Receiving the Sacrament of Penance before receiving First Holy Communion is not optional, but rather normative. In approaching this subject, keep in mind that the Church has a good reason for any rule, and for this one also.
Remember that until this century, the reception of the Sacraments of Penance and Holy Eucharist occurred when a person was usually a teenager. However, on August 8, 1910, Pope St. Pius X issued the decree Quam singulari which permitted a child, who has attained the age of reason (“at about the seventh year, give or take something”), to receive these sacraments. While the Holy Father definitely wanted children to receive the Holy Eucharist, he also appreciated the intrinsic relationship between this sacrament and Penance.
Pope St. Pius X understood that a child’s moral conscience begins to develop with his ability to reason. Children can know right from wrong, the meaning of the commandments, and the nature of sin, mortal and venial. Frankly, if children can in the simplest way understand the profound mystery of the Holy Eucharist, they certainly can understand the notion of sin and repentance. Consequently, he underscored the need for the Sacrament of Penance: “The custom of not admitting to confession children who have attained the use of reason, or of never giving them absolution, is to be totally condemned” (Quam singulari).
Placing First Penance before First Communion is prudent from a catechetical perspective. Children are taught the great love of God for each of us, especially in the fundamental belief that Jesus, true God who became true man like us in all things but sin, suffered, died, and rose to forgive our sins and grant us salvation. Through baptism, we enter into this saving mystery, and we struggle to live our baptism through prayer, worship, good works, and obedience to God’s commandments. Yet, at times we freely choose to sin. Just as a child understands that “breaking” his parents’ rules offends them and incurs punishment, so a child can understand the consequences of “breaking” God’s rules. We trust, however, in the infinite love and mercy of God which is shown to each of us in the Sacrament of Penance. In this sacrament, we repent of our sins with sincere contrition, confess them, and receive absolution. Through regular confession, we are safeguarding the presence of our Lord in our souls in sanctifying grace and are preparing for our ultimate union with the Lord.
Since the Holy Eucharist enables us now to have an intimate union with our Lord, each person should want to receive Him in Holy Communion in a state of grace and with purity of soul. Such a spiritual attitude is intrinsically linked to the Sacrament of Penance. For this reason, First Penance should always precede First Communion. Granted, one does not need to go to confession each time he receives Holy Communion. Nevertheless, a person should appreciate the intrinsic relationship between Penance and Holy Eucharist, and have the spiritual discipline of regular confession along with the frequent reception of Holy Communion.
The traditional sequence of receiving First Penance before First Communion was affirmed in the norms of the General Catechetical Directory (GCD) issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy (April 11, 1971): “Taking everything into account, it would seem that one could not in principle abrogate a common and general practice except with the consent of the Holy See. Having consulted episcopal conferences, the Holy See believes that it is proper to continue the Church’s custom of placing first confession before first communion” (Appendix, #5). However, the GCD recognized that in some dioceses, an “experiment” was allowed to postpone First Penance until after First Holy Communion, but noted that such experiments were to be re-examined, and only continued after consultation with the Holy See and in a spirit of communion with it. Nevertheless, on May 23, 1973, the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy and the Sacred Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments with the approval of Pope Paul VI declared that “these experiments… should cease and the everybody everywhere should conform to the decree Quam singulari.”
As a priest, I have seen the tragedy of the age of experimentation. When I was a campus chaplain at Marymount University, I actually had a college student who had received First Holy Communion in second grade but who had never been to confession. The poor student was in a parish with an experimental First Communion program which postponed First Penance. Shortly after receiving First Holy Communion, he and his family moved frequently due to his father’s military service. Sadly, he “fell through the cracks” and had never been to confession. Finally, by God’s grace, he decided to investigate that matter in college, and make his First Confession.
We also see another problem. While many places may have the right sequence, they do not emphasize the importance of frequent confession. I have known individuals who made their First Penance followed by First Holy Communion, and then never went to confession again, except maybe before Confirmation. Here a rule is followed, but its spirit is not lived.
Therefore, good catechesis not only requires that we keep the sequence of these sacraments in order, but also that we show their intrinsic relationship to each other. If parents and religious educators provide sound and positive catechesis to prepare children for the reception of these sacraments, they will be providing a strong spiritual foundation for the rest of a child’s life.