THE LEGACY OF THE POPE OF THE EUCHARIST
Veil and white dress for girls, shirt and tie for boys: most Catholics never forget the day — usually in May in the United States and other Western countries —when they received the Eucharist for the first time.
But the age for First Holy Communion has varied over the course of history. Baptized infants evidently received the Eucharist during antiquity, with local custom determining the frequency of this practice.
Around 1200, this rite fell out of use in the Western, Latin-speaking Catholic Church, but has continued uninterrupted in the Orthodox Churches and in the Coptic (Egyptian) Catholic Church. (Other Eastern Catholic Churches began restoring the practice of infant Communion in the mid-1990s.)
The minimum age for First Holy Communion in the West became the “age of reason.” This development likely occurred out of concern for safeguarding the eucharistic species.
Previously, infants and young children had mostly received the consecrated wine alone, so when the chalice was gradually withdrawn from the laity for fear of spillage, infant Communion disappeared. Reception of the Eucharist took place at an age when it seemed that a child could reverently consume the consecrated host — the “age of discretion.”
Lateran Council IV (1215) solidified the “age of reason” as the time for First Holy Communion when, in response to infrequent lay Communion, it mandated at least yearly reception of the Eucharist, together with sacramental confession, for those who reached the “age of discretion” (canon 21). But the council never specified in what year of their lives people attain this age.
Significantly, too, Lateran IV did not claim that understanding of the Eucharist was a requirement for receiving the sacrament. For its part, the Council of Trent (1545–1563) only taught that Communion before the “age of reason” was unnecessary, since young children could not sin gravely and therefore lose the grace of baptism (Doctrine on Communion under Both Species and the Communion of Young Children, 1562, canon 4).
A rationale was eventually supplied for having the age of reason as the minimum age for First Holy Communion: a person must have some understanding of the Eucharist and devotion toward it in order to receive the sacrament fruitfully (see Roman Catechism, 1566, II, 4, 26, 32).
Over time there arose different understandings of the “age of discretion” in regard to sacramental confession and Communion — even though Lateran IV had decreed that both sacraments be received at this age.
The minimum age for receiving the sacrament of penance was determined to be that time when a person could distinguish between right and wrong, and therefore commit a sin (Roman Catechism, II, 4, 45). This was generally reckoned as age 7.
A deeper level of knowledge, however, was deemed necessary for grasping the significance of the Eucharist. As a result, the age for receiving Communion was typically set between 10 and 14 years, depending on the place.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a historic change took place as part of a movement promoting enhanced eucharistic devotion. Pope St. Pius X (reigned 1903–1914) lowered the age of First Holy Communion to approximately 7, asserting that children should be nourished by the Eucharist, which could help them to avoid grave sins (Quam singulari, 1910).
He stipulated that it was only necessary for children to be able to distinguish the Eucharist from ordinary food (no. 3). They were then obliged to gradually learn about the entirety of the Catholic faith (no. 2).
Pius X had earlier encouraged frequent and even daily reception of the Eucharist, which significantly altered Catholic piety and practice (Sacrosancta Tridentina Synodus, 1905). For having made the Eucharist more widely available as he did, Pius X is honored as the “Pope of the Eucharist.”