Infants Sharing in the Lord’s Table

Visitors from other Christian groups to an Orthodox Divine Liturgy will often find some similarities to their own religious services along with some major differences. For example, visitors from other liturgical Churches will recognize the Epistle and Gospel readings, the Alleluia, and the Anaphora or Canon before the distribution of the Eucharist. One major difference, however, is the Orthodox belief that there is no minimum age requirement for the reception of Holy Communion. Orthodox children, including infants, who have been Baptized and Chrismated (Confirmed), are welcome at the Lord’s Table.

For example, here is a video of an Orthodox infant, who having just been Baptized and Chrismated (Confirmed), receiving Holy Communion.

This is quite different from the Christian West. In Roman Catholic theology, for example, there is an emphasis on children understanding what the Eucharist means before they are permitted to receive the Eucharist. Most Protestant Christians have inherited this viewpoint. However, historically, this restrictive view that infants and children should not be welcomed to the Lord’s Table only developed in the Western Church and dates only from about 800 years ago.  All the Christian Churches of the East (including Coptic, Armenian, Syrian, Byzantine Orthodox, etc.) have maintained the earlier tradition of giving the Eucharist to infants as well as adults. In fact, infant Communion was also practiced as a norm in the West up until about 1200 A.D.

St. Augustine of Hippo bears testimony to the practice in the Western Church of infants receiving from the Lord’s Table:

“Those who say that infancy has nothing in it for Jesus to save, are denying that Christ is Jesus for all believing infants. Those, I repeat, who say that infancy has nothing in it for Jesus to save, are saying nothing else than that for believing infants, infants that is who have been baptized in Christ, Christ the Lord is not Jesus. After all, what is Jesus? Jesus means Savior. Jesus is the Savior. Those whom he doesn’t save, having nothing to save in them, well for them he isn’t Jesus. Well now, if you can tolerate the idea that Christ is not Jesus for some persons who have been baptized, then I’m not sure your faith can be recognized as according with the sound rule. Yes, they’re infants, but they are his members. They’re infants, but they receive his sacraments. They are infants, but they share in his table, in order to have life in themselves.

Augustine, Sermon 174, 7

Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. (who was on the faculty of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome) explains about the history of infant Communion in the Western Church in an article entitled “Liturgy in the Life of the Church” :

“The practice [of communing infants] began to be called into question in the 12th century not because of any argument about the need to have attained the “age of reason” (aetus discretionis) to communicate. Rather, the fear of profanation of the Host if the child could not swallow it led to giving the Precious Blood only. And then the forbidding of the chalice to the laity in the West led automatically to the disappearance of infant Communion, too. This was not the result of any pastoral or theological reasoning. When the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) ordered yearly confession and Communion for those who have reached the “age of reason” (annos discretionis), it was not affirming this age as a requirement for reception of the Eucharist.

“Nevertheless, the notion eventually took hold that Communion could not be received until the age of reason, even though infant Communion in the Latin rite continued in some parts of the West until the 16th century. Though the Fathers of Trent (Session XXI,4) denied the necessity of infant Communion, they refused to agree with those who said it was useless and inefficacious — realizing undoubtedly that the exact same arguments used against infant Communion could also be used against infant baptism, because for over ten centuries in the West, the same theology was used to justify both! For the Byzantine rite, on December 23, 1534, Paul III explicitly confirmed the Italo-Albanian custom of administering Communion to infants….So the plain facts of history show that for 1200 years the universal practice of the entire Church of East and West was to communicate infants. Hence, to advance doctrinal arguments against infant Communion is to assert that the sacramental teaching and practice of the Roman Church was in error for 1200 years. Infant Communion was not only permitted in the Roman Church, at one time the supreme magisterium taught that it was necessary for salvation. In the Latin Church the practice was not suppressed by any doctrinal or pastoral decision, but simply died out. Only later, in the 13th century, was the ‘age of reason’ theory advanced to support the innovation of baptizing infants without also giving them Communion. So the “age of reason” requirement for Communion is a medieval Western pastoral innovation, not a doctrinal argument. And the true ancient tradition of the whole Catholic Church is to give Communion to infants. Present Latin usage is a medieval innovation.” (Emphasis added) (Text from here.)

The Eastern Orthodox Churches have preserved the early Church's practice of Infant Communion

Eastern Catholics (those Catholics which celebrate other liturgies such as the Byzantine, Armenian, Coptic or Syrian liturgy) generally adopted the later Roman practice of delaying communion until “the age of reason” once they entered union with Rome (1500 – 1700s A.D.) and thus discontinued infant Communion. This is explained by Pope Benedict XIV’s encylical Allatae Sunt (On the Observance of the Oriental Rites), given 26 July 1755. First, Pope Benedict XIV explains that:

24. For several centuries the practice prevailed in the Church of giving children the Eucharist after the sacrament of baptism….For the last four centuries, the Western church has not given the Eucharist to children after baptism. But it must be admitted that the Rituals of the Oriental churches contain a rite of Communion for children after baptism. Assemanus the Younger (Codicis Liturgici), bk. 2, p. 149) gives the ceremony of conferring baptism among the Melchites. On page 309, he quotes the Syrians’ baptismal ceremony as it was published by Philoxenus, the Monophysite Bishop of Mabbug, and on p. 306, the ceremony from the ancient Ritual of Severus, Patriarch of Antioch and leader of the Monophysites. He gives also the ceremonies of baptism observed by the Armenians and Copts (bk. 3, p. 95 and 130). All of these ceremonies command that the Eucharist should be given to children after baptism.

Here, Pope Benedict XIV dates the time the Latin Church stopped giving the Eucharist to children to 400 years earlier — in the 1300s. He recounts how the practice of the Eastern Church still gave testimony to Infant Communion and then notes the various Eastern Catholic synods which stopped the practice in imitation of the Latin Church from the 1500s to the 1700s. The specifics of the removal of Infant Communion can be read in the link to Pope Benedict XIV’s encyclical above. Eastern Orthodox Christians maintained the historic tradition, however.

The extent of the loss of the tradition of Infant Communion among the Eastern Catholic Churches was noted by Fr. Casimir Kucharek’s Ukrainian Catholic catechism Our Faith: A Byzantine Catechism for Adults. Writing in 1983, he explained:

Ancient practice had infants receiving Holy Communion (under the form of wine) after baptism. The Latin Church discontinued the practice in the twelfth century. Of all the Eastern Catholic Churches, only the Copts have preserved this venerable tradition, while all the Orthodox, — to their credit — also have. (page 269)

However, in the past 15 years or so various Eastern Catholic Churches have started to restore infant Communion with encouragement from Rome. The first indication of this was in 1990 with the publication of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (Eastern Catholic Canon Law). Canon 710 of that law stated:

With respect to the participation of infants in the Divine Eucharist after baptism and chrismation with holy myron, the prescriptions of the liturgical books of each Church sui iuris are to be observed with the suitable due precautions.

This was further strengthened by in section 51 of this Vatican document. It was also mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a norm in the Eastern Catholic Churches:

“In the Eastern rites the Christian initiation of infants also begins with Baptism followed immediately by Confirmation and the Eucharist…” (Section 1233)

However, there is no uniform practice yet among Eastern Catholics on infant Communion. When my two children were Baptized and Chrismated (Confirmed) in the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Church in 1994 (ages 5 and 3), they were the first children in our Eparchy (Diocese) to receive the Eucharist at the time of their Baptism/Chrismation. The Ukrainian Catholic Church decided in 1997 to begin the restoration of infant Communion. Some parishes have implemented the change, but many have not. The tradition of “First Communion” dies hard in some places. The Melkite Greek Catholics (also in union with Rome) have generally restored infant Communion. According to this source, this has happened since about 1969, but many parishes have retained a “First Solemn Communion” that reflects the “First Communion” experience from the Latin Church.

The vast majority of Protestant churches do not practice infant Communion, though a few Protestant churches do practice or tolerate it. It enjoys limited support by some Reformed writers and has been debated in the Episcopal Church. It has also become an issue for several Lutherans who are contemplating converting to Orthodoxy. Some Lutheran writers have also correctly noted that the discontinuance of the practice of communing infants in the Western Church dates from about the twelfth century. Since 1997some parishes of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) now practice infant Communion.

Meanwhile, the Orthodox Christian East has retained this ancient tradition of the undivided Church of the first millennium.

For additional reading:

Can East & West Coexist With Married Priests?

13 Responses to Infants Sharing in the Lord’s Table

  1. Fr Alvin Kimel says:

    The question of infant communion was vigorously debated in the Episcopal Church back in the 70s. J. D. C. Fisher’s book Christian Initiation: Baptism in the Medieval West was often referenced to support the restoration of the initiation rite, including infant communion.

  2. orthocath says:

    Thanks, Father, for the clarification and I’ve corrected the article to reflect that.

  3. […] West until the 1200’s.  Fellow blogger Orthocath gives a useful overview of the practice in this post, quoting Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. (one of the foremost scholars on Eastern Christianity in the world […]

  4. If even infants are accepted to Eucharist – how can anyone be excluded? Why exclude the Western/Latin faithful who believe in the Eucharist as do the Orthodox, when Orthodoxy accepts those who make no testimony of faith one way or the other?

  5. orthocath says:

    Communion, like Baptism, is an evidence of God’s grace. Christ freely gives Himself fully to us in Communion. We do not earn or work for this grace. If we are conscious of sin, we make confession beforehand. Little children do not need to confess beforehand. Infants who receive Communion receive in the faith of their families and the parish community.

    As to why Roman Catholics and Orthodox do not share Communion, that’s another question. That is something the Bishops of both Churches would need to work out. There are, sadly, some doctrinal issues that still divide the Churches.

  6. CathApol says:

    I understand the nature of Eucharist, that is not the point in question here. Infants make no affirmation for or against the nature of the Eucharist and are allowed to participate in it. Now I can understand withholding from Protestants who reject the Real Presence and the sacrificial and propitiatory nature of the Eucharist – but why refuse Latin Rite Catholics?

    You said it’s up to the bishops of both churches to work out? Well, in the Latin Rite, Orthodoxy is not refused Eucharist. I’d say it’s only one side which needs to work something out.

    “As to why Roman Catholics and Orthodox do not share Communion, that’s another question.” No, that’s precisely the question I asked. I do not dispute that there are some doctrinal issues which divide the churches, but as far as the Eucharist is concerned – we’re not divided and that should not enter into the politics (which is REALLY what the division is all about) of the division. Sure the polemicists will insist upon theological reasons – but what it boils down to are politics of the 8th-11th centuries.

    In JMJ,

  7. orthocath says:

    As I understand the Orthodox position, and I’m new at this 🙂 …

    It would take more than agreement on the nature of the Eucharist for inter-communion to occur. One example: disagreement over accepting the definition of Chalcedon has separated the Eastern Orthodox from the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox (Coptic, Armenian, Syrian Orthodox Churches) for nearly 1,500 years, though all these Churches have the same view of the Eucharist (and almost everything else). There are movements on both sides to restore Communion, but a unity of faith is being sought first. Having said that, there are instances of sharing of communion between the Chaledonian Orthodox and the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox that sometimes happens on the parish level.

    The separation of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox is more than politics. There are issues of faith that separate us also. The Orthodox position has been that once unity of faith is achieved there can be sharing of Communion. Again, sometimes this happens on the parish level in some Orthodox parishes at the judgment of the pastors involved.

  8. Christopher Stanichar says:

    Slava Isusu Christu!

    Denying infants communion has always puzzled me, as well as the rationale of waiting until the child “understands what communion is.” Who fully understands it? Isn’t the Mystical Supper a mystery (i.e. sacrament)? As we grow in our faith, we understand that what we receive is the body and blood of Christ, but no one can completely understand it!

    In the case of my children, I am overjoyed when they receive our Lord in His Holy Eucharist. In my opinion, a child is much more worthy than I am to receive Him. They are not encumbered with the knowledge and struggle of sin that we as adults face everyday. The greatest authority on this subject seems to come from Our Lord Himself: “Let the Little Children come unto me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14). The Western Church would do well to restore this tradition! No reverence or piety will be lost by giving children Communion; in fact, it will increase the faith and grace among Believers.

    Christopher Stanichar

  9. Gareth says:

    Even just the fact that the Western Church does not give communion to infants can be enough to refuse communion to Latin Rite Catholics. This is a doctrinal issue, and if the Roman Church disagrees with the eastern church on a major issue such as communion (which is the focal point of liturgy/mass) then how are our churches in communion with one another? and moreover how can we show this by administering communion to both rites?

    On the issue of Catholics administering communion to Orthodox, this depends heavily on what priest you talk to. In my city (Kamloops) this is not accepted, the Catholics will not give communion to Orthodox and vice-versa we have discussed this issue with priests of both churches. However I have heard from a few priests explain that if there is absolutely no Orthodox/Catholic church in your area then you may talk to the priest of the Orthodox/Catholic church and receive communion, again this is not common practice since there is usually an Orthodox or Catholic church nearby somewhere.

  10. infant communion- one reason why I usually leave the church with my 1 year old and three year old if we happen to be at a Roman catholic church. My 10 and 11 year old kids stay to receive, but the 3 year old will make a fit to have the Holy Eucharist denied him!

    • Dcn James Danovich says:

      We have found that with proper discussion with Roman clergy before Mass, most will communicate young children. They did in our case with three young ones

  11. I think it’s important to note that baptism isn’t available for EVERY infant. An infant must be presented to baptism by his or her parents AND Godparents. These adults are fully communicant members of the Church, which includes, amongst other things, regular participation in Confession and a promise to teach the Faith to the child as the child ages.

    Some of the challenges around infant baptism in my mind come from the ready willingness to baptize anyone with an appropriate ethic tradition. “I would like you to baptize my baby even though you haven’t seen me since I was an infant at this very baptismal font.” If we reduce living in a Christian community to attending one’s baptism, marriage and funeral, then I think infant baptism is indeed scandalous. But I also know priests who receive exceptionally lapsed persons into the Church by inviting the lapsed to attend services for a substantial period of time [a preparatory season of the Church, 6 months, sometimes a year] while only baptizing the children after that time of extensive catechesis for the parents occurs. The canons around receiving lapsed Christians back, especially if they have communed outside of the Orthodox communion during their period of wandering, can be understood to support these pastoral matters.

  12. Rachel says:

    Dear OrthoCath: I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for this article. I am a Catholic (Latin-rite) convert of 5 years officially, 6 if you count the year of learning prior, and your article has confirmed me in the realization I reached on my own earlier this year through gleaning information here and there on other blog posts, articles, and sites, and much prayer. I visit this post sometimes just for encouragement! xD

    I care passionately, now, about the restoration of the correct order of the Sacraments of Initiation in the Latin Church, for all who are being initiated, regardless of age. I grieve for all the graces missed out on for thousands, millions of children over these centuries when infant chrismation and infant communion died out. In this evil-laden age, with temptations at every turn, our little ones are in even greater need, I think, of receiving sacramental grace not just from Baptism, but from Chrismation and frequent Communion, beginning as soon as they are Baptized. As one who someday hopes to be a wife and mother (I’m 22), I have already 100% decided I want my children fully initiated with all 3 Sacraments all at once, which seems to me it will have to be in an Eastern rite parish. How this will work out canonically I must trust God will see to.

    Oh, I could say so much more, as this means more than words really allow me to express. God has broken my heart with this. Suffice it to say that I pray almost daily for the restoration of the correct order of the Sacraments of Initiation to infants and the restoration of infant communion in the Latin Church, as well as for the reunification of East and West. Our Holy Father has proclaimed a Year of Faith till next November, and I pray special graces are poured out, not just for the New Evangelization and the renewal of faith, but also for genuine renewal in practice such as this. We need it so much. In a culture as anti-life and anti-child as ours, the culture of death, restoring infant communion would be a powerful witness to the world of the value we place on our children and their full participation in the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ.

    Thank you again for writing and posting this. God bless you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s