At least a few times a year I attend an Eastern Catholic liturgy, and many times I will try to encourage friends to attend with me to that they can experience this beautiful liturgy of the Church. The first time someone attends I usually try to prepare them by explaining some of the aspects of the Eastern Liturgy that differ from the Western Mass. I usually am sure to mention the following:
- Everything is sung.
- There is no kneeling, and you stand for almost the entire liturgy.
- There is a lot, I mean a lot, of incense used.
- There are many, many icons.
- The priest faces the same direction as the people during the Eucharistic prayers.
- Communion is received on the tongue.
- The bread used for communion is leavened, not unleavened.
- Baptized infants can receive communion.
It is that last one that usually gives people pause. After all, the other practices are clearly outward signs and are not fundamental to our faith. But infants receiving communion? Don’t you have to reach the “age of reason” to be able to received our Lord in the Eucharist? Isn’t this somehow disrespectful of this great Sacrament?
The reality is that infant communion (also called “paedocommunion”) has always been the practice of the Church in the East, and was also the practice of the Church in the West until the 1200′s. Fellow blogger Orthocath gives a useful overview of the practice in this post, quoting Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. (one of the foremost scholars on Eastern Christianity in the world today):
“The practice [of communing infants] began to be called into question in the 12th century not because of any argument about the need to have attained the “age of reason” (aetus discretionis) to communicate. Rather, the fear of profanation of the Host if the child could not swallow it led to giving the Precious Blood only. And then the forbidding of the chalice to the laity in the West led automatically to the disappearance of infant Communion, too. This was not the result of any pastoral or theological reasoning. When the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) ordered yearly confession and Communion for those who have reached the “age of reason” (annos discretionis), it was not affirming this age as a requirement for reception of the Eucharist.
“Nevertheless, the notion eventually took hold that Communion could not be received until the age of reason, even though infant Communion in the Latin rite continued in some parts of the West until the 16th century. Though the Fathers of Trent (Session XXI,4) denied the necessity of infant Communion, they refused to agree with those who said it was useless and inefficacious — realizing undoubtedly that the exact same arguments used against infant Communion could also be used against infant baptism, because for over ten centuries in the West, the same theology was used to justify both! For the Byzantine rite, on December 23, 1534, Paul III explicitly confirmed the Italo-Albanian custom of administering Communion to infants….So the plain facts of history show that for 1200 years the universal practice of the entire Church of East and West was to communicate infants. Hence, to advance doctrinal arguments against infant Communion is to assert that the sacramental teaching and practice of the Roman Church was in error for 1200 years. Infant Communion was not only permitted in the Roman Church, at one time the supreme magisterium taught that it was necessary for salvation. In the Latin Church the practice was not suppressed by any doctrinal or pastoral decision, but simply died out. Only later, in the 13th century, was the ‘age of reason’ theory advanced to support the innovation of baptizing infants without also giving them Communion. So the “age of reason” requirement for Communion is a medieval Western pastoral innovation, not a doctrinal argument. And the true ancient tradition of the whole Catholic Church is to give Communion to infants. Present Latin usage is a medieval innovation.” (Emphasis added) (Text from here.)
I admit that I am supportive of the idea of returning the practice of infant communion to the Western Church, although I do think there can be solid pastoral reasons for refraining until the age of reason is reached. The grace that is received from the sacrament – grace that is not due to our ability to understand it (for who can really understand it?) and therefore unrelated to our use of reason – is needed from the earliest ages. I personally would love it if my own 6-month-old daughter was allowed to participate at the Lord’s Table with the rest of the baptized.