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Infant Communion (also Paedocommunion) refers to the practice of giving the Eucharist, often in the form of consecrated wine, to infants and children. This practice is standard in the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Eastern Catholic Churches; here, communion is given at the Divine Liturgy to all baptized and chrismated church members regardless of age. Infant communion is less common in most other Christian denominations, including the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church.
Support for infant communion is drawn from several gospel verses, including Matthew 19:14 and Mark 10:14. Among the Church Fathers, Cyprian, Augustine, and Leo the Great explicitly favored infant communion.
In the Early Church, everyone who attended the full Mass was expected to receive communion; catechumens and penitents were not present for the Consecration. The Early Church permitted and encouraged parents to present their children to receive communion. The Apostolic Constitutions (fourth century) instruct that children are to receive communion after the various orders of clergy and consecrated laity and before the general congregation.
Over time, concerns grew over danger of spillage from the chalice when it was offered to the entire congregation; there were also practical concerns about consecrating the right amount of wine. It eventually became common in the Western Church for only priests and some monks and nuns to receive communion from the chalice. The teaching of the Church was that Christ was present, whole and entire, under the form of bread or wine. Others maintain that the restriction of the chalice to the clergy and religious was motivated by scrupulosity rather than practical concerns . Ultimately, the elimination of reception under both species made infant communion impractical and it had declined in the West by the time of the Great Schism. This practice has since fallen into disfavor in the Roman Catholic Church, especially with the growing emphasis on not giving the sacraments (other than baptism) to those not yet able to understand them (see age of reason).
Meanwhile, in the Eastern Churches, the faithful continued to receive communion under both species. With no practical difficulties or theological qualms with giving communion to infants and children, this practice continues in the Eastern Orthodox Church to this day.
The practice of allowing infants and children to receive communion has fallen into disfavor in the Latin-Rite of the Catholic Church. Latin-Rite Catholics generally refrain from infant communion and instead have a special ceremony when the child receives his or her First Communion, usually around the age of seven or eight years old. This is in accordance with the Code of Canon Law (followed in the Roman Rite), which states:
- The administration of the Most Holy Eucharist to children requires that they have sufficient knowledge and careful preparation so that they understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity and are able to receive the body of Christ with faith and devotion. (Canon 913)
The reason given for the non-necessity of infant communion was articulated by the Council of Trent:
- "The same holy council teaches that little children who have not attained the use of reason are not by any necessity bound to the sacramental communion of the Eucharist; for having been regenerated by the laver of baptism and thereby incorporated with Christ, they cannot at that age lose the grace of the sons of God already acquired. Antiquity is not therefore to be condemned, however, if in some places it at one time observed that custom. For just as those most holy Fathers had acceptable ground for what they did under the circumstances, so it is certainly to be accepted without controversy that they regarded it as not necessary to salvation." (Council of Trent, Sess. XXI, Chapter iv)
Thus, the Council declared:
- "If anyone says that communion of the Eucharist is necessary for little children before they have attained the years of discretion,let him be anathema." (Council of Trent, Sess. XXI, can. iv)
Formerly, the Eastern Churches in full communion with the Roman Pope were generally required to conform to Western Church practice, in violation of the far more ancient practice of the Eastern Churches. However, the Second Vatican Council's decree Orientalium Ecclesiarum, although not specifically addressing infant communion, states that the Council "confirms and approves the ancient discipline of the sacraments existing in the Oriental Churches, as also the ritual practices connected with their celebration and administration and ardently desires that this should be re-established if circumstances warrant it" (Section 12).
This has led some of these Churches to restore the ancient practice of permitting infant communion.
The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (followed by the Eastern Catholic Churches) permits infant communion: "With respect to the participation of infants in the Divine Eucharist after baptism and chrismation with holy myron, the prescriptions of the liturgical books of each Church sui iuris are to be observed with the suitable due precautions." (Canon 710)
For details on infant communion in the Eastern Catholic Churches, see the next section on the Eastern Orthodoxy.
In the Orthodox Church, any person of any age receives communion as soon as possible after baptism and chrismation, usually at the next Divine Liturgy. Infants and children are not usually required to fast or go to confession before communion until they are old enough to be aware of their sins, usually eight to nine years old. (NOTE: Although it is good for one to go to Confession prior to receiving Holy Communion, the Canonical necessity to confess prior to receiving Holy Communion, is historically absent).
In the Orthodox practice, the consecrated bread and wine are placed together in the chalice, and the priest administers communion with a small spoon. Infants typically receive a small amount of consecrated Blood of Christ (wine) which mingles with the Body (bread) of Christ; older children receive the consecrated Body of Christ (bread) as well. There is no theological (or epistemological) reason for withholding the bread from infants, merely the practical concern of not giving solid food to those not ready for it.
Practice varies widely throughout the Anglican Communion. Open communion is practiced in some churches. The Church of England at the moment requires that people be 'ready and desirous' of confirmation before receiving communion. However, there have been experiments with communion before confirmation in some diocese. The Church of England also allows baptised regular communicants from other Trinitarian churches to receive communion when visiting a CofE church. This permission presumably extends to infants in the practice of receiving in their own church.
Infant communion is not the norm in the Lutheran Church. First Communion instruction is provided to baptized children generally between the ages of 6-8 and, after a relatively short period of catechetical instruction, the children are admitted to partake of the Eucharist. Infants brought to the Communion distribution by their parents are blessed by the pastor.
Many Mainline Protestants practice open communion, in which the bread and wine/juice is offered to the people without discrimination of age or denominational status. In these churches, while the very young often commune, it is unusual for infants to receive the sacrament.
Denominations which practice closed communion generally deny the sacrament to those not members of their congregation or denomination, regardless of age.
In churches where membership is often not permitted until the teenage years (for example, the Amish), infant communion is very rare.
In recent years, Eastern Orthodox writers in the west, especially the successive deans of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, have had considerable success in commending Eastern Orthodoxy to a western audience, and in arguing for the legitimacy of its practices from the standpoint of history, scripture, and tradition. Paedocommunion is one Eastern practice that has gained considerable attention in the West, including among some conservative Protestants.
Notable conservative Protestants in favor of the practice are Curtis Crenshaw, Reggie Kidd, Peter Leithart, Jeffrey Meyers, Robert S. Rayburn, R. C. Sproul, Jr., Gregg Strawbridge, Ray Sutton, Douglas Wilson, Rousas John Rushdoony, James B. Jordan, Gary North, Steve Wilkins and N. T. Wright.
The Federation of Reformed Churches practices paedocommunion in all its churches. The Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches is tolerant of paedocommunion. The Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Episcopal Church, a conservative Anglican denomination, also are tolerant of the practice, and many conservative Presbyterians favor paedocommunion as well.
- Quotations by Church Fathers
- Catholic Encyclopedia: Communion of Children
- Quam singulari
- Catholic Encyclopedia: Frequent Communion
- Catholic Encyclopedia: Communion under Both Kinds
- Code of Canon Law (Roman Rite), from the Vatican
- Code of Canons of the Oriental Churches (Eastern Catholic Churches), from the IntraText Digital Library
- Proposed Presbytery In thesi Statement on Paedo-communion
- PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) Report on Paedocommunion (1988)
- OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church) Report of the Committee on Paedocommunion (1987)
- Administration of the Sacraments - Statement issued by the Church of Scotland.
- List of Denominations allowing Infant Communion
- Orientalium Ecclesiarum, from the Vatican
- Strawbridge, Gregg. (ed.) The Case for Covenant Communion (2006) ISBN 0-9753914-3-7
- Lusk, Rich. "Paedofaith: A Primer on the Mystery of Infant Salvation" (2005) ISBN 0-9753914-2-9
- Armentrout, Don S.; Slocum, Robert Boak. (eds.) An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians (2005) ISBN 0-89869-211-3