Q: A friend of mine teaches CCD, I think fifth or sixth grade. Mid-year she got a new student who had just moved into town, and she discovered that he had never, ever been to confession! He had made his First Holy Communion in a parish where somehow they were not required to make their First Penance beforehand. How is that possible? Don’t you have to make your First Penance before receiving your First Holy Communion? –Elizabeth
A: In a word, yes, you do.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states clearly that “children must go to the sacrament of Penance before receiving Holy Communion for the first time” (1457). There are very fundamental theological reasons for this. When we receive the Eucharist, as the Catechism points out,
…we must prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment. St. Paul urges us to examine our conscience: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.” Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to Communion (1385).
In other words, we Catholics—both children and adults—should always want to be as free from sin as possible before receiving Holy Communion.
It may be objected by some that children are too young to understand what sin is all about, and so it makes no sense for an innocent child to be confessing his “sins.” But the fact is, if a child is deemed ready to receive the Eucharist, it means that he has attained a use of reason sufficient to understand that it is Jesus Who is present in the consecrated Host. (The age of reason was also addressed in “Can Children Receive the Last Rites?”) Children who are simply too young to understand what they are really doing aren’t supposed to be making their First Holy Communion! And it follows that if a child has reached the age of reason, it also means that he is old enough to understand, in at least a basic way, that some actions are right and some are wrong—and that it is good to do what is right, and bad to do what is wrong. Thus every first communicant should have at least an elementary grasp of what it means to sin. And given our fallen nature, the implication is that once a child has reached the age of reason, he has begun to commit some sins.
Does a second-grade child, however, really have to worry about having committed the “grave sin” mentioned in the Catechism? Probably not! But that is not the point of requiring children to make their first confession before receiving the Eucharist. As a rule, pastors, parents, and catechists are not worried that First Communicants may be in a state of mortal sin; but they nevertheless want to teach the children that before receiving Christ Himself, they must get into the habit of examining their consciences and shunning all attachment to sin. After all, if children aren’t taught this practice from the very beginning, when will they ever learn to do it?
As we have seen so many times before in this space, canon law follows theology on this subject. Canon 914 states clearly that both parents and pastors are to see to it that children who have reached the age of reason are properly prepared to make their First Communion—after having made a sacramental confession. There is no room for creative interpretations here. If there are children being permitted to receive Holy Communion before having made their First Confession, the law is being violated. It’s as simple as that.
The same canon also notes that if the pastor judges that a child is too young to understand what is really going on, he cannot permit that child to receive Communion. Note that making this decision is the pastor’s right and obligation! In other words, children do not have an automatic “right” to make their First Holy Communion simply because they have reached the magic age of 7 or 8.
The requirement that children make their First Penance before their First Holy Communion dovetails neatly with the requirement found in canon 989, that all the faithful who have attained the age of reason are required to confess their grave sins at least once a year. This annual requirement—which is the bare minimum!—was discussed in detail in “Is Confession Still an Easter Duty?” where we saw that technically, if a Catholic never commits any grave sins, he is not required by law to receive the sacrament of penance. Striving for this bare minimum, however, is not necessarily the best practice, which is why canon 988.2 notes that the faithful are encouraged to confess venial sins as well. As far as small children are concerned, therefore, forming in them the habit of confessing their sins, whether grave or not, should then make it all the easier for them to turn to the confessional in their later years, should they have the misfortune to commit grave sin. On a theological note, one can also reasonably hope that the practice of frequent confession, which imparts grace to the penitent, should spiritually strengthen him so as better to resist temptations to mortal sin in the future.
Thus we can see that there are absolutely no grounds, either theological or canonical, for permitting children to receive their First Holy Communion before making their First Penance. While we adults may be convinced that they have never committed any grave sins, it is nonetheless critical to instill in these children an understanding of the importance of receiving Our Lord in the Eucharist with a heart that is as free from sin as can be.