I Believe in the Communion of All the Saints – Part One

commentary by Peter M. Berg

Four years ago when the Motley Magpie “hit the newsstands” it didn’t take much prescience to see that it would stir up a fuss in the Wisconsin Synod. Articles written on the every Sunday celebration of the Sacrament and the Office of the Holy Ministry dealt with hot-button issues in the synod and elsewhere in Lutheranism. The senior editor’s barbed wit and his ability to see the absurdities in many WELS doctrinal positions insured that people would whine about the tone of writing, which was about all they could do since they couldn’t counter the truth (perhaps the reason that most didn’t even try). However, although the matters just mentioned seemed to have the potential to stir up a fuss, the senior editor and I agreed that an article about the communing of infants by Fr. James Frey, which appeared in the July 2004 issue, was the shocker of the lot. The article went to the very core of the faith. Among other things the article revealed how scholastic Lutheran theology has become since the time of the first tier Lutheran fathers, whom themselves were not always immune to their late medieval theological upbringing. The article addressed the question: “How gracious is grace?” It dealt with the matter of the very nature of faith. In our discussions after the article appeared we wondered when the bombshell would explode. Much to our surprise it didn’t. It was not that the piece was a dud, far from it. For some inexplicable reason it hardly caused a stir at the time of its first appearance, much to our amazement.


Fast forward several years. The explosion has gone off. The question as to whether all of God’s faithful may commune, a virtual non-issue several years ago, has now become the new hot button topic among confessional and conservative Lutherans. Fr. David Petersen’s always interesting blog, Cyberstones, recently had three threads on the topic going at the same time generating well over two hundred comments, some which were quite acrimonious. It’s one of those topics that generates knee-jerk reactions. Our readers should know that beyond the public debate out in blogosphere there is much research being done on this topic behind the scenes. I’ve been privileged to examine some of this research. You can count me as one of the convinced. Commune all of God’s faithful? Most certainly!


All of the faithful are communed to this day in the churches of the Eastern Orthodox communion. Eastern theologians can argue quite convincingly that this was the catholic practice since the early days of the Church. However, the practice fell by the wayside in the West. In the first of a two part article I propose to trace the reasons for the loss of this practice in the West. I must confess that I have not dealt with primary documents. I am relying on the translating work and research of others and to them I am indebted. To mention a few by name, I’m particularly indebted to Fr. Duane Osterloth, Fr. Gifford Grobien, and Fr. Gary Gehlbach. I will briefly summarize a translation of Peter Browe’s work The Communion of Children in the Middle Ages, first published in German in Scholastica 5 in 1930 (“Die Kinderkommunion im Mittelalter”). Fr. Grobien is the translator. I will also make use of the informative introduction to the Browe work written by Fr. Grobien, entitled  “The Medieval Transition Away From The Communion Of Infants And Children.” In the second part of the article I intend to deal with the theological objections to this practice.


Early Catholic Practice


“Children and simpletons, who cannot understand instruction shall give answer through their sponsors and be protected with chrism and be admitted to the mystery of the Eucharist,” said Gennadius of Marseille at the end of the fifth century. In response to Charlemagne’s question as to why all baptismal candidates received Holy Communion after baptism, his theologians noted that it was the received practice and that its continuance would maintain the unity of the church. The emperor himself ordered that all the dying, both adults and infants, be given the Viaticum before death. Many similar references could be adduced to show that at least from the fifth century the communing of all the faithful was the catholic practice of the churches in the East and the West. Common scholarly wisdom has it that the first written record of an ecclesiastical practice can usually be read back at least a century or two. However, by the thirteen century the practice had all but disappeared in the Roman Church and was only revived in the West by the Hussites in the fifteenth century. While the Council of Trent acknowledged that the practice had ancient precedence, it viewed the practice as unnecessary and anathematized anyone who taught that it was necessary for salvation.


Roman Catholics and Lutherans have for centuries experienced baptism, confirmation and first communion as separate, though related, events. This was not so in the early church. In addition, confirmation means something somewhat different to us than it did to early Christians. At the great Easter Vigil and at Pentecost catechumens were baptized, chrismated with oil (i.e. confirmed), and then received the Eucharist for the first time. While catechetical instruction took place prior to first communion in the case of adults, baptism, confirmation (chrismation) and first communion were all joined together. However, the instruction which was given out was selective. Not all of the mysteries of the Mysterion were inculcated. Indeed, first communion was truly first communion. The candidates were not permitted to even view the celebration of the Eucharist during their catechumenate. Only the confirmed, both adults and the young, could view the celebration and partake of the Meal. More instruction for adult converts took place following the Vigil, known as mystagogical catechesis. What the catechumens experienced was afterward explained to them. In this way substance followed form, as it always does in the case of the very young. In contrast to the common view held by most in Catholicism and Lutheranism (and elsewhere), in which people must learn about a thing before it is experienced, catechumens in the ancient church experienced the thing and then learned about the thing which they had witnessed and in which they had participated. An analogous example is that of the apostles. They hardly knew the full meaning and significance of the first Lord’s Supper celebrated on the night of Jesus’ betrayal. It was only afterward that these things became clear. Nonetheless, on that night of nights they received what Jesus said they would receive, and who is to say that it did not benefit them, even if it was later. Their participation in the body and blood of Christ was not to no avail. Only Judas lost the bonum.


Insistence on the communion of all the faithful was so strong in some quarters of the early church that some rigorists taught that baptized infants who died without receiving the Sacrament were condemned. Browe cites one Bishop Riculf of Soissons who wrote to his priests in 889, “Take diligent care that the baptized immediately receive the Eucharist. For the one who said, ‘If one is not born again of water and Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven,’ also said, ‘If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you do not have life in you.’ This means that without the Body and the Blood of the Son of Man, one cannot have life.” Such rigorism was the minority opinion. Most theologians of the era saw Baptism as providing the necessary grace for salvation. Nonetheless, the communion of all the faithful was common practice. (The above quote needs to be understood in its context. The early church saw the Eucharistic dimensions of John 6, an insight largely lost on most Lutherans today. The rigorists saw Jesus’ teachings about the necessity of partaking of his flesh and blood in John 6 in the same light as they viewed his statements about the necessity of the new birth through Holy Baptism in the third chapter. Once again, those who held this opinion were in the minority.)


The Pascha


“For Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Co 5:7, 8, ESV). Since the Pascha was a type of both Christ and the Lord’s Supper the details of its celebration might inform our research. The Passover/Exodus is the single most important event of the Old Testament era. It typified and anticipated the greatest event of all history, the atonement made by Christ on Good Friday, resulting in the release from the bondage of sin and death. Each act of deliverance had a meal attached to it which was intimately connected to the event. Citizenship in the respective kingdoms of the old covenant and the new testament was bound up in the act of deliverance and in participation in said meals.


The Passover was celebrated communally because everyone in the community participated in the meal at the same hour. However, its locus was in individual family homes. The entire family participated in the liturgy of the Passover. Children participated in the liturgy of the Feast. The oldest son was to ask the meaning of the celebration. The father answered with the annual retelling the story of Israel’s redemption and nationhood.


An Orthodox rabbi with whom I recently spoke told me that Passover is principally for the benefit of the children of the community. It is their catechesis, so to speak, in the history of the people of Israel. The rabbi noted that children participate in the ritual and the meal at the level of their capabilities, and this takes place as early as possible, prior to their bar and bath mitzvahs.


Reasons for the Loss of Catholic Practice


In his analysis of Peter Browe’s research on this subject Gifford Grobien delineates four reasons for the later exclusion of a part of the faithful from the Lord’s Table. Equally significant is the reason which Browe does not cite for the decline of former catholic practice. Grobien notes, “(Browe) cites the development of realism, the separation of baptism from the divine service, the increased emphasis on personal preparation, and the increased complacency of communicants as reasons for the decline. Significantly, he does not cite the development of biblical studies and the particular interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11 as a cause for this transition away from infant and child communion.” (p i)  These four reasons for the decline of infant and child communion will be briefly discussed.




During the Middle Ages the Lord’s Supper became the subject of intense theological study and personal piety. Out of this interest came a deep sense of awe and reverence for the Supper. Scholastic theologians produced clear and moving testimonies to the real presence of our Lord’s Body and Blood in the Supper. Who can better Aquinas’ succinct poetic portrayal of the Supper in his Lauda Sion salvtorem:


They, too, who of him partake sever not,

nor rend nor break but entire their Lord receive.

Whether one or thousands eat all receive the selfsame meat

nor the less for others leave.


However, there was a negative side to this interest. This age produced such things as the unneeded miracle of Transubstantiation, a scholastic attempt to explain the unexplainable. Furthermore, the intense emphasis on the Real Presence and efforts to safeguard the consecrated elements from desecration created an aura of fear among both clergy and laity alike. Penalties for desecrating the Sacrament put off the faithful, particularly parents whose children were more likely to spit up the sacred species. On account of these negative developments parents themselves were reluctant to commune. Obviously, when the very people who once carried children to the altar were themselves not coming forward, their children were also put on a fast. Various church councils tried to encourage and regulate communion attendance, but usually to no avail. 


Before the demise of the communion of all the faithful, the Sacrament was given to infants in various ways. Communion in both kinds proved problematic in the age of sacramental realism due to an infant’s inability to chew solid food. Some parts of the church preferred intinction. It appears that a more common practice was to give the little ones the Blood alone. However, this worked against the practice of communing infants. The fears generated by the new realism meant that the laity and clergy themselves were fearful of the chalice due to the greater potential for desecrating the sacred elements, for while the host was self-contained the fluidity of the chalice contents made for increased problems due to spillage. The doctrine of concomitance, an example of doctrine following existing practice, in effect made the chalice a redundancy. With the removal of the chalice from the laity the only means for most infants to commune was effectively removed. In order to avoid desecration, yet in an effort to retain at least a semblance of ancient practice, some priests served infants and children unconsecrated wine or wine used in the ablution.


Scholastic justification for the exclusion of the very young was that through baptismal grace the very young had the res or the essence of the Sacrament by faith (viz the body and the blood). This is an argument used by Luther, and it is one of the common justifications heard today. This line of reasoning is probably behind the scholastic argument that even if the faithful did not go to communion they could commune “with their eyes” as they watch the Mass unfold. Such justifications served to spiritualize the Supper, a later hallmark of the sacramentology of Reformed theologians. At his best, Luther emphasized both the faith aspect of a proper reception of the Sacrament, but also the physical aspect. Unfortunately, like the Scholastics before him he too could argue that the res of the Supper was received by faith. Unfortunately, this view does not give full play to the incarnational and physical aspects of the Supper which engage the whole person. One does “eat and drink” by faith, but the communicant also eats and drinks the physical Christ physically. When this aspect of the Eucharist is not properly understood, then the Supper essentially becomes an unnecessary redundancy and not a part of the fullness offered by Christ. Indeed, one has the full Christ by faith, but there is more and then there is more! Christ pressed down into your bushel, flowing over into your lap!


The Separation of Baptism from the Divine Service


In the ancient church baptisms took place within the Mass at the Great Easter Vigil and at other high feasts such as Pentecost. As noted previously, baptism, confirmation or chrismation, and first communion occurred on the same day. According to the Roman rite, which took precedence throughout the western church, the bishop alone could confirm or chrismate. However, due to the explosive growth of the church the supervision of the bishops was stretched beyond its limits. Children baptized by the local parish priest had to wait for confirmation until the bishop could make his rounds, thus separating baptism from confirmation/chrismation and first communion. 


With infant baptisms far out numbering adult baptisms in the Middle Ages, and with fears about infant mortality, baptisms occurred as soon as possible after birth, with the mother often not being present. The sacrament of Baptism became separated from the Vigil Mass and became a stand alone rite. The baptismal rite which Luther knew in his day, and which he revised, was a separate rite. Once again, baptism was separated from chrismation and Holy Communion, thus removing the opportunity for the communion of the newly baptized.


Emphasis on Personal Piety and Preparation


The rationale of the early church for the practice of communing all the faithful was that all the faithful have saving faith and faith brings one into the communion of the saints and to the communion table. One is reminded of Luther’s words about fasting and bodily preparation for participation in the Sacrament, “But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’” However, by the ninth century we begin to see other requirements beyond faith coming into the picture.


The development of the penitential and sacrificial theology of the Church of Rome coincided with the aforementioned negative developments, particularly the separation of baptism, confirmation (i.e. chrism) and first communion. Added to this is the concept of an age of discretion, though a thing never definitively agreed upon in the theology of the Church of Rome nor in that of the Church of the Augsburg Confession.


Although the communion of infants remained the practice of the western church in various regions, more and more the church was hesitant to continue the practice. It became rare for children to be communed before seven years of age. Browe writes,


Thus Burchard of Worms attributes the following canon to one of the councils held at Reims (it is not known which one): “The priests shall teach or have another teach the confession of faith and the commandments of the Lord to all the children in their care. When they hear confession during the time of fasting, they shall have each sing these commands separately, and not administer communion before the child knows them by heart. For without this awareness no one can be saved.” 


Previously canon law had stipulated that one could not be saved without receiving Communion at least once in his lifetime. Beginning in the ninth or tenth century the required stipulation is doctrinal knowledge, as the preceding quote reveals. More and more the requirement became the possession of knowledge and not just faith. Those who are currently researching this matter see this shift taking place during the Carolingian period. Added to basic catechetical knowledge were things such as the awareness of sin, the ability to confess sins to a priest, personal piety and devotion for the Sacrament. Admission to the Table was usually at the discretion of the parish priest. There are examples of especially pious and devout children who were admitted to the Sacrament at an early age, but these were exceptions to a growing trend as the age of admission gradually rose during the Middle Ages until in the post-Reformation era the age rose to the late teens for both Catholics and Lutherans alike. It was not until 1910 that the present practice of the Roman Church was codified when Pius X set the age of first communion at seven years of age.


While Roman canon law sets practice for the entire church, Lutheran suspicion of canon law has meant that there is no codified and united practice among Lutherans. In an article written for the Lutheran Cyclopedia Arthur Repp counts at least six different philosophical approaches to confirmation during the history of the Lutheran Church.


Most Lutherans and Roman Catholics have photographs of their confirmation day and their confirmation class. One of the developments of the post-Reformation era is the confirmation class. Previously parents were entrusted with the instruction of their children, and when they felt that they were ready to receive the Sacrament the parents presented the child to the priest for his examination. Luther wrote his catechism with this practice in view: “As the head of the family should teach them (viz the chief six parts) in a simple way to his household.” However, parental abdication of this responsibility meant that parish priests and pastors took over this work and the “confirmation class” was the result. This necessitated a standard age for this group instruction.


The matter of auricular confession, briefly noted in a preceding paragraph, was also a contributing factor to the raising of the age for first communion. Saying confession and admittance to the Altar were tied together. An infant’s inability to speak obviously excluded him from the confessional. However, that was not the core issue when it came to private confession. Infants and the very young did not need to enter the confessional, nor go to the altar, because in the Roman view of things they were not capable of mortal sin. The age of discretion enters again. However, there was no unanimity on when a child was capable of consciously committing a mortal sin. The Roman view of sin and of human merit also had a part in eliminating children from the Table. 


The Fourth Lateran Council


In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council, among many other matters, took up the issue of encouraging the faithful to receive the Sacrament. The Council insisted that faithful Christians were to receive the Sacrament and make confession at least once a year. It also stipulated that the faithful had to receive the Sacrament by the age of seven, which was more or less becoming the “age of discretion.” Grobien notes, “The Fourth Lateran Council also introduced the connection of an age of discretion with communion. Initially, the connection was that those who had reached a certain age of discretion were required to commune at least once a year. But the canon created more confusion for the communion of children.” Out of the confusion came a practice not intended by the Council. The Council desired that the faithful commune at least once a year by age seven. However, popular interpretation of the Council’s intent was that one could not commune until the age of seven. Coincidentally, it was Lateran IV which removed the chalice from the laity. A practice, incidentally, which was a result of a movement that was chiefly lay-led.


Prior to this the Synod of Tours (813) had made the first known appeal to the age of discretion. It appears that discussions about the age of discretion as it pertained to admittance to the Table had more to do with psychological concerns rather than a practice which was drawn from exegetical study of Scripture. In his research Peter Browe did not find the opponents of infant communion appealing to Paul’s prohibition in 1 Corinthians 11. Fr. Duane Osterloth, who has done extensive research on this matter in Migne’s Patrologia Latina, found that through the 10th century no appeal was made to this pericope in opposition to the practice of communing infants. While he admits that this is an argument from silence he notes, “….the silence is deafening!” He goes on to observe,


Against the prevailing practice of communing infants based on historical evidence, (1 Corinthians 11:27-29) would have been (the) opponent’s most obvious and powerful argument against the practice…. 


He further surmises that later appeals to the pericope may have been attempts to justify the prevailing practice after the fact.


This is not to say that the church fathers do not appeal to Paul’s prohibitions in 1 Corinthians 11. Osterloth notes that medieval theologians used the reference to


forbid Holy Communion to just about every group of people under the sun: Heretics, schismatics, erring clergy (bishops, presbyters, deacons), catechumens, illuminati, neophytes, demoniacs, pagans, Jews, and…. Turks. But – and here’s the important part – vv. 27-29 was never used to exclude children.




It was not just parental fears about children desecrating the Sacrament which kept families away from the rood screen; we must also take into account plain old complacency, the bane of every age of the church. In addition, in some areas of the church, the matter of money became a factor. Whether a pair of eggs or a fee in coin, many regions of the church put a price on receiving the Sacrament. Starting in 1518, in some areas of Germany, a communion tax was imposed to help finance the war against the Turk. While unconfirmed children were buried in church cemeteries without cost or for a nominal fee, burial for those who were confirmed was more costly. These were enough incentives for many parents to delay first communion as long as possible.


These practices were not above criticism. In 1214 the Synod of Dublin stated in Lutheresque fashion, “….they serve the Eucharist with one hand and take money with the other, and so the ministers put our salvation up for sale.”




On this issue Brother Martin needs to be read with care. Infants and very young children had not been regularly communed for several centuries in the West. This was the practice which Luther had received and the rest of the western church with him. The matter was not a pressing issue for him – there were bigger fish to fry. Luther was aware of the earlier practice. He comments on the fact that children were communed in the time of the church father Cyprian. For Luther the practice of communing infants arises in the context of the controversy over communing with both kinds. He was not in favor of the Utraquists’ practice of communing infants (Luther seems to confuse the Utraquists with the Bohemian Brethren). Yet he did not condemn them as heretics, as he noted in a 1523 letter to Nicholas Hausmann. Luther’s chief issue with the Utraquists was that they used John 6 to prove that infants should also be included in the Communion. Here Luther’s blind spot with regard to the Eucharistic dimension of the sixth chapter is revealed.


In the fall of 1532 Viet Dietrich recorded Luther’s thoughts about the role of 1 Corinthians 11 in this discussion. The Reformer takes the pericope off the table so to speak. He notes that Paul’s words were directed only toward the adults of the congregation and that the passage cannot be used to prohibit the communing of children (AE 54:58). The use of 1 Corinthians 11 to deny children the Viaticum enters the picture more after-the-fact, and later Lutheran theologians seem to be the ones who appeal to this pericope to validate later confirmation practices. Osterloth notes, “Luther’s last known comment on infant communion was surprisingly ‘friendly’ toward the practice.” 




The practice of communing all the faithful was lost to the western church for the reasons delineated above. However, the matter was more often addressed in the context of practical concerns rather than in a purely theological way. The understandable, but unnecessary fears of desecrating the Sacrament generated by the new sacramental realism resulted in Draconian measures which drove the faithful from the Table. The demographics of a growing church and the attachment of confirmation or chrismation to the episcopal office unnecessarily separated the newly baptized infant from his confirmation and his place at his Father’s table. Matters of personal preparation for a worthy reception were to a degree driven by the Roman view of merit and worthiness, producing another deterrent. Finally, parental complacency served to keep whole families from the Lord’s Table.


And so now it’s on to theology…..


                                                               Pax Domini §



The Reverend Fr. Peter M. Berg is pastor of Our Savior Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Chicago, Illinois.