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NOVA ET VETERA
from issue no. 08/09 - 2010

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When there was belief in the action of grace


To make first communion all that is required of children is that they know to the best of their ability, in the judgement of their parents and confessors, the mysteries of faith necessary as a means of salvation and be able to distinguish Eucharistic bread from ordinary bread


by Lorenzo Cappelletti


Pius X in a 1904 photo

Pius X in a 1904 photo

On 8 August 1910 the Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments issued the decree Quam singulari. This decree, addressing the age at which children should be allowed to take their first Eucharistic communion (de aetate admittendorum ad primam communionem eucharisticam), completed a series of decrees since Leo XIII’s papacy encouraging more frequent communion. This has been a considerable problem during the modern period. From the mid-17th century various schools of thought – which only historiographical laziness identifies with the Jesuits and the Jansenists sic et simpliciter – fought over the question. It is, of course, a pastoral one but, in so far as it hinges on many aspects of dogma and ecclesiology, it touches the core of Christian belief.
As regards Leo XIII, one of the last solemn acts of his papacy was the encyclical Mirae caritatis of 28 May 1902 on the most holy Eucharist. “We, who have little time to live,” the Pope wrote, “can desire no more than to be allowed to stir in the souls of all and to foster the affection of grateful memory and of due devotion towards the wondrous Sacrament on which we deem the hope and efficacy of that salvation and that peace, to which all are drawn with passion, is based in special fashion.” This was why the Pope wanted, among other things, to correct “the most harmful and widespread error committed by those who think that the use of the sacrament should be restricted to those who, in the absence of [other] concerns and out of coarse thinking congratulate themselves on their ambition to the devout life. Whereas that thing, than which nothing is more excellent and life-giving, belongs absolutely to everybody, whatsoever their rank or office, to all those who desire (and there is no one who should not desire it) to nourish in themselves the life of divine grace, whose purpose is the achieving of a blessed life in God”.
Leo XIII’s successor, Pius X, followed his intent and with the decree Sacra Tridentina Synodus issued by the Sacred Congregation of the Council on December 20 1905, invited all the faithful who had reached the age of reason to take frequent, even daily communion, on the sole condition of being in a state of grace and having the proper intention. With the decree Quam singulari Pius X did nothing less than determine when the age of reason has been reached and what the consequences are of such determination from the sacramental point of view. The decree is well worth reading not just for the eight detailed rules (given here in full) which have regulated the admission of children to confession and communion almost down to our own day, but also for the realism and piety with which it views the frailty of the human condition: “And even if a thorough instruction and a careful Sacramental Confession should precede Holy Communion, which does not everywhere occur, still the loss of first innocence is always to be deplored and might have been avoided by reception of the Eucharist in more tender years”. Let me indicate in that “which does not everywhere occur”, in its opposition to “always”, the natural and supernatural realism of a Church still experienced in human nature. In pointing out the greater harm from the presumed advantages of a “thorough instruction” (“which does not everywhere occur”, let us remember), the decree goes on: “Such is the injury caused by those who insist on extraordinary preparations for First Communion, beyond what is reasonable; and they doubtless do not realize that such precautions proceed from the errors of the Jansenists who contended that the Most Holy Eucharist is a reward rather than a remedy for human frailty. The Council of Trent, indeed, teaches otherwise when it calls the Eucharist, 'An antidote whereby we may be freed from daily faults and be preserved from mortal sins.'... Moreover, the fact that in ancient times the remaining particles of the Sacred Species were even given to nursing infants seems to indicate that no extraordinary preparation should now be demanded of children who are in the happy state of innocence and purity of soul, and who, amidst so many dangers and seductions of the present time have a special need of this heavenly food”. At times what is actual does not coincide with what is contemporary.
Here follow the eight points of the Quam singulari decree.
I. The age of discretion, both for Confession and for Holy Communion, is the time when a child begins to reason, that is about the seventh year, more or less. From that time on begins the obligation of fulfilling the precept of both Confession and Communion.
II. A full and perfect knowledge of Christian doctrine is not necessary either for First Confession or for First Communion. Afterwards, however, the child will be obliged to learn gradually the entire Catechism according to his ability.
III. The knowledge of religion which is required in a child in order to be properly prepared to receive First Communion is such that he will understand according to his capacity those Mysteries of faith which are necessary as a means of salvation (necessitate medii)* and that he can distinguish between the Bread of the Eucharist and ordinary, material bread, and thus he may receive Holy Communion with a devotion becoming his years.
IV. The obligation of the precept of Confession and Communion which binds the child particularly affects those who have him in charge, namely, parents, confessor, teachers and the pastor. It belongs to the father, or the person taking his place, and to the confessor, according to the Roman Catechism, to admit a child to his First Communion.
V. The pastor should announce and hold a General Communion of the children once a year or more often, and he should on these occasions admit not only the First Communicants but also others who have already approached the Holy Table with the above-mentioned consent of their parents or confessor. Some days of instruction and preparation should be previously given to both classes of children.
VI. Those who have charge of the children should zealously see to it that after their First Communion these children frequently approach the Holy Table, even daily if possible, as Jesus Christ and Mother Church desire, and let this be done with a devotion becoming their age. They must also bear in mind that very grave duty which obliged them to have the children attend the public Catechism classes; if this is not done, then they must supply religious instruction in some other way.
VII. The custom of not admitting children to Confession or of not giving them absolution when they have already attained the use of reason must be entirely abandoned. The Ordinary shall see to it that this condition ceases absolutely, and he may, if necessary, use legal measures accordingly.
VIII. he practice of not administering the Viaticum and Extreme Unction to children who have attained the use of reason, and of burying them with the rite used for infants is a most intolerable abuse. The Ordinary should take very severe measures against those who do not give up the practice.


* “An act is termed necessary as a means when, both because of its nature and because of the divine plan, it is the sole means for gaining eternal life and the help necessary to reach it, so that its even involuntary omission makes it impossible for one to gain one’s own salvation” (from the entry Necessité by Émile Amann in the Dictionnaire de Théologie catholique).


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