Children today are maturing so quickly that it might be time to consider allowing them to receive their first Holy Communion even before their seventh birthdays, the head of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments has said.
“A child’s first Communion is like the beginning of a journey with Jesus, in communion with him: the beginning of a friendship destined to last and to grow for his entire life,” wrote Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera.
Today, he said, “children live immersed in a thousand difficulties, surrounded by a difficult environment that does not encourage them to be what God wants them to be”.
“Let us not deprive them of the gift of God,” the cardinal wrote in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.
The cardinal’s article marked the 100th anniversary of the decree of Pope Pius X, Quam Singulari Christus Amore (“How Special Christ’s Love”), which reversed the decades-old practice of delaying first Communion until a child was 10 or 12.
St Pius said delaying the reception of Communion until long after the child reaches “the age of reason”, generally accepted to be about seven years of age, was the result of the erroneous belief that “the most holy Eucharist is a reward rather than a remedy for human frailty”.
The late pope pointed out that the ancient tradition of the Church, still kept by many of the Eastern Catholic churches, was to give babies Communion immediately after their baptism. The practice died out in the West, largely because of concerns that the baby would spit out the consecrated bread and wine.
“This practice of preventing the faithful from receiving, on the plea of safeguarding the august sacrament, has been the cause of many evils. It happened that children in their innocence were forced away from the embrace of Christ and deprived of the food of their interior life,” Pope Pius wrote.
In his article, Cardinal Cañizares said that Pope Pius’s insistence on the careful preparation of children to receive first Communion still stands, but so does his concern that children have access to the grace that will help them be good and to mature into strong Christians.
“The encounter with Jesus is the strength we need in order to live with happiness and hope,” he wrote.
“We cannot, by delaying first Communion, deprive children – the soul and the spirit of children – of this grace,” he said.
The cardinal said he wanted to use the anniversary of St. Pius’ decree to remind pastors that children should receive first Communion when they have “the use of reason, which today seems to be even sooner” than age seven.
A recent trend of delaying Communion, he said, is not recommended, “on the contrary, it is even more necessary to anticipate.”
The sacrament “is the guarantee of their growth as children of God, generated by the sacraments of Christian initiation in the bosom of Holy Mother Church”, he said.