Receiving Communion at Age 6?

Horrible Little Girl on a Great Day, Age 6

There is a question being bandied about, thanks to A Cardinal’s Musings::

Children today are maturing so quickly and are exposed to so many different influences that it might be time to consider allowing them to prepare for and receive their first Communion even before their 7th birthdays, said the head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.

“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 Canizares 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 Aug. 8 in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.

Orthodox children
receive Holy Communion and Confirmation at baptism. Can’t speak to that, myself, but I CAN speak to the validity of a 6 year-old receiving Holy Communion, as I did, and as I have here and here. It was, as I say, a very great day:

I knelt at my seat, thanking and welcoming Jesus, as I’d been taught, and suddenly I was in the grip of something I had never felt before – an indescribable sweetness, an overwhelming sense of… what, exactly? I could not have then articulated the ringing sense, deep within myself, of “holy, holy, holy” like the peal of a bell. It vibrated up from my core, powerful enough to bring tears, and I did not hide them. I was not alone; beside me a pretty strawberry-blonde named Aileen also wept. Hearing her sniffles, I turned my head and we exchanged soggy smiles in perfect understanding. Something beautiful had happened, and everything leading up to it within the preceding hour – the music, the reverence, the bowed heads of our parents, the precision of the altar boys and the seriousness of the priests – had contributed to this singular moment, and had reinforced it, too.

Afterwards, still sobbing, I was led away from my classmates by Sr. Mary Alice, my second-grade teacher, who knelt before me and asked what was wrong.

“Sister, I want to be left back! You have to make me repeat the second grade!” I told her.

“But why, dear?” She asked.

“Because I want to do that again!” I wailed. “And I can only make first Holy Communion in the second grade!”

Over at Inside Catholic, Margaret Cabaniss writes:

It’s difficult to find that balance between making sure children are prepared to receive a sacrament and giving them the benefit of its graces even if they don’t fully understand it. (I always think of that retort to the person who argues that children “don’t understand” what is happening in the Eucharist: Do you?) The “age of reason” can vary dramatically from person to person; I know of a few five year olds who probably have a better grasp on the Eucharist right now than some of the 16-year-olds in my Confirmation class did. And our current system leaves little room for children to postpone or speed up the process, either, if their parents think it would be beneficial.

Is this just making the best of a tricky situation? Or are there other, better options here?

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Warren Jewell

    Perhaps, this highlights the need for parental catechesis – that the parents and child together make ‘First Communion’ a family learning and re-learning, leading to decision as well as celebratory affair? Then, like at Confirmation, sponsor standing by, one or both parents can stand by their child receiving First Communion as markedly securing the promise that there will be many more gratefully received times of our blessed and Holy Eucharist.

    And, that such could lead to pleading demand for more fundamental catechesis among adults deprived of it over the last decades would tickle many of us.

  • Hannah

    Our son received First Communion this past spring, at age 6. I am homeschooling, and both my husband and I felt that he was ready. We spoke to our parish priest and the director of religious education, and both agreed that it is, primarily, a parent’s decision and determination to make. The priest asked our son a few questions, of course, but generally deferred to our assessment of his readiness. He did participate in a sacramental preparation class at our parish — it was a separate class, composed of children who were either receiving FHC “early” or “late” depending on their circumstances.

  • c matt

    I do have to agree with one bishop (forgot who) I heard speak taht First Communion shouild follow after baptism, confession and confirmation. These other three are the sacraments of intiation, and Communion is supposed the culmination. Most dioceses I know of put confirmation last, preceded by first communion, which seems out of order to me.

  • shana

    The diocese of Steubenville OH is one that does Confession, Communion and Confirmation together at age 7. It was interesting the year the new policy was instituted (I’m not in that diocese since I live in WV a few miles away). There are a good number of large Catholic families in Steubenville, and in some of them several (and sometimes all) of the children were making one or two of those Sacraments on the same day.

    I know there were a lot of strong opinions about it one way or the other before it happened, but no one really complains much about it now. I don’t know if there is relgious Ed in most parishes or not for older children since I’m not in that diocese and we home school – so all the kids we know are home catechised and know the Faith very well. I know that generally, the biggest concern about Confirming them at so young an age was the lack of catechisation after. I wonder if I can get one of our home schooling parents to stop by here & comment about that….brb

  • Nony Mouse

    I was not brought up in the Catholic Church, but I can certainly say that there should probably be more emphasis on spiritual understanding and certainty of self rather than age when it comes to sacraments. In my denomination, baptism comes only after one has chosen Salvation, and communion only after that.
    I was baptized the same month I turned six. I recall that there was another young lady (though enough older than I was that I certainly wouldn’t have thought of her in those terms) and one gentleman, probably early 40s, baptized that same day. I remember being quizzed on what I though my commitment meant, either because I was rather young for it or because it was standard practice. I don’t know which it was, but if it was standard practice, they probably didn’t normally encourage people to ignore the group of dignified adults sitting at the children’s tables and focus all answers towards the adults one recognized. I think the main issue was ensuring that it came from an abiding, internal commitment rather than adult (or possibly peer) pressure. Mine was, but I knew some people in college whose commitment was… less than completely interalized, let’s say.
    As for the ‘fully understanding’ arguement – I suppose you’d have to chuck the entire idea of marriage out the window: how many newlyweds do you think fully understand the ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health’ that they’ve so smilingly vowed?

    [Well...honestly, I don't think anyone who is fully trying to live out the life of faith can ever say they fully understand anything. As I once told a Catholic-raised atheist who emailed to me that he "knew all about" faith, it is remarkable to hear anyone say it and working it every day I wouldn't claim to know even the smallest bit of it -admin]

  • Ruth Ann

    I favor the practice of the Eastern Rite and Orthodox Churches which baptize, confirm, and give Holy Communion to infants. This follows an ancient practice. As for “understanding,” sacrament means mystery, and no one fully understands. We grow in wisdom, age, and grace, so our understanding develops.

  • Bender

    Unless it involves someone coming into the Church via RCIA, I’m not in favor of doing all three at the same time. They are three separate sacraments for a reason. If Jesus wanted to lump everything together, He wouldn’t have bothered to come up with seven of them. Doing them at the same time, at least with children, tends to lead to confusion and an inability to differentiate (especially Confirmation).

    And since the Last Supper preceded Pentecost, having First Communion before Confirmation is appropriate. It was good enough for the Apostles.

    Confirmation and the Eucharist do indeed grant us certain graces, or more technically, they provide an increase of graces, but grace works upon nature, grace is the seed thrown upon the ground, and if the ground is not properly prepared, those graces, although received, can go totally for nought.

    For example, Confirmation, which probably 99 percent of people fail to fully benefit from the graces imparted thereby largely because they have no clue as to what they are or why they are. Consequently, they are like the gift received and stuck in the back of the closet, unopened and unused.

  • Bender

    Clarification — the Eucharist is obviously easily differentiated in people’s minds from Baptism and Confirmation. So, it is clearly different. But Baptism and Confirmation are different — related, but vastly different — and, thus, they are separate sacraments for a reason.

    Jesus could have simply made one sacrament for Baptism and Confirmation, which is effectively how they are treated when done together, but He didn’t make one, He made two, so they should be treated as two.

  • Kathen

    I don’t remember if I was 6 or 7 when I received the First Communion, but I do remember the classes leading to it. They gave you an unconsecrated host, to eat so you would not be afraid of it when the big day came. I remember thinking it was quite bland, like a piece of empty ice-cream cone, only tasteless.

    Well. It was certainly not bland at my First Communion, or at any time since! It fills you with that hard-to-define “Holy, Holy, Holy!” song, starting with your heart, and reverberating in your brain.

  • Elaine S.

    I received my First Communion at age 6 in 1970 — under very unusual circumstances. My brother had gone through a traditional confirmation/CCD class the year before, did first confession about a week before, went through First Communion day all dressed up with the whole class, etc.

    Well, right around that time came the Novus Ordo and our pastor — a very nice priest but very “spirit of Vatican II” liberal in some ways — decided that going forward, there would be no more First Communion “classes,” rather each child would go when he/she and their parents felt they were ready. He also would no longer insist on first Confession before First Communion.

    My mom actually liked the change because she felt preparing for my brother’s first Communion with a big ceremony was “too stressful.”

    The following spring, an uncle from out of state came to visit one weekend and my mom suddenly thought “Wouldn’t it be nice if Father would let Elaine make First Communion this weekend?” She took me over to the rectory, Father asked me a few questions and he was impressed enough with my knowledge that he just let me receive that evening! So I only had about 8 hours to prepare! I don’t remember a lot about it as a result. It was another couple of years before I made my first confession and I don’t remember much about that either.

    Of course this way of preparing for first Communion would be totally un-kosher today and I do think I missed out on a signature Catholic “culture” experience as a result; but I did understand what the sacrament was and I think I really was ready to receive at that age.

  • pam

    I am not sure about recieving communion at a younger age but in some diocese I think the kids should be confirmed earlier. In our diocese they do not get confirmed until 10th grade. Too many of them have already become attached to the secular world and never wind up being confirmed.

    Lizzie may have had horrible things done to her but she was not horrible.

  • Johannah

    I live in France nowadays and children here are generally around 8/9 years when they have their First Communion. They start with classes about 1,5 year before their first communion so they do have lots of time to prepare. Given the fact that most catholics are not regular mass visitors and probably don’t do a lot of religious education at home I do feel very strongly about the need for there to be a proper preparation for this. I think 6 is generally too young because most 6 years old are not even reading and writing properly and during preparations both those skills are needed. So if they are 6 when they have their first holy communion they probably started preparations at 5 or so? The classes would have to be done in a less scholary way and I am not sure whether this is a good thing.

    I like the way it is done here in France: start classes at beginning of third grade (CE2) and then first communion at the end of fourth grade (CM1). Confirmation is generally not untill 13/14 years old and they do something called profession de foi around 11. I still don’t know what the American equivalent for that is. I don’t think it really exists in America or for that matter any other country.

  • Victor

    I could personally say so much about this topic but because I’m on my second beer, I better watch what I say. :)

    I recall that at the time of my first Communion mom made me a new suit and I was so proud of it. Dad drove us home in the back of his half ton truck and a few doors from home I felt so good and it did not seem that we were going too fast so I decided to jump out before my dad had stopped. I recalled rolling a few times and as I had originally figured in my mind, I was not hurt but I put a hole in my pants and I felt so bad about it. Go figure!

    As far as doing First Communion and Confirmation together all I can say is that there’s a lot worst things going on in this world. About four of our grand children have done their’s together in our Capital City and I don’t think it is so bad as long as they are being helped afterward also. Every time I see them, I ask them whose child they are and they always say, JESUS’ and then give me a hug.

    There are many out there that would say that they are too young to make that choice by themselves and God only knows if they are right.


    God Bless,

  • Bender

    As for the ‘fully understanding’ arguement – I suppose you’d have to chuck the entire idea of marriage out the window

    We would be vastly better off if more priests said to couples, “no, I will not marry you, you are not ready yet.” Instead, couples zip through a couple marriage prep classes and, even if it is obvious that they are not properly prepared, there is the argument made that the priest should go ahead with the wedding because at least they will gain the benefits of the graces of the Sacrament of Matrimony, which they would not receive if the priest said “no.”

    And we all see how well that has worked these last 40-50 years. That is to say, it has been scandalous. A total scandal given the number of annulments that are given following those weddings on the grounds that they were never truly “sacramental” marriages.

    You don’t get the benefit of those graces if you are like the hard and rocky soil. The seed thrown down will never take root and will instead be eaten up by the birds. Why? Because the soil was never properly prepared. People were not fully and adequately catechized.

    Giving the sacraments to the ignorant is an invitation to disaster. Even if there are a small handful of people who would benefit from infant reception of the Eucharist and Confirmation, everyone else would end up having those graces left unused because of their utter lack of preparation. They would be in a worse position than before.

    Jesus took nearly three years to catechize the Apostles and other disciples before He gave them the Eucharist, and He took another 53 days to give them Confirmation in the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And before that, God in heaven took about 2000 years to prepare mankind for Jesus. The early Church also insisted on a significant and substantial period of instruction for catechumens.

    This is all because ours is a faith that seeks understanding, it is a faith of reason, not a faith of ignorance. Grace builds on nature, and if the nature is not well-disposed, if the soil has not been prepared, it withers and can even die. Grace is next to useless if the person is unable to accept it because of ignorance.

    We see that with the graces of the Sacrament of Matrimony already. Let’s not do the same thing with the Eucharist and Confirmation.

  • Victor

    Bender said,
    >>Jesus took nearly three years to catechize the Apostles and other disciples before He gave them the Eucharist, and He took another 53 days to give them Confirmation in the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And before that, God in heaven took about 2000 years to prepare mankind for Jesus. The early Church also insisted on a significant and substantial period of instruction for catechumens.<<

    I agree with you Bender God has done so much to help us all and yet we don't seem to always want to listen and when we do listen, it seems like it's hopeless and I include myself in that assumptions.

    As far as me having said in so many word that when I was invited to attend this ceremony, I kind of chuckled inside and wondered what was happening cause I lived in a different city and we don't do that. Believe it or not, the disappointment that I honestly felt at the time hurt a little but after weighing the experiences of my life and knew that Christians are losing ground with "The Sacrament of Marriage" "The killing of Babies" "Euthanasia" just to name a few made this combination not a priority for me even if they are wrong.

    I could go on and on and I'm sure so could you but life must also go on and for me and you to make changes as to what God wants, we're so behind that you and me would need to become Martyrs and I still don't think we would succeed.

    I will close by asking you if combining our First Communion with Confirmation really our first priority concern in this time and age when as Christians, we see the combining of same-sex-marriages and Abortions just to name a few and we do very little about it?

    We could discuss this issue till the cows come home sort of speak so please forgive me if I chose not to at this time.


    God Bless

  • Dorian Speed

    You know, I have never thought about it that way, but what an interesting point. I teach one of the classes for our Confirmation prep program and I just can’t make up my mind about what’s the best age for Confirmation, what should be required, etc. – is it better that they receive the graces of the Sacrament, even if they aren’t as well-prepared as they could be, because they need those graces as they go through their teenage years and young adulthood? Or should we be more concerned about “rocky ground” and creating a cycle of incentives to just show up, get the minimum requirements checked off, and receive the Sacrament as just another milestone?

  • Dorian Speed

    My last comment was in reference to Bender’s point about Jesus taking 3 years to catechize the Apostles.

  • The Crescat

    I caved and blogged about a news article. Wow.

    This issues is one I will never understand w/ you crazy Romans. =P


  • Bender

    I suppose if we must get technical (we must), Jesus didn’t “catechize” the Apostles, etc., since the word catechesis is from the Greek meaning to sound again like an echo (the word “echo” is contained within the word “catechesis”), and Jesus doesn’t echo anything, rather, He is the original source. It is, instead, we who are to echo Him and the Church from the moment of her birth. But you all knew what I meant.

  • Marie

    In my diocese, children receive Confession, Confirmation and FHC in 2nd grade. Religious education, either in school or in parish programs, continues to be offered in various ways throughout the high school years.

    Although I am perfectly willing to accept whatever our Bishop proposes as the standard for how things will be done, it does seem very arbitrary to me to establish one age when all children are ready to complete their sacramental initiation. Children are individuals, and it only makes sense to me to treat them as such. Actually, it does make sense to me for all sacraments to be given in infancy with baptism, and for them all to be grown up into. We don’t need to remember our own sacraments; we can witness them happening to others. I entered the Church as an adult, but STILL I didn’t fully grasp my Confirmation. It is really only as I participate in the rites of welcoming, etc. for other converts that I appreciate the fullness of what God is still giving to me. I did grasp something at the time of my Confirmation, and I believe many children do grasp something when they remember their sacraments. But either you grow up into them or you don’t, and no length of preparation is going to change that. Mystigogy is highly neglected!

  • Ruth Ann

    Concerning Confirmation, in Chicago, when I was a child, the bishop had to visit 300 to 400 parishes to confer the sacrament. Needless to say he didn’t make it to every parish every year. It was more like once every 4 years. So, the year he was coming to our parish, all the children in 5th through 8th grades were prepared for Confirmation and confirmed. That was about 400 children! I was ten years of age at the time. Cardinal Stritch confirmed me.

    Catechesis consisted of a special catechism with questions and answers to be memorized. That’s when I learned about the 7 Gifts and 12 Fruits of the Holy Spirit. I still remember such words as “benignity” and “continence.”

  • Andy

    I too received communion at age 6, and was confirmed at 11. However, I came from an earlier time as I am now 72.

  • Bender

    Concerning Confirmation, in Chicago, when I was a child, the bishop had to visit 300 to 400 parishes to confer the sacrament

    Didn’t Chicago, being an archdiocese, have multiple bishops, in addition to the archbishop/cardinal? Here in the Diocese of Arlington, which only has the one bishop, with about 80 parishes, for Confirmation, we borrow the archbishop for the military and other neighboring bishops. A given parish will get our own bishop one year, but a substitute bishop the next year.

  • Joan Moore

    I received First Communion at age 5 years and 4 months. This was in 1948, in Ireland. I certainly could read and write at that age. In fact, I was reading teenage level books at 7!!

    I remember the day of my First Communion, and that we were all singing “Jesus, thou art coming” in the Communion line.

    In 1978 my second son received First Communion at the age of 5 years and 5 months. He had sit in on lessons that I gave to my eldest son the previous year (he received First Communion at 7), he also learned the Catechism at his pre-school (the same school his father went to 30 years before!), and the parish First Communion teacher persuaded me to let him join her class, even though he was young – she said, he’ll get used to the class. So, a few months later, when I was out of the country at a business conference, my husband let me know that the parish priest had come to examine the children to determine which ones were ready. My son was the first one he decided was ready. The teacher promptly let him know that my son was only 5. His response? “He knows what he’s about. Don’t hold him back.”

    All that year, when we had visiting priests, I had to be behind him in the line so as to nod my head at the inquiring look from the priest!!

    Each child is, indeed, an individual. Many would not be ready at 5 or 6. Some are not ready at 7 or even 8.

  • Nony Mouse

    We would be vastly better off if more priests said to couples, “no, I will not marry you, you are not ready yet.” Instead, couples zip through a couple marriage prep classes and, even if it is obvious that they are not properly prepared, there is the argument made that the priest should go ahead with the wedding because at least they will gain the benefits of the graces of the Sacrament of Matrimony, which they would not receive if the priest said “no.”
    Many don’t even zip through marriage prep classes. Many would benefit from even the freebies (and my state is now one of those offering a discount on the licence if you go through a course, on the chance that it will decrease the rate of divorce). But I’d argue that even those who were properly prepared don’t “fully understand” the terms.

    I think that some of my family that’s most prepared to admit it are the ones that have been happily married the longest.

    You might intellectually know that liquids like water can transfer heat really well, especially when they’re flowing. You might even be the kind to thaw things by having cool, not warm, water flow over them in a trickle. You “know all about” it, right? Yeah, I “knew all about it” in elementary school, too. Until you jump into mountain-fed spring pool water in the middle of summer and in the 90s, and the water is frigid, because your dog has gotten stuck and can’t get out and your friend gets cramps and does the quiet-panic drowning at the same time and you’re the one there so YOU have to make right, THEN you may know something about it. But you may think that you’ve got it covered, until you’re the one that’s slipped into the drink and your friend goes into hysterics and dry washes their hands and hops foot to foot, and there is no handhold to climb onto the ledge, and you’ve got to try to calm your friend down while treading water and talk them through how they can help you get a hand up on the concrete without being pulled in themselves, and you get out chilled by more than just the water, and you think that that’s all there is to it. Until you’re trained to wear a skin suit and let the waves crash over your head and you’re running low on calories and the water is taking away your body heat but you’ve got to stay put because how else are you going to stay low profile, then you may realize that what you thought you knew was not everything. But you may be blessed enough to travel to Israel and witness people being baptized in the Jordan, and, despite all you’ve learned about hydrotherapy, notice that those with arthritis don’t seem to be having an adverse effect standing and wading through the cold water even into full dark. And then if you’ve ever worked search and rescue for the coast guard in the north atlantic and some ship goes down in the winter and you see what happens to people whose suits aren’t closed and know the time limit you’ve got with hyperthermia, but you sometimes find people clinging to life who reason says should have given up already, you’ll KNOW that you don’t fully understand it, even as you know that you realize a heck of a lot more than that kid thawing steaks.

    The question is, though, when do you know enough that the next step will make you grow, not stunt your growth because you’re not ready for it? Spiritually, this is a test that can only be done with words and a qualitative test of sincerity. Outside, the world tests your maturity far more pointedly. And age may be a guideline, but I don’t think it should be the only one.

  • Patricia

    St. John Chrysostom said: “As a mother will not deny her children food until they understand what they eat, so too the Church will not deny the Spiritual Food of the Eucharist until a person understands.”

  • jb

    Patricia (#26) gets it.

    The other reasons for withholding the Eucharist from those baptized, whatever their age is years or days (!), should apply to withholding Baptism as well.

    It is amusing that St. Paul had to tell the ADULTS in Corinth (not the kiddies) to examine themselves before communing, and the “adult” Church turned that back on the children, whose faith Jesus said we are to never disparage.

    Or maybe Jesus was wrong:

    “Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.”

    New life in Baptism, then the new food to nourish. Why are the clear words of Jesus so difficult for adults and theologians to believe?

    I mean–think about it–feeding our children on the Body and Blood of Christ is a bad thing?

    Incredible that so many think so. Maybe . . . that is why so many think so–they are malnourished.

  • Maureen

    The “age of reason” means knowing right from wrong and being able to reason from A to B. It doesn’t mean knowing how to read and write, or being able to write a theological paper.

    And kids face many faith challenges in grade school. Confirmation then would be a good thing.