With Sacraments of Initiation, how soon is too soon?

What’s the right age for receiving the Sacraments of Initiation? Cardinal Antonio Cañizares, the prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship, writes in L’Osservatore Romano that children should be allowed to receive the Eucharist “as soon as they are able”:

Citing the 100th anniversary of Pope Pius X’s decree as a “providential occasion to remember and insist” on the fact that children can receive communion from the time they are able to reason, Cardinal Cañizares said that rather than continuing a trend which sees children receive communion ever later, if nothing else, today they should be able to receive it earlier than ever.

“In the face of what is happening with children and to the very adverse environment in which they grow up, let’s not deprive them of the gift of God,” he concluded, ” … it is the guarantee of their growth as children of God, generated by the sacraments of Christian initiation in the bosom of the holy Mother Church. The grace of the gift of God is the most powerful of our works, and of our plans and programs.”

Receiving First Communion around age seven seems pretty common in the States, though perhaps it’s not as consistent in Europe. Things get a little murkier when you look at ages for Confirmation, though. The pastor in charge of our parish’s RCIA program constantly lamented the fact that the age of Confirmation was different from diocese to diocese, meaning some kids inevitably fell through the cracks. Beyond that, he argued, the sacrament is now treated as a kind of “coming of age” ceremony, when it is properly a “sacrament of initiation,” along with Baptism and First Communion. RCIA candidates are technically confirmed before receiving Communion; it is common in Eastern Rites for infants to receive all three at once.

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?

[H/t Father Z]

By

Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at SlowMama.com.

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