Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy
First Confession and First Communion
Documents from the Holy See clarifying the obligation of administering First Confession before First Communion to end errors and abuses of sacramental discipline.
I. Sanctus Pontifex – Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments (1973)
II. In quibusdam Ecclesiae partibus – Congregations for the Sacraments and Divine Worship and Congregation for the Clergy (1977)
III. Responsum – Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship and Sacred Congregation for the Clergy (1977)
IV. Code of Canon Law, Canon 914 – Pope John Paul II (1983)
V. Catechism of the Catholic Church – Pope John Paul II (1994)
VI. Redemptionis Sacramentum – Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (2004 disciplinary instruction on the liturgy)
Pope St. Pius X, basing himself on the prescription of canon 21 of Lateran Council IV, rules through the Decree Quam singulari, 8 August 1916 (AAS 2  577-583) that children were to receive the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist as soon as they reached the age of reason. Put into practice throughout the universal Church, this precept has yielded many good results for the Christian life and spiritual perfection and continues to do so.
The "Addendum" to the General Catechetical Directory, promulgated by the Congregation for the Clergy, 11 April 1971 (AAS 64  97-176), confirmed the practice in which children’s first communion is preceded by the sacrament of penance in these words: "Having weighed all these points and keeping in mind the common and general practice, which per se cannot be derogated without the approval of the Apostolic See, and also having heard the conferences of bishops, the Holy See judges it fitting that the practice now in force in the Church of putting confession ahead of first communion should be retained" (no. 5).
The same document took into consideration new practices introduced in some regions whereby reception of the Eucharist was permitted before reception of the sacrament of penance. The document merely permitted the continuation of these experiments for the time being if "they have first communicated with the Holy See, which will gladly listen to them, and if they are of one mind with the Holy See" (ibid.).
The Congregations for the Discipline of the Sacraments and for the Clergy have considered this matter thoroughly and taken into account the views of the conferences of bishops. With the approval of Pope Paul VI, therefore, the two Congregations by the present document declare that an end must be put to these experiments — which now have gone on for three years — to coincide with the close of the school year 1972-73 and that thereafter the Decree Quam singulari must be obeyed everywhere by all.
II. In quibusdam Ecclesiae partibus: Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship and Sacred Congregation for the Clergy Letter to the conferences of bishops, on children’s first confession prior to first communion, 31 March 1977 (SCSDW and SCC Prot. N. 2/76)
In some parts of the Church and in some centers for catechetics, even though the Declaration Sanctus Pontifex was published on 24 May 1973 jointly by the Sacred Congregations for the Discipline of the Sacraments and for the Clergy (see AAS 65, 1973, 410), & dissension and doubts still remain about the ecclesiastical discipline relevant to children’s receiving the sacrament of penance before they receive their first communion. Many inquiries and requests have come to this Apostolic See from bishops, priests, and parents. One apostolic religious institute, exercising its minis- try in many countries, has posed the question explicitly: after the promulgation of the Declaration, is it still lawful for first communion to precede first confession as a general rule in those parishes where this practice has been in force for the last several years?
Moreover, recent surveys by the Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship have established the need of inculcating the Church’s norms regarding this issue and also the timeliness of explaining again, to the extent required, the mind and force of this declaration. This is done by giving an official reply to the query raised by the religious institute already mentioned.
It is certainly not necessary to explain the reason for publishing the Declaration. All are fully aware of the grave disturbance, created by some opinions based on psychological and pedagogical reasons, that was undermining the accepted practice of the Church. It is interesting to note, however, that, before the Decree Quam singulari (see AAS 2, 579), according to the general opinion, children who reached a certain age could be admitted to confession, but not to communion; now, conversely, it is claimed that children may receive communion, but that it is not right for confession to precede. The Decree Quam singulari itself placed the origin of the regrettable practice in question in the failure to settle clearly the age of discretion suited to receiving the sacraments: "The abuses we censure spring from this, that the age of discretion was not properly or correctly settled and that some assign one age for confession and another for the Eucharist." For this reason in no. 1 of the legislative section, the Decree prescribes that there is only one age for these sacraments and that when it is reached, the obligation begins of receiving both according to the designated order, i.e., confession before communion: "The age of discretion both for confession and for communion is the age at which the child begins to reason, i.e., around the seventh year, either before or after. That is the time when the obligation begins of fulfilling the precept both of confession and of communion."
That confession should precede communion is clear from the order in which these two sacraments are listed in the Decree, as well as from the fact that the repudiated abuses concerned the admission not to confession but rather to communion.
The need for safeguarding and protecting worthy participation in the Eucharist has compelled the Church to introduce as the norm in its discipline and pastoral practice that confession should precede communion. In this way it respects the right of the faithful, both adults and children, to receive the sacrament of reconciliation.
Moreover, St. Paul’s admonition (see I Cor. 11:28) truly establishes a directive norm that applies even to children. They too, therefore, should examine their conscience before receiving the Eucharist. But often children are not able to examine their conscience clearly and surely without help; they will be able to do so more easily and safely if the assistance of a priest confessor is available to them. Many children feel troubled by small and unimportant things, while others may fail to recognize or make little of more serious faults.
It is further to be remembered what many good pastors have learned from their catechetical and ministerial experience, namely, the great benefits and saving power that first confession has in the life of children if it is carefully prepared, properly adapted to their age and their capacity to perceive spiritual things, and carefully administered.
When they arrive at the age of discretion, children already possess in the Church the right to receive both sacraments. It would be an absurd and unjust discrimination and a violation of conscience if they were prepared for and admitted only to communion. It is not enough to say that children have the right to go to confession, if this right is excluded in practice.
When children are sufficiently instructed and are aware of the special nature of these two sacraments, it will not be difficult for them to go first to the sacrament of reconciliation, which, in a simple but fundamental way, arouses in them the awareness of moral good and evil and aids them to bring a more mature disposition to their happy meeting with Christ in the Eucharist. A deep conviction about the need of the greatest purity for the reception of the Eucharist worthily, if prudently and properly instilled in children right from the time of their first communion, will accompany them for the rest of their lives and lead to a greater esteem for, and a more frequent use of, the sacrament of reconciliation. Pope Paul VI taught this in the letter he wrote through the Secretary of State on the occasion of the 26th Liturgical Week celebrated in Florence: "The Pope, finally, places a special emphasis on children’s confession, particularly their first confession. This must always pre- cede their first communion even if an extended period between the two is helpful. From the earliest years an evangelization must begin that will make ever stronger and more conscious the support of a living faith for their celebration of the sacrament and above all for a sure and consistent way of living the Christian life."
It may well be remarked that the special conditions of society and culture in different countries are not a legitimate reason for establishing a different discipline. Human nature is basically the same everywhere and the goals of spiritual development that belong to the sacrament are set equally before everyone. And indeed, whatever their social or cultural situation, if children can receive the Eucharist in a conscious way, suited to their age, they can also have an equal awareness of sin and ask God’s pardon in confession.
Finally, one must remember that the reform and reinvigoration of the sacrament of penance so needed today and so desired by pastors in the universal Church, cannot come about unless it has its foundation and beginning in the careful and effective preparation and reception of the sacraments of Christian initiation.
III. Responsum: Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship and Sacred Congregation for the Clergy Reply to a query on first confession and first communion, 20 May 1977: AAS 69 (1977) 427; Not 13 (1977) 603
After the Declaration of 24 May 1973, is it still lawful for first communion to precede first confession as a general rule in those parishes where this practice has been in force for the last several years? The Congregations for the Sacraments and Divine Worship and for the Clergy, with the approval of Pope Paul Vl, have replied:
No, in accord with the mind of the Declaration.
That mind is that a year from promulgation of the Declaration there be an end to all experiments in which first communion is received without prior reception of the sacrament of penance and that the discipline of the Church return to the spirit of the Decree Quam singulari.
Canon 914. It is the responsibility, in the first place, of parents and those who take the place of parents as well as of the pastor to see that children who have reached the use of reason are correctly prepared and are nourished by the divine food as early as possible, preceded by sacramental confession; it is also for the pastor to be vigilant lest any children come to the Holy Banquet who have not reached the use of reason or whom he judges are not sufficiently disposed.
1457 According to the Church’s command, "after having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year." Anyone who is aware of having committed a mortal sin must not receive Holy Communion, even if he experiences deep contrition, without having first received sacramental absolution, unless he has a grave reason for receiving Communion and there is no possibility of going to confession. Children must go to the sacrament of Penance before receiving Holy Communion for the first time.
87. The First Communion of children must always be preceded by sacramental confession and absolution.[n.169] Moreover First Communion should always be administered by a Priest and never outside the celebration of Mass. Apart from exceptional cases, it is not particularly appropriate for First Communion to be administered on Holy Thursday of the Lord’s Supper. Another day should be chosen instead, such as a Sunday between the Second and the Sixth Sunday of Easter, or the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, or the Sundays of Ordinary Time, since Sunday is rightly regarded as the day of the Eucharist.[n.170] “Children who have not attained the age of reason, or those whom” the Parish Priest “has determined to be insufficiently prepared” should not come forward to receive the Holy Eucharist.[n.171] Where it happens, however, that a child who is exceptionally mature for his age is judged to be ready for receiving the Sacrament, the child must not be denied First Communion provided he has received sufficient instruction.