Eucharist – The Vital Life-Source.

This article was published in the February edition of The Furrow, 2012. Please reference the article to The Furrow.

Eucharist – The Vital Life-Source.


This article reflects on the present position of the celebration of First Communion in the light of Pope Benedict XVI’s call for renewal on the occasion of his recent visit to Germany.

‘There comes a point when, tired of losing, you decide to stop falling yourself, or at least try, or to send up the final flare, one last chance’.[i]


During his recent visit to Germany, Pope Benedict XVI spoke on one occasion during this visit to the Catholic Lay Faithful in Freiburg. During his talk he reflected that the church in Germany is extremely well organised, in fact he said it is ‘superbly organised’. He immediately followed on with a challenge; ‘But behind the structures, is there also a corresponding spiritual strength, the strength of faith in the living God?’ He continued, ‘If we do not find a way of genuinely renewing our faith, all structural reform will remain ineffective’. The talk identified the need for new expressions of faith and evangelization, addressed the crisis of faith that abounds and encouraged the establishment of new places where people can give expression to their inner longings.

The question posed is have we any structures or practices in the church that presently militate against a renewal of faith further contributing to the on-going and deepening crisis of faith. This article proposes that the present practise surrounding the sacraments, particularly the reception of First Communion is one such structure in the Irish Church that militates against the focus that Benedict XVI brings to bear on the current crisis of faith.

Presenting the Problem

The hearts of people and priest are uplifted at a dignified celebration of the Eucharist. Positive experience underlines that fact that the Eucharist is the ‘source and summit’ of our Christian faith. However these experiences are less and less common. The Sunday Eucharist remains a source of nourishment for those that attend; other events undermine the dignity of this great gift. At school masses and on reception of communion the reply, ‘cool’, ‘thanks’ or ‘what’s this’ can more readily be readily offered in response to ‘The Body of Christ’ than the reply ‘Amen’. Following school masses, sacristans and priests now check under seats to make sure that the host hasn’t been spat out or dropped on the floor. Funerals indicate further concern. Standing up at the end of a mass for the standard eulogy, people have to been known to thank the priest for ‘the gig’. At such events the manner in which people present for the Eucharist tells of a generation that see the Eucharist at the fringes of faith rather than at the heart of faith.

The programme ‘Do this in Memory of Me’ has brought new energy to preparation for First Communion. However, one might be tempted to ask is it an admission of defeat? Getting those preparing for communion and their families into the pews before the big event is helpful and even commendable but is it not showing how much the cultural tide has turned? For many years culture supported faith in a more forthright and obvious fashion, now less so. In the past one could assume that culture and faith worked closely together, now in certain circumstances the prevailing culture leaves little room for faith and if it does it may remain an unexpressed or inexpressible mystery. One of the most distressing outcomes of these realities is the impact on those who believe and who try to create a positive environment wherein faith will flourish. Seeing something that you believe in, that you love and have a deep respect for treated with seeming disdain is damaging to morale.

The Origin of Today’s Practice

The present practice of First Communion requires examination. Present practice may be an example of a corner that we have painted ourselves into as described by Eamonn FitzGibbon in a recent edition of The Furrow. It may even militate against Benedict XVI’s call to find a way of genuinely renewing our faith. Apart from being less culturally relevant it contains theological inaccuracies and could be seen as a fossil from a bygone era. The decree to allow young people to receive the Eucharist was issued by Pope Pius X on the 8th of August 1910 in an Encyclical entitled Quam Singulari. He argued that a child has a right to receive the Eucharist and Penance on reaching the age of reason or discretion. He deemed that this age is reached in the seventh year of the child’s life. He deplored practices whereby the safeguarding of the sacrament was placed over and above the right of a person to receive the Eucharist. Perfect knowledge of faith was not required however he did state that,

‘it is clear that the age of discretion for receiving Holy Communion is that at which the child knows the difference between the Eucharistic Bread and ordinary, material bread, and can therefore approach the altar with proper devotion’.

And on the issue of who decides whether a person should receive communion he quoted the from the Roman Catechism;

‘At what age children are to receive the Holy Mysteries no one can better judge than their father (parent) and the priest who is their confessor. For it is their duty to ascertain by questioning the children whether they have any understanding of this admirable Sacrament and if they have any desire for it’.

One cannot doubt the sincerity of Pius X. His intention was that the reception of the sacraments would provide spiritual nourishment needed to protect the innocence of young children ‘and who, amidst so many dangers and seductions of the present time have a special need of this heavenly food’. Prior to Pius X, Leo XIII wrote inspiring encyclicals bringing attention to the negative impact of the industrial revolution on humanity. While some may think that Pius X as a pope tried to save the church from the ravages of Leo XIII both, in their own way, were trying to uphold the dignity of each and every human being. Leo XIII, achieved this by calling attention to the dignity of labour and Pius X by providing humanity with the spiritual nourishment to sustain them in the face of various trials and temptations.

The desire to administer the sacraments to young people before they left school was justifiable. A case in point is Ireland. From 1892 education was compulsory for children between the ages of six and fourteen. However, according to the Central Statistics Office most young people left school before the age of fourteen as children were forced to work or go begging to provide for their families as illustrated in James Plunkett’s short story, Janey Mary.

‘Those who did answer her had been dour. They poked cross and harassed faces around half-open doors. Tell her mammy, they said, it’s at school she should have her, and not out worrying poor people the likes of them. They had the mouths of their own to feed and the bellies of their own to fill, and God knows that took doing’.

In his desire to provide nourishment for the Janey Marys of his day Pius X overlooked a theological matter. Theologically the proper order for the reception of the sacraments is Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, Eucharist rather than Baptism, Penance, Eucharist and Confirmation as it is ordered today. The reason for the original ordering is the belief that the guidance of the Holy Spirit is necessary to fully appreciate and celebrate the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist. By lowering the age for the reception of the Eucharist and by also encouraging more frequent reception of the Eucharist, Pius X was trying to restore the Eucharist as a right rather than reward. In the encyclical, Quam Singulari he was specifically addressing the fallout from the heresy of Jansenism which saw the Eucharist as reward for good behaviour rather than spiritual nourishment for the pilgrim journey. We are all too familiar with the legacy of Jansenism in Ireland. Writing in 1912 the commentator W.P. Ryan in his book entitled The Pope’s Green Island said, ‘the heart and the spirit gave way in a sort of terrorism before the priest. In his days of dominance, he did much to make Irish local life a dreary desert’.

A Markedly Different Era.

This is a different era. The cultural challenges are not as obvious as was the cultural trap of poverty and industrialisation in the early part of the last century; furthermore, there is very little evidence of Jansenism. If the present method of dispensing the sacraments is not serving to renew faith why aren’t real changes being made? Looking at Pius X’s original intention is it possible that those who partake in First Communion know the difference between Eucharistic Bread and ordinary bread? Do parents, teachers and priests note a genuine desire for the reception of the Eucharist which is distinctly different from a desire to mark a cultural rite of passage? Furthermore is there strong evidence to show that preparation for and reception of the Eucharist in its present form is helping young people overcome the negative dimensions of contemporary culture which demean their dignity as human beings? Is the way we presently celebrate the sacraments perceived by people as just another of the cultural packages that are letting us down rather than raising us up?

The Church is using the term Evangelisation more frequently and more lavishly. This is not an era to be tinkering with new toys; it is a time to delve into our deeper traditions. Many programmes are looking for a focus. Communities can form around novel ideas which do not last long.  If preparation was moved from its present cultural prison, then the Eucharist could well be the source and summit of the new evangelisation. In his address to the Catholic lay faithful in Freiburg, Benedict X said, ‘of continuing importance is the link with the vital life-source that is the Eucharist, since cut off from Christ we can do nothing’.


Referring to change in a European setting Ulrick Beck describes two energies of transformation; revolution and evolution[ii]. Revolution describes the decisions that are made to bring about change and evolution describes how the supranational institutions exhausted the potential of these decisions. The only hopeful note in this is that the presence of these two energies has meant that while European integration has faltered it will never regress. Church practise is regressing, basic statistics tell us this, and maybe this is evidence enough to suggest that this is a time for revolution rather than evolution. This article suggests that it is timely to correct the errors in the sacramental programme. Restoring the Eucharist to its rightful place as the source and summit of people’s faith is best left to the actions of the revolutionary rather than the evolutionary. Today more often than not the confused cultural packaging is often deemed to be more important than the precious present lying within.


On reflection both Leo XIII and Pius X were revolutionaries. Neither allowed the prevailing culture dictate the pace. They made strong statements and implemented changes which sought to support people’s faith journey.  We need to revert to their wisdom rather than their practices in the face of current social, cultural and religious challenges. Starting with First Communion, real choices have to be made. Is First Communion presently in the right place? Does it need to be celebrated after Confirmation?  If Eucharist is nourishment for the journey at what age should it be celebrated? Should it be more closely association with understanding and desire rather than a particular year in school? Should preparation and reception of the Eucharist be more deeply associated with the vision that Benedict XVI holds for faith formation where people… ‘come to see more and more clearly that everyone stands in need of this nourishment of love, this concrete friendship with others and with the Lord’[iii].

[i] McCann Colum,(2009), Let the Great World Spin, London, Bloomsbury Publishing. (pg. 126)

[ii] Beck, Ulrich and Grande, Edgar (2008) Cosmopolitan Europe, Cambridge, Polity Press. (pg. 45)

[iii] Benedict XVI, Meeting of the Catholic Lay Faithful, Seminary, Freiburg im Breisgau, Saturday, 24 September 2011

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