Confession and the Age of First Communion

Should First Communion be delayed because too few Catholics go to Confession?

Priest in Confessional

In the West, the Sacrament of Confirmation was, over many centuries, gradually separated from the Sacrament of Baptism and pushed further and further back, until it was most often administered to teenagers. But since the original order of the Sacraments of Initiation was Baptism first, Confirmation second, and Communion last, as the age of Confirmation grew, so did the age of First Communion. The entire point of Pope Pius X's encyclical Quam Singulari was to right this wrong and to introduce children of the Latin Rite to the Eucharist as close to the age of reason as possible. And thus, Pope Pius decreed that:

The age of discretion, both for Confession and for Holy Communion, is the time when a child begins to reason, that is about the seventh year, more or less. From that time on begins the obligation of fulfilling the precept of both Confession and Communion.

However, some have suggested that the age for First Communion should be raised, rather than lowered, and they have cited the failure of Catholics of all ages to avail themselves of the Sacrament of Confession. This, though, is the wrong way to think about the problem, as Pope Pius's decree makes clear.

Why Do Children Not Go to Confession Regularly?

There is an obvious reason why many children who have reached the age of reason and have made their First Confession do not go to Confession regularly: Their parents do not take them to Confession, and their priests do not insist that the parents do so. Raising the age of First Communion does not address this problem; it only exacerbates it, because all too many Catholic parents would not take their children to make their First Confession—let alone any subsequent confessions—unless those children were scheduled to make their First Communion.

This is, in a way, a continuation of the problem that Pope Pius X saw: Catholic children are being deprived of the graces of the sacraments—both Communion and Confession—by the sins of omission, and sometimes commission, of those who are entrusted with their spiritual well-being—that is, their parents and their pastors. As the Holy Father noted in Quam Singulari, "The obligation of the precept of Confession and Communion which binds the child particularly affects those who have him in charge, namely, parents, confessor, teachers and the pastor."

The Failures of Pastors and Parents

Pope Pius X addressed the effects of this failure of pastors and parents, although from a different angle, because when he was writing (in 1910) the problem was the deliberate refusal of certain priests to allow access to the Sacraments of Confession and Communion to children who had reached the age of reason. That, the Holy Father noted, was to be condemned, because of the spiritual destruction that such action wrought:

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; and from this it also happened that in their youth, destitute of this strong help, surrounded by so many temptations, they lost their innocence and fell into vicious habits even before tasting of the Sacred Mysteries. And even if a thorough instruction and a careful Sacramental Confession should precede Holy Communion, which does not everywhere occur, still the loss of first innocence is always to be deplored and might have been avoided by reception of the Eucharist in more tender years.

In other words, Pope Pius X is saying that, if an error must be made, it should be made on the other side, and thus children should be admitted to Communion earlier rather than later:

Moreover, the fact that in ancient times the remaining particles of the Sacred Species were even given to nursing infants seems to indicate that no extraordinary preparation should now be demanded of children who are in the happy state of innocence and purity of soul, and who, amidst so many dangers and seductions of the present time have a special need of this heavenly food.

Several times in Quam Singulari, Pope Pius X notes that this "ancient practice" remains in place in the Eastern Rites of the Church, and so it is not a surprise that, in summing up, he declares that

A full and perfect knowledge of Christian doctrine is not necessary either for First Confession or for First Communion. Afterwards, however, the child will be obliged to learn gradually the entire Catechism according to his ability.

While Pope Pius is speaking here of Latin Rite children around the age of seven, his words reflect the pattern in the Eastern Rites: Infants receive Communion from the time of their baptism and chrismation (confirmation); but they are later instructed in the meaning and doctrine of the sacraments and make a First Confession and a First Solemn Communion around the age of seven—that is, the same age as their Latin Rite counterparts make their First Confession and First Communion.

Children Need More Grace, Not Less

Most of those who favor raising the age of First Communion rather than lowering it do so because they believe that the Eucharist is being profaned by people receiving it while in a state of mortal sin. The desire to protect the Eucharist from profanation is admirable, but the way to do so is not to deprive children of the graces that they would receive from the Sacrament of Communion, but to insist that parents and pastors help those children avail themselves of the graces they would receive from the Sacrament of Confession. Delaying the age of First Communion because all too few Catholics avail themselves of the Sacrament of Confession would not solve the underlying problem; it would, in fact, only make it worse.