Friday, January 27, 2006

Western Liturgical Churches Rediscover Paedocommunion

A collection of Western, liturgical Protestant churches is rediscovering the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Orthodox Church's ancient practice of paedocommunion.

Paedocommunion is the practice of giving the Lord's Supper to baptized children, even apart from a coming-of-age ritual such as confirmation or profession of faith.

Paedocommunion was the universal practice of the Church until the late medieval period (c. 1200). It is attested at least as far back as Cyprian (c. 250), and is witnessed throughout the centuries following (e.g. in Augustine, Leo the Great, etc.). [For a "Catena of Quotations" from the Early Church, click here.]

Also of interest is the website's History of Paedocommunion by Tommy Lee. "Numerous citations of original sources in the Early Church illustrate paedocommunion's venerable history." Interestingly, most of the churches listed are Reformed denominations, accepting paedocommunion based on covenantal theology.

The Ancient Background: In ancient Christian practice, the bishop acted as the ordinary celebrant at the local church, assisted by a large team of priests, deacons, subdeacons, lectors, and others in minor orders. When a child was born to one of his parishoners, the bishop would administer the "initiation sacraments" of baptism, chrismation (confirmation), and first communion all at once -- at the earliest possible date. The child was considered a full communicant of the Church from that day forward, receiving the Eucharist at every Sunday/festal/weekday Mass (or "Divine Liturgy").

As diocesan territories enlarged and bishops became administrators rather than parish rectors, East and West took different paths on the administration of these sacraments. In the East, the bishop deferred these prerogatives to the parish priest. In the West, the bishop allowed the priest to baptize but reserved chrismation/confirmation to himself. Diocesan territories expanded yet further, so confirmation was delayed until the children were on the cusp of adulthood.

In modern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic (the dreaded "Uniate") practice, children still receive baptism/chrismation/first communion at once administered by a priest. The liturgical churches of the West practice infant baptism (by the priest); confirmation comes around age 13 (from the bishop); and first communion comes around age seven as an apparent compromise between the two: the child is not yet confirmed but has reached an "age of reason" sufficient to "understand" the Real Presence.

Why It Matters. The advantages of the ancient practice of paedocommunion are manifold, manifest, and compelling. First, the benefits of pedigree and logical progression commend it. Paedocommunion was the normative practice of East and West, surviving in parts of the West centuries after the Great Schism. The current Western practice is an historical anachronism that has a child commune before he/she has become a full member of the Church through chrismation. More importantly, it deprives children of years of sacramental grace -- in Byzantine terminology, participation in the energies of the Trinity. Logistically, this also means parents refuse communion to children while they are interested, then try to revive a waning desire for the Body and Blood of Christ years later.

One would not postpone feeding children until they "understand" the digestive system or "choose" to eat of their own volition. To deprive children of spiritual nutrition is no less a form of neglect than physical starvation; it is metaphysical malnutrition to which no good parent would subject his child. To insist no one should commune unless he "understands" the "great mystery and wonderful sacrament" is wrongheaded: no one ever truly understands the sacraments, and to demand understanding precede the sacraments necessarily leads to Anabaptism. On the other hand, to understand this important aspect of parenthood leads one toward embracing the fullness of the Truth.

Thankfully, Reformed and other liturgical Protestant parents are beginning to understand the mortal jeopardy into which they place their own souls by delaying their children's baptism, and the grace they deprive their children by withholding the grace conferred by the Sacrament. May they come to learn the great honor due to the Body and Blood of Christ, truly present in the Sacrament of the Altar, and the rich benefits it confers: the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which begins, aids, and strengthens each soul on his road to theosis.

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