Refusing First Holy Communion to Children Who Are Ill-Prepared

Q:  I am a volunteer in our parish’s catechism program, and I help run the First Holy Communion preparation…. As has unfortunately become very common, we get a LOT of uncatechized children and an ever-increasing number of uncatechized parents in our program.  We normally require the candidates and their families to regularly attend Holy Mass for obvious reasons, though attendance is very patchy in some cases.

If a child shows signs that he or she doesn’t believe what we are teaching, e.g. explicitly saying things in a very innocent way that clearly contradict what we are teaching, can the pastor still decide that the child is properly disposed?  Can he decide to delay the Sacrament to the next year?

Or to use stronger language: can you imagine a situation in which admitting a child to First Holy Communion would ever be a sacrilege? Is the child’s youth or family situation an excuse for all manner of unbelief?

I understand that fruitful reception of the Sacrament of the Eucharist is tied to being properly disposed.  At the same time, I understand that the “faithful” have a right to the Sacraments. But is there a definition of what constitutes a “faithful” person?  –Jenny

A: Since much of the Catholic world is beginning a new year of catechism classes at about this time, it is perhaps appropriate to take a look now at this question on the subject.  In recent months we’ve spent a lot of time looking at situations where the faithful have been wrongly denied the sacraments, to which they have a right (cf. c. 843.1; see “Our Priest Cancelled Our Wedding, So Who Else Can Validly Marry Us?” and “Can We be Required to Receive Communion in the Hand, Because of the Virus?” among others).  Jenny’s question, however, is the opposite.  When a Catholic seeks a sacrament—or in this case, seeks it for his/her child—but the child is not properly disposed to receive it, since the family are not practicing the faith and the child therefore doesn’t understand what it all means … what’s supposed to happen?  And who makes that decision?

The canons that pertain to this question are scattered throughout the code, since the matter simultaneously involves the reception of the sacraments, the responsibilities of parish priests and of parents, and the Church’s responsibility to catechize the faithful.  But once we piece them all together, the answers to Jenny’s questions are perfectly clear.

When it comes to making one’s First Holy Communion, canon 913.1 tells us what is necessary:

For Holy Communion to be administered to children, it is required that they have sufficient knowledge and be accurately prepared, so that according to their capacity they understand what the mystery of Christ means, and are able to receive the Body of the Lord with faith and devotion.

There’s nothing in this canon which should be a surprise to any Catholic.  If you don’t understand and believe that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, then it makes no theological sense for the Church to permit you to receive Communion.  (And why would you even want to, anyway?)

But who’s the one who determines whether a prospective first-communicant is sufficiently prepared?  As we saw in “Homeschooling and Catechetics,” many Catholic parents will tell you that it is their responsibility to teach their children the faith—and they’re not wrong. The Catechism tells us that parents are the primary educators of their children (CCC 1653), and it’s not referring here to potty-training, table manners and ABC’s, but rather to “the moral, spiritual, and supernatural life that parents hand on to their children by education.”  Ordinarily, children first learn to understand and believe the Catholic faith (thereby becoming members of the faithful) at home, from their parents.

At the same time, however, the code tells us that the parish priest is responsible for seeing to it that the faithful are instructed in the faith by catechetical formation; and he is to have particular care in this regard for the education of children (c. 528.1 and also c. 776; see “Catechetics and the Authority of the Parish Priest,” and also check out “Who Is Responsible for Children’s Religious Education?” for a discussion of the role of parish catechists in this equation).  As for reception of the sacraments, canon 843.2 asserts that “shepherds of souls”—a term which includes both diocesan bishops and parish priests—have the duty to take care that those who seek the sacraments are prepared to receive them by proper catechetical instruction.  With specific heed to First Penance and First Holy Communion, it is the pastor of the parish who is to ensure that children are properly prepared (c. 777 n. 2).

So there is a balancing-act here, with responsibilities for a child’s spiritual formation shared in different ways by the child’s parents and the family’s parish priest.  Factor in preparation for First Penance and First Holy Communion, and you end up with what’s found in canon 914:

It is primarily the duty of parents and of those who take their place, as it is the duty of the parish priest, to ensure that children who have reached the use of reason are properly prepared and, having made their sacramental confession, are nourished by this divine food as soon as possible. 

But there’s more to canon 914, because it next tells us whose responsibility it ultimately is to determine that a child is not sufficiently prepared for the reception of the sacraments, and thus cannot receive them yet:

It is also the duty of the parish priest to see that children who have not reached the use of reason, or whom he has judged to be insufficiently disposed, do not come to Holy Communion.

In short, the responsibility for the sacramental preparation of children is shouldered by both parents and the parish priest, in their respective ways; but the final decision as to whether a child is actually ready or not is made not by the parents, but by the priest.  No Catholic child (or adult, for that matter) who is inadequately catechetized, ill-prepared, or nonbelieving can claim a “right to receive the sacraments,” which in any case would be meaningless and/or misunderstood by the recipient.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of parents out there who take umbrage at the notion that their child has been dubbed inadequately prepared (or to use the phrase found in canon 914, “insufficiently disposed”) and thus cannot make his/her First Penance and Holy Communion together with the other children.  But what the Church is doing parallels perfectly what schoolteachers do in the secular sphere: they first teach children, then assess them to see whether they have learned enough of the material that they were taught … and if the teachers conclude that in fact the children have not mastered the concepts, they aren’t permitted to progress to the next level.  There’s nothing particularly complicated or controversial about this.

That being said, there is no doubt that it can be especially tricky for a priest to deal with the family of a child who is not sufficiently prepared to receive the sacraments, when that family is practicing their faith only intermittently, if at all.  That’s because if a family’s connection to the parish is slender as a thread that could snap at any moment, a parish priest naturally doesn’t want to drive the family away altogether by telling them what they don’t want to hear.  The very fact that weak Catholic parents are making the effort to bring their children to catechism classes, in preparation for their First Penance and Holy Communion, may be a sign of more hopeful spiritual things to come.  So the pastor of a parish can certainly feel sometimes that in trying to balance (a) the need for a child to be properly prepared and disposed to receive the sacraments, and (b) the pastoral desire to keep that family connected to the parish … he is walking a tightrope with no safety net.  A priest is expected to safeguard the integrity of the sacraments, and at the same time encourage semi-practicing Catholics to stay connected to the Church—and telling them that their child can’t receive the sacraments this year because of inadequate preparation can of course strike weak Catholic parents as slamming the door on them.  Diplomacy and tact in such situations are thus absolutely critical.  (Here’s one more reason why we all need to pray for our parish clergy!)

The wording of the relevant canons in the Code of Canon Law presumes that if parents send their children to catechism classes when they are of the age to receive First Penance Communionand Holy Communion, they surely must be interested in their children’s spiritual wellbeing and willing to cooperate with the parish.  Otherwise why would they bother, right?  But as is painfully evident in many parts of the world, this is not always true.  Particularly in majority-Catholic countries, many parents regard the reception of the sacraments by their children as a cultural tradition, with no additional significance: they have their new baby baptized because that’s what Grandma wants, they arrange for the child’s First Holy Communion because everyone else does, etc.  In cases like these, when parents simply take it for granted that their parish will give them what they want, because they want it, a wake-up call is needed—and it’s the parish priest’s responsibility to give it to them.

In Jenny’s parish, it appears that children have been permitted in the past to receive the sacraments despite inadequate preparation and/or being insufficiently disposed.  Some of the details Jenny provided have been omitted for brevity’s sake, but the pastor’s rationale has evidently been that “it’s not the child’s fault” that he/she doesn’t attend Mass regularly and doesn’t fully understand what these sacraments are all about—and he sees the denial of First Penance and Holy Communion to such children as “punishing” them for something over which the children have no control.

Embracing this sort of rationalization may make life easier in the short-run for the priest, but its logical flaws are easy enough to recognize.  True, these sorts of external factors aren’t the child’s “fault”; but it is pretty irrational to suggest that because a child is poor, or has irresponsible parents, this somehow excuses him from being properly prepared to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist!  The Body of Christ is not a prize that children receive, in exchange for simply coming to catechism class a set number of times over a given period.  Once again we can make a clear parallel with education/training in secular subjects: if a child can’t do mathematics, or a teenager can’t drive a car safely at the time of his driving test, surely no reasonable person would hold that they should nevertheless receive passing marks in math/a driver’s license anyway, simply because they lack money or good parents!

Proposing deferral of the sacraments for a year is certainly possible; perhaps in the interim the child will mature and the parents will wake up.  It might be a great kindness to them to do this.  As we saw in “Can the Pastor Refuse to Baptize Our Child?” the Church requires parish priests to defer an infant’s baptism when the parents are judged to be unprepared to accept its responsibilities (cf. c. 868.1 n. 2); this could be considered comparable.

Jenny asks whether allowing someone who is unprepared/unbelieving to receive Holy Communion anyway is a sacrilege.  This is a term which is not used (much less defined) in the Code of Canon Law, as it belongs more to the realm of theology.  Still, insofar as the term “sacrilege” references an act which misuses or abuses something which is sacred—in this case, the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, surely among the many aspects of our faith the most sacred one of all—one can safely say that this would constitute sacrilege.  The blame for it, of course, does not rest with the child, but with the pastor of the parish and the child’s parents, both of whom are unquestionably irresponsible.

Since Jenny is directly involved in her parish’s catechism program, and can see firsthand what is happening in these cases, what should she do about it?  It might be tempting to run directly to the diocesan bishop, who is the priest’s superior; but first she should talk to the priest directly (assuming she hasn’t already done so).  Is it possible that he misunderstands the situation of these children?  Does Jenny see a fuller picture of the family’s spiritual life than he does?  Given the dire shortage of Catholic priests in most of the world today, it could very well be that the priest is absolutely overwhelmed with work.  If he’s dealing single-handedly with thousands of parishioners, it’s easy to appreciate why he might not have a sufficiently clear idea of what is actually happening in the life of one particular child.

This is where the role of a catechism teacher can be so critical: if the catechist can alert the pastor of the parish to a problem-situation early on—rather than first bringing it to his attention in the few weeks/days before the child is scheduled to receive the sacraments for the first time—the priest can sit down with the parents and the child to get a better impression of where everyone is.  There would, in such a scenario, be sufficient time for the family to get on-track in time for the reception of First Penance (which of course comes before First Holy Communion, as discussed in “Can Children Make Their First Communion Before Their First Confession?”).  And if the parents refuse to do so, well, they can’t feign surprise when they’re told at the end of the catechetical program that their child cannot receive the sacraments due to inadequate preparation.  This is “transparency” at its finest, and it also constitutes an act of charity.

There’s no question that the sacramental life of the Church is topsy-turvy these days.  People in many areas have been refused the sacraments despite being well prepared to receive them, while others (as we can see from Jenny’s parish) are being given the sacraments even though they fail to manifest any sign that they are properly disposed and understand what they are all about.  Let’s all keep praying for the Church and especially for our clergy, that God will continue to guide them and give them the strength to choose to do not what’s easy, but what’s right.

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