Thursday, April 12, 2012

Blessing Children in Communion Line: Fr. Erlenbush

Fr. Ryan Erlenbush at The New Theological Movement has some pertinent comments and some very good points as he asks today “What is wrong with a priest giving blessings to young children in the Communion line?” I, too, have written about the subject of blessings at Holy Communion, here.

Fr. Erlenbush’s article is a response to Fr. Cory Sticha, who has stated, “I despise blessing children in the Communion line…” [read the article here], and Fr. Z, who agreed with Fr. Sticha [here]

I must admit that when I wrote my post about blessings at Communion, I was not thinking at all about the implications for families with young, pre-first-communion children. That’s partly because I’ve been in parishes where there are just not that many children. It’s also because I was thinking only about adults who know they should go to confession, but want a blessing anyway.

I’m inclined to agree with Fr. Erlenbush in his analysis of whether or not a priest should give a blessing to young Catholic children in the Communion line. Here are some of his thoughts (read the full article here):

Limits of this discussion

…There is only one particular case we will be looking at… – the question of whether a priest should give a blessing to Catholic children who have not yet received their First Communion but who have joined their parents in the Communion line…

…[W]e must recall that the practice of regular Communion has only fairly recently come back to prominence in the life of the Church. And, whether this is always to the spiritual benefit of the faithful (since many, it seems, are unaware of what is required to be well disposed for the Sacrament), the widespread practice of both the father and mother regularly coming forward in the Communion line is not much more than one hundred years old (at least in North America).

When it was less common for both the mother and father to come forward, it was more common for the young children to remain in the pew with one or both of their parents. However, now that it is more common for both parents to come to Communion, it has also become the practice that the parents bring their infants and young children with them in the Communion line (rather than leaving them alone in the pew).

This practice of bringing the young children forward in the Communion line is a bi-product of the practice of frequent reception of Holy Communion by parents. And, since regular Communion is rather new, it is no surprise that the liturgical books have not yet addressed the issue. The Church does not tell the parents what they are to do with their infants – neither does liturgical law tell the priest how he is to handle young children when they accompany (or are carried forward by) their parents in the Communion line.

In any case, a simple sign of the Cross made over an infant can hardly be said to disrupt the distribution of the Blessed Sacrament. This little blessing, given to young Catholic children, does not do any great violence to the liturgy but can instead be seen as a legitimate adaptation brought on by the rather recent phenomenon of both parents regularly coming forward to Communion.

Another option: A Spiritual Communion?

Some will recommend that children who are too young to receive Communion should not be blessed but should instead be allowed to make a spiritual communion. These persons suggest that the Host be held before the child and that the priest allow a brief moment for the child to bow or make some other gesture of worship [or they recommend some other variation on this theme].

I do not think this practice is reasonable, on two accounts. First, a child too young to receive Communion is not capable of making a spiritual communion – if he is, then he should be receiving sacramental Communion. Second, providing this pause for a spiritual communion would be even more disruptive to the liturgy than the act of a simple blessing. Finally, this substitution would still be an “addition” (in legalistic terms) and would thus not really solve the so-called “problem” anyways.

I think Father’s explanation here is right on every count. In addition, imagine the disruption of Holy Communion that would occur when the priest, offering a spiritual communion to a young child, holds up the host, and the young child reaches for it, only to have it then refused! “Waaaaaaaah!!!”

A reason for blessing the young children

One reason for blessing the young children who are brought forward in the Communion line is that they are united to the Church by the living faith which they received in their baptism. Now, the Communion line is a sign of the unity of the Church; therefore, these little ones do no harm in coming forward with their parents, for they are truly united to the Church by the theological virtues of faith and charity.
However, according to the practice of the Roman Rite (a practice which, in my opinion, is very wise), children below the age of reason are not to take Communion. Still, I can see no reason why the communion with the Church, the mystical body of Christ, in which they share through their baptism cannot be expressed through a simple blessing given by the priest.

Now, I do not say that any parish or priest should introduce this practice. If, however, it is already a custom in a given parish, refusing to bless the children hardly seems a battle worth fighting. In any case, the parents clearly cannot leave toddlers and infants alone back in the pews, so the children will generally be brought forward in the Communion line when both parents are communicating.  (my emphasis)

What should be avoided
If a priest does give blessings to children, a few things should be avoided.

First, the priest should not be touching the children with the fingers which he uses to distribute Communion. The danger of the profanation of the Eucharist is far too great. Sacred Particles will surely be dispersed, resulting in sacrilege. (my emphasis)

I like Fr. Erlenbush’s stipulations here; that the custom of blessing children in the Communion line should not be introduced if it is not already in place, and that the priest must exercise great care in how he gives the blessing. In addition, Fr. Erlenbush notes:

Second, extraordinary ministers ought not to make the sign of the Cross. It would cause great confusion, and they have not the authority. Indeed, they should not give any sort of “blessing”. Perhaps they could say something like, “Receive Jesus in your heart” (as Archbishop Chaput suggests) – personally, I see no easy solution to this aspect of the question. (my emphasis)

Yes, the problem of extraordinary ministers giving a “blessing” is something to be addressed, I believe. It has been addressed in our diocese, but lay ministers continue to do it, even when instructed otherwise. The solution I see is this: use fewer extraordinary ministers! At least in many of the parishes in the Diocese of Baker, there is an overabundance of them, and they are over-used. And especially with regard to administering the Host, it seems to me that only a priest’s hands are anointed to that purpose, and lay ministers should not be doing it anyway.

And, finally, Fr. Erlenbush makes what I think is a most important distinction between the case of “blessings at Communion” in general, and those for young children:

Third, it seems to me that the situation of a Catholic child (who is too young to receive Communion) should not be lumped in with those who are non-Catholic or who are not disposed to receive Communion on account of mortal sin. The persons in these last groups are not visibly united to the Church through living faith, and so they are quite different from the little ones. Still, again, there is no easy solution to this problem. (my emphasis)

Amen to that.

Of course, in defending the blessing of children at Communion, many would quote the scripture verse, “Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come to me” (Matthew 19:14); however, as Fr. Erlenbush points out, this is a “low blow”, since “the question is not whether to bless children, but when”. In this case, I think Fr. Erlenbush convincingly answers that question – whether to bless children – in the affirmative.

Be sure to read Fr. Erlenbush’s full article – he addresses other aspects of the issue which I did not include here.

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