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A recent correspondent to the Catholic Leader raised the issue of how young children should be treated when communion is distributed at Mass.
It is wonderful to see small children take part in the communion rite by coming forward to stand with the rest of the family as they receive communion. This may well be sufficient participation without a special blessing, for there is a danger that we lose sight of what we are doing at this moment.
The purpose of this part of the liturgy is the giving and receiving of communion – rites for blessing certain individuals or groups might better be integrated into the concluding rite with the invocation of God’s blessing on the whole assembly. The blessing of children can be an interruption to the rite: the minister, for example, may be ready to present the Body of Christ to the next person when a blessing is requested. Sometimes, also, blessing children can get out of proportion if, for example, the minister prays a Trinitarian formula over each child.
Others would argue that this approach to the question is too purist and not sufficiently pastoral. They are probably right. How can you ignore a six year old, hands solemnly folded across the chest? Some acknowledgment of the children recognises that they are baptised, and it can express the desire of the Church that they might soon complete their initiation through confirmation and admission to eucharist.
Sometimes the child will be quite distracted when the family comes before the minister. But where the child is focussed on the family’s reception of communion, it may be a good idea to acknowledge the child’s presence with a gesture. One good form of blessing is for the minister to place a hand on the child’s head and mark the forehead with a cross. No words need be included: a smile is worth a thousand words.
It may not be necessary to bless every child who approaches. After all, a child may be brought in the communion procession simply to prevent mishap or mischief if left alone. In fact, I recently overheard a young fellow complain to his mother on returning to his seat ”Mummy, that lady X-ed me out!”
Interestingly there is no official sanction or prohibition of this practice. It has just grown up, presumably because it seems pastorally helpful, but it is worth reflecting on. Is a blessing given to a child when others are eating and drinking an appropriate substitute for holy communion? In Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, babies receive holy communion at their baptism, or at the closest Sunday. Once a member of the Body of Christ by water and the Spirit, the infant is part of the Body of Christ at the table. Growing into the knowledge of Christ’s love comes later. Western Christians seem to value intellectual knowledge and only admit children to communion after preparatory catechesis.
Rather than discussing whether or not to bless small children at communion, perhaps we should be asking: “Should we bless them or feed them?”