maybe the water is us," a shy girl said.  "Yeah, and maybe there's more wine because God is THIS big [his arms stretched as far as they could go] but we're only this big," shouted a boy. 

Indeed.  And they were three and four years old.  (Now I know that some theologians among my readers will take issue with the idea of the bigness of God, as though God could be adequately described in human terms - but I hope you'll at least give my preschoolers the benefit of the doubt - after all, Augustine, for a while, spent time thinking about God as a big man, and he was far older than these kids....)

So isn't some kind of "age of reason" rather arbitrary? 

But more than that, if we believe that the sacrament is about God's grace - and is more about God than us - then it isn't clear to me that the Eucharist requires some kind of "reasoning" about it, nor a minimum age. 

Philosophy PhD Husband and I have thought about this before.  At one time, we considered attending a Byzantine Rite Catholic Mass, which does commune anyone who is baptized, including babies.  For a variety of reasons we have not done that - but seeing my daughter's open hands at mass today made me want to think about it all again.


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  2. Ironically, I just had a conversation with my pastor about this. He's dual rite Byzantine/Roman and he was relating how excited infants get about receiving communion. He said as they're approaching in the communion line they open their mouths and start wiggling their tongues (most likely in anticipation of the wine, rather than the wafer, since it's intinction). He was saying how beautiful he thinks it is for a child of that age to consume nothing but mother's milk and the Eucharist.

    He was saying that he thinks theologically it just makes so much more sense to receive the sacraments of initiation all at one go (for cradle Catholics, infancy) - - the conversation began by my inquiring about the confirmation age in our diocese. Then he was telling me how in the Byzantine rite the kids have their first "solemn" communion after the first time they receive the sacrament of penance. Not that they were communicating unworthily prior to that, but it shows that the acknowledgement of their sin and desire to be absolved prior to receiving the Eucharist indicates some kind of "age of reason" or whatever you would like to call it. At this first solemn communion they dress in white (like the Roman first communion).

    Anyway, I know that some bishops will give permission for early communication if a child shows a profound desire. I would be interested in it for our eldest except that her Mass behavior generally doesn't indicate the kind of respect for the Eucharist that we'd like to see in association with communication. Then again, perhaps if she had been receiving since her infancy, she would feel more personally invested in the Mass.

  3. I think your pastor is spot on - showcasing exactly why we had the idea at one time of moving East.

    The way they recognize first reconciliation is neat - that DOES require an amount of reasoning that three year olds are not able to do, I think.