“Let The Little Children Come To Me”: A Theological And Historical-Cultural Review Of ThE Catholic Practice Of Children’s First Communion

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Jose M. De Mesa

Jose M. de Mesa, Ph.D., a married Filipino theologian, is professor of Applied Systematic Theology at De La Salle University, Manila. He obtained his PhD in Religious Studies from the Catholic University, Louvain, Belgium. He is a member of the Louvain Theological and Pastoral Monographs and is on the advisory board of Concilium. His publications include: In Solidarity with the Culture: Studies in Theological Re-rooting. He has co-authored Doing Theology: Basic Realities and Processes and Doing Christology: the Re-Appropriation of a Tradition.


Introduction

As a parent I often feel pain celebrating Sunday Eucharist, the common meal of all who are baptized in Christ. Something which I will never do at home happens regularly in the church during the time for communion. Small children, supposedly not yet of the "age of reason," are unable to share in the family meal of Christians gathered as a faith community. It is not uncommon for parents queuing for their turn to receive communion to bring along their little ones rather than leave them on their own in the pews. When they receive the host and the minister does not hand over any to the children, I sense bewilderment on the faces of these children who look to the minister and to their parents seemingly saying, "What about me?" The only answer parents can give is to take their little hands and lead them back to their places in the pews. Ministers, sensitive to the feelings of these children, may give them a pat on the head or trace a cross on their forehead as a sign of blessing to somehow compensate for their not being able to receive communion. "Why?" is a question that I have often raised and still raise in my mind when witnessing this scene. "Why is it this way?" or "Does it have to be this way?" I also wonder whether other parents have harbored the same sentiment about this situation. I also want to know how children prevented from receiving communion feel about it.

In a survey done for a consultation on the admission of children to the Eucharist last 1980, children and parents (Catholics as well as Protestants) were requested to respond to the question: "What have children said about their experience of participating in holy communion or the Mass?"1 It is clear from the responses that children who went to church regularly but were not able to receive communion felt very hurt. They also felt strongly against this unjust exclusion. The following quotations illustrate this experience: " ‘You say Jesus asks us to come to his table, so why do you stop us?’ And from a girl of six: ‘I'm not going to say, "We are all one body" again, because we aren't. Me and Ben don't share the bread.’ A vicar's wife wrote of a discussion she and her husband had had with a group of children and found that many of them ‘felt that because they did not fully participate it was an adult affair to which they were "taken along." One four year-old then said he wished he could take communion because ‘I belong to the church, you know.’ After writing about her reluctance to come to church because of this, a girl protested: ‘You feel a fool being blessed and just as much a fool staying in your seat when you know that spiritually you are as ready as you could be to have communion" (Sutcliffe 1982:25).

The responses also included the sad protest of a child: ‘In our church only very tiny children are important (baptism) and then it's only the grown-ups.’ ‘It would be fine,’ wrote a Swiss boy, ‘if all the communicants could remain gathered at the table together, to eat like at home.’ A mother from British Columbia tells us, before he was able to take communion, her young son protested that he thought ‘Jesus was for everybody.’ A priest reported his conversation with a six year-old who was being offered bread and wine for the first time, ‘Does this include

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