So what light does the history of the church shed on the matter of children taking part in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper?
Being something much less than a research essay, allow me here to share my discoveries.
The first thing I learned, which you all probably know, is that the Eastern Church allows, really makes, infants take communion. After baptizing an infant, the priest then dips his finger in the cup of wine and sticks it in the baby’s mouth. And they have always done this, with some variation of course.
And it seems the practice of giving babies and young children communion goes back to the early church. The first mention of infant communion is in Cyprian, in the 3rd century. We also read of it in the Apostolic Constitutions and in Augustine, both of the 4th century. (1) The interesting thing about these references is that none of these writings are teaching or defending the practice; they are mentioning it in passing, suggesting that it was a widespread practice that needed no defense or urging.
No writer from the 1st or 2nd century specifically mentions the practice, so either it was a practice so foreign that it never entered into the writings of the time, or that it was not a disputed matter that merited any significant discussion. Apparently, either no one or everyone practiced it. One factor that may help to explain this silence is that the question of infants and children taking communion is only relevant when infant baptism is the norm, since one had to be baptized to take communion. It seems, although it is beyond the scope of this post, that infant baptism only became widely practiced by the 3rd century, when we see the first mention of it by Tertullian, who is writing to actually challenge the accepted practice. (2) Another factor is that before the 4th century there are no known writings specifically on the Eucharist.
These facts are corroborated by many historians of the church, and in other historical documents from other eras. John Calvin calls it an “ancient practice” in his Institutes, and the Council of Trent, in 1562, uses the same words. In more modern times, as Lee says, “it has commonly been the opinion of the church that infants and young children were welcome at the Lord’s Supper from the earliest days of the post-apostolic period.”(3)
The practice of giving communion to infants and small children in the Western church came to an end in the 13th century, when the Fourth Lateran Council, in 1215, established the doctrine of transubstantiation, the teaching that says the bread and wine are changed into the actual body and blood of Jesus during the Mass. This heightening of the mystery of the sacrament led to the people no longer receiving the cup, but only the bread, lest they profaned the blood by spilling it. Since it was the practice for infants to receive only the cup, not being able to chew and swallow the bread, this effectively ended their participation. Children could again take of the sacrament when they were 7-8 years of age. (3)
Girl receiving first Holy Communion, Sicily (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
With the Reformation in the 16th century came an emphasis on personal faith and understanding. Admission to the Lord’s Supper was pushed back generally to adolescence, when the child was considered able to understand the Supper and have a personal faith. (3)
Interestingly, the Eastern Church, which has never deviated from the celebration of infant and child communion, has neither developed a doctrine of transubstantiation nor had a Reformation.
Tomorrow I will draw some connections with this history and ministry today.
(2) Roger Beckwith and Andrew Daunton-Fear, “The Water and the Wine: A Contribution to the Debate on Children and Holy Communion”, The Latimer Trust: London, 2005.
(3) Tommy Lee, The History of Paedocommunion from the Early Church Until 1500, found at http://reformed.org/sacramentology/ (accessed on 10/9/13). This was the most thorough treatment I was able to find.