The age of reason

The story of Denum Ellarby, the seven-year-old boy with Downs Syndrome who has not been allowed to participate in preparation classes for First Holy Communion is causing controversy this morning, with even some Catholics stating that the Church is shooting herself in the foot.

I have to confess some sympathy, no-one wants to deny anyone the comfort of the sacraments on the basis of a disability, furthermore we know that Jesus does not deny Himself to anyone, so it is not difficult to empathise with his mother and wonder if some remedy could be found.

My eldest is currently undertaking First Holy Communion preparation classes, which consist of bi-weekly classes lasting an hour and half. A lot of emphasis is placed on understanding, in addition to the classes which include a quick revision quiz at the beginning and end, there is also quite a thick accompanying workbook for the children to go through at home and my daughter has been set various tasks, including learning prayers and responses, as well as completing the exercises in the workbook. It goes without saying that we are being scrupulous in terms of ensuring that there are no gaps in her knowledge.

The problem, as I see it, is that preparation for First Holy Communion, ideally requires quite a bit of knowledge. Whilst I am prepared to accept that not all 7 and 8 year olds reach the same level of understanding, all children are required to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, i.e. make their first confession, prior to receiving the Eucharist for the first time. This requires an understanding of sin, those things we do which separate us from God and an ability to examine our conscience and see those areas where we may have fallen short. Children are not normally deemed capable of reaching the age of reason until about 7 or 8, by this stage, most should be able to understand that telling lies, hitting siblings and other behaviours are bad. Most will understand the concept of right from wrong, even if they are not always capable of curbing their instincts.

If a child is unable to read, write and his speech is unable to be understood by strangers, surely it is quite wrong to place this level of expectation upon him? Surely it would be more wrong, to be able to expect him to do things beyond his abilities and actually quite cruel and unkind to state that someone with a limited understanding must be at the same level as everyone else? Is it fair to assume that he will be able to understand and make a first confession? What if he cannot remember the words of the Act of Contrition and cannot read the words on the card either? Isn’t this placing unfair pressure upon him?

It places the priest in an impossible position, as the priest must somehow believe that the child has made a genuine act of confession and contrition, but without actually being able to glean what the child has attempted to say, or whether he has been able to make an examination of conscience. Or the priest is supposed to waive the requirement for First Reconciliation, which debases the Eucharist itself?

Canon Law states the following:

people must be able to grasp something of what the mystery of Christ means. They must be able to receive the Body of the Lord with faith and devotion. Can. 913.1.

the parish priest must see to it that those who are not prepared and not sufficiently capable, should not come to Holy Communion. Can. 914

Mrs Ellarby states that she does not attend Mass as her son is unable to cope with the service for an hour and she also finds it difficult with her younger child. She has my total sympathy and understanding there. We currently find Mass extremely difficult with a two year old and a baby, the majority of the service is spent running after the 2 year old, or attempting to occupy her with books and crayons. But we still attend nonetheless and our parishioners are very supportive and understanding, having been in similar positions themselves at some stage. Very often a kind parishioner will help, particularly if Robin is reading or whatever. My feeling is that children need to get used to Church, to being in Church and the kind of behaviour that is expected from them from an early age. Mine are far from perfect, the drawback of having two little ones so close together, is that it makes it difficult to concentrate and often distracts the 7 year old. Ideally I’d like to be helping her through the service, instead of either breastfeeding or legging it after a toddler who’s snatched a prayer card from the shrine of St Theresa. But these things pass.

If Mrs Ellarby does not take her son to Church, then how on earth is he expected to have any understanding of what is going on? According to the report on the BBC, he has difficulty in accessing the RE curriculum at school and does not really enjoy mass. So it seems entirely reasonable, that he may not be able to understand the difference between consecrated and unconsecrated bread or receive the Lord with faith and devotion.

It needs to be emphasised that having a learning disability does not preclude one from participating in the life of the Church, nor receiving the sacraments. One of our adult altar servers has quite a severe learning disability and is unable to live an independent life. There are many others I know who are not ruled out.

The Catholic Church is not permanently denying Denum the sacraments, but merely stating that he is not ready yet. That seems entirely reasonable. How is he going to be able to cope with the First Holy Communion Mass, if an hour is too long for him? Does he understand the Easter story? Does he understand that the Eucharist becomes the body and blood of Christ? None of us are in a position to answer these questions, other than the parish priest himself, but of course one way of ensuring that a child has at least had some understanding is that they attend preparation classes, taken by a qualified catechist. This is obviously going to prove tricky, when a child cannot read, write and has difficulty in communication.

It seems that Mrs Ellerby’s reasons for wishing her son to participate in First Holy Communion are predominantly cultural, as she says, it has been a tradition in her family for generations and, quite understandably, she does not want her son to be excluded or left out. But given her son has limited understanding and does not enjoy Mass, one has to ask, for whose benefit is this? For hers or her sons? The sacraments do provide comfort, but only if one has some understanding of what they mean.

As Father Z pointed out, in a similar case a few months ago, “we don’t admit children who are incapable of receiving the Eucharist with faith and devotion simply for the sake of avoiding making parents feel bad.

Despite its negative connotations, discrimination is not in itself unfair, it simply means the ability to make choices and distinguish between people and situations. At present Denum is judged unable to take part in First Holy Communion, to do so would not be fair upon him, nor the right thing to do. Indeed the Church could be accused of imposing itself on a vulnerable person, who is unable to understand the consequences of their actions. That is grave matter.

Let us all pray that this is a temporary delay, not a permanent state of affairs and that Denum and his family get the support they need to help them become fully participating members of their Church community in order that they may grow in love and faith. In the meantime, Jesus will hold their son, no less close to His Sacred Heart.

17 thoughts on “The age of reason

  1. The Herald‘s piece on this is rather better, as we’d hope, than that in the Mail.

    To be fair, I don’t really think we should comment on individual cases — indeed, I think it’s unfair that the diocese has had to do so — but I think the family’s irregular Mass attendance is crucial to this story, and I don’t think we can discount the Mother’s insistence that it’s her son’s ‘right’ to make his communion.

    While I generally think that in hard cases the Church should err on the side of charity, I don’t think anyone should ever think that anything of which the Church is custodian is a right. We have no right to receive gifts.

    I think what we’re seeing here, as so often, is decades of bad catechesis coming home to roost, such that people no longer think catechesis matters.

    Central to this too, I think, is the fact that the diocese hasn’t said ‘no’; it’s said ‘not yet’.

    1. I agree, a very thoughtful post…

      Greg, I think you hit the nail on the head! It’s a family attending irregularly and demanding FHC as a right. I know first hand (my sister has Downs Syndrome) that this kind of learning disability would be no bar to receiving the Sacraments of Pennance & Communion. There are specially trained priests that can help in these situations… I know A&B has one. I do wonder here (and I don’t wish to be uncharitable) if the family are using the Downs a bit & the Church are to discrete to disclose the real reason they say “not yet”. And quite right too…

  2. “My feeling is that children need to get used to Church, to being in Church and the kind of behaviour that is expected from them from an early age.”

    While I agree with everything you have said here I should like to especially endorse this sentiment. My children have grown up now but I haven’t forgotten what it was like to struggle to engage a restless toddler at mass. It is like learning table manners- only learned by doing!

    1. Ha ha ha! Whoops how embarrassing! Have corrected. 🙂

      I think that as others have commented, it seems to be the non-Mass attendance that is one of the problems.

      It’s difficult to ascertain what knowledge or understanding the child may have if he is being prepared at home by non-Church going parents and if the priest does not know the family.

      It’s not so much the lack of course, although good catechesis is vital but making sure that he possesses at least some understanding. The Church would in any event accept that he is without sin, if deemed incapable of understanding concepts of sin, sorrow & forgiveness and so he wouldn’t be in need of the sacraments in the same way.

      It’s not about judging his worth or his dignity but trying to get a handle on his understanding which is why the diocese spoke to his headmaster,

      Ben Trovato has written a superb follow up.

  3. I think the non attendance at Mass is a bit of a red herring. 160 children made their First Holy Communion in our parish in September. If you took out the ones who don’t attend Mass regularly, you would be left with 20 at the most.

    As you say, it comes down to his ability to understand. There are lots of resources (picture books, animated DVDs and audio books) available that the family could use to help their son deepen his understanding of the sacraments.

  4. Lets all pray that this little family can put aside any hurt and misunderstanding and all “receive the gift of faith” as Carro so eloquently said on Radio Kerry just now!

  5. I think the fact that this story ended up in the press says a lot. The fact that the family weren’t attending mass regularly IS the main problem. Many children recieving FHC when their families don’t participate in any other way is a problem that every priect and catechist I know struggles with. A near by parish has opted for having classes that both parents and children attend, which seems like a good solution.

    It does however make me think about nature of understanding of the Mass. It is a mystery. I was speaking to a friend who is currently running FHC courses and she said she had no problem in explaining confession but, despite her very good training, when she came to the mass itself she struggled. There are so many layers. I know someone who regularly takes communion in the Anglican church but has no way of communicating her level of undertanding. She may have the full understanding of an adult, she may have the understanding of a child. No way of finding out. There are definately times when, by the expression on her face and her stillness, that she quite clearly is experiencing something very spiritual. The Holy Spirit can reach everyone in a variety of ways. Would she be barred from receiving if she became a Catholic because no one could assertain what her understanding is? Is confession barred to those who cannot communicate?

  6. My husband has just explained it to me. I understand it a bit better now. I think I understand your last couple of paragraphs now. Someone who doesn’t have understanding of what they are doing, for whatever reason is not excluded from God’s grace, quite the oppostie because they are not culpable.

    Also parents that had prepared any child at home, without the agreement of the priest, also wouldn’t be admitted. How can a family who don’t attend mass prepare their children for FHC? This family are not being treated differently from anyone else who turns up wanting FHC for their children but doesn’t attend classes.

    My husband also said that coming freely to the mass is important. So in the case of the woman I mentioned she couldn’t just be brought into the catholic church without assertaining first if this was something she really desired. Thinking about it, her speech therapist could maybe do this, but it would take a long time. God doesn’t force himself on anyone and we have to come freely. I guess the preparation classes, as well as preparing children also assertain if this is something they truely want.

    Have I got it?

  7. When my eldest did her First Communion 2 years ago, she was the ONLY ONE in a group of 9 children who actually went to church regularly, the priest was appalled but said ‘It’s like that every year, nothing I can do but pray’. So, the fact that the boy doesn’t go to church isn’t ‘unusual’, sadly…I live in a parish of 1505 Catholics (according to the Lancaster Diocese Year Book), where the average Mass attendance is…94 over the weekend (55 at the Sunday Mass). Virtually all parishioners that do go are 60+. Once a year, you get the sudden influx of very ‘uncomfortable’ adults (they don’t know how to walk into a church or how to behave)…with the children being prepared for their First Communion. The parents have to sit with their children and then have to attend Mass, but even so some parents quickly shoot to the back and straight out the door before Mass starts. First Communion is purely a reason to throw a party! And the mother of this boy describes pretty accurately how most mothers around here see it: it’s tradition, we’ve always done it! On First Communion Day the church is full of people you never normally see, and the week after…you’re back to the same 55 faces you see normally! You never see those kids again! So, no…just non-attendance would disqualify the vast majority of children. But…if he can’t express himself, if he doesn’t have the capacity (yet!) to understand what it all means, then the priest has a reason he can’t use on all those other kids who only darken the door of a church once in a blue moon…because failure to fully understand IS a good enough reason to say ‘Not yet’. But ofcourse, the mother is probably just miffed that she doesn’t get to throw a party…which is what’s really sad in my opinion.

  8. Thank you for your well-written article. i sympathize with parents in these situations as I am a parent of five as well. There are good reasons for the Church’s canonical ruling on this matter and as a Catholic, I don’t find this discriminatory. As a Catholic I put my faith that the Church has at least a doctrinal and moral say in my faith and I should trust her for this. It is unfortunate that the secular media thinks that anything that is not given to everyone amounts to discrimination. The Eucharist is not just a piece of bread that magically does things for those who receive it, in fact St. Paul emphasizes that one has to discern the body and blood of Christ! I pray that their son, as he matures, begins to understand and eventually is permitted to receive the Eucharist. Faith!

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