At the beginning of the nineteenth century the last remnants of Jansenism were still influencing Catholic teaching in many countries of Europe. This most insidious of heresies, preached by men of austere life and veiled by the plea of reverence for holy things, was a danger to the lax and to the scrupulous alike. It laid down as conditions for approaching the sacraments dispositions of soul which for the greater part of mankind were wholly unattainable; it presented God as the Jehovah of the Old Testament, terrible and awe-inspiring, rather than as the Christ of the New, tender and compassionate to sinners. "I tell you," said St. Vincent de Paul to one of his priests, "that this new error of Jansenism is one of the most dangerous that has ever troubled the Church."
Perhaps the most fatal effect of Jansenist teaching was that it drove the sinner from the sources of grace and the weak from the sources of spiritual strength. Frequent communion, which had been the custom in apostolic times and which had been always upheld in the teaching of the Church, was to the Jansenist a tempting of Providence. In vain did Catholic teachers explain to the people that the Council of Trent "exhorts, asks and beseeches the faithful to believe and venerate these sacred mysteries . . . with such constancy and firmness of faith . . . that they may be able frequently to receive the supersubstantial bread." Nothing, it was answered, had been laid down as to the necessary dispositions for receiving communion; and how were they to know that they had them? Theologians were divided on the subject, some teaching that very perfect dispositions were required, whilst others maintained that a state of grace and a right intention were sufficient. Another controversy had arisen as to the meaning of the term "frequent communion," some holding that weekly communion came under this heading, others that it did not. Appeals were made from time to time to Rome to decide the question, that the minds of the faithful might be at rest.
In the first encyclical of Pius X where he sets forth as the purpose of his pontificate the restoring of all things in Christ, the frequent use of the sacraments is mentioned as one of the four great means to this end. We have already seen how, when visiting his diocese as bishop, he bade the people make no preparations for his coming save attending Mass and receiving holy communion, declaring that this would be the best welcome they could give him. On the 20th of December, 1906, the Decree concerning Frequent and Daily Communion put an end to all further controversy.
"The primary purpose of the holy Eucharist is not that the honour and reverence due to our Lord may be safeguarded," says the decree, "not that the sacrament may serve as a reward of virtue, but that the faithful, being united to God by holy communion, may thence derive strength to resist sinful desires, to cleanse themselves from daily faults, and to avoid those serious sins to which human frailty is liable." "Frequent and daily communion, as a thing most earnestly desired by Christ our Lord and by the Catholic Church," runs the first clause of the decree, "should be open to all the faithful of whatever rank and condition of life, so that no one who is in the state of grace, and who approaches the holy table with a right and devout intention, can be hindered therefrom."
Having defined a right intention as a purpose of pleasing God, of being more closely united with Him by charity, and of seeking this divine remedy for one's weaknesses and defects, the decree goes on to affirm that, although freedom from venial sin is to be desired, it is sufficient that the communicant be free from mortal sin, provided he has a firm purpose of avoiding sin for the future. Preparation and thanksgiving are to be according to the strength, circumstances and duties of the individual. All priests and confessors are to exhort the faithful frequently and zealously to "this devout and saving action."
There was no mistaking this. "The Divine Redeemer of mankind," wrote a priest of the London Oratory, "is to be just as accessible to the struggling beginner whose feet have been ensnared in the meshes of sin, and who is struggling bravely against temptation, as He is to the man or woman who has been purified by many years of painful effort, but who is ever liable to fall. He is needed by the austere religious living in solitude in her cell . . . . He is needed by the poor dweller in the crowded slums who has so much to contend against—squalor, misery, drink, vice in various forms, and the depressing influences of grinding poverty. Children have need of Him that they may be formed to habits of virtue; youths have need of Him that they may obtain mastery over their passions; maidens have need of Him that they may preserve their innocence untarnished; grown-up men and women have need of Him that they may advance in virtue and carry out faithfully the duties of their state of life; there are none who can afford to neglect the great source of spiritual strength, none who can do without Him."
Rome had spoken, but to many people the news seemed almost too good to be true, and to others so surprising and "new" as to be unwelcome. The old idea that frequent communion was only for holy people was hard to eradicate. Jansenist bugbears about the preparation required and the responsibility incurred frightened the timid. Much insistence was necessary before the objection "I am not good enough" was found to be worthless, but when it was finally done away with the fruits were at once apparent.
"What a wonderful change there would be," Monsignor de Ségur had written some forty years earlier, "if frequent communion could be established in our colleges and schools! Experience shows the influence of communion on a young man's daily life. There is no vice that the regular use of the sacraments will not uproot, no moral resurrection beyond its power to effect." That dream was now on its way to realization. "Confessions," said a Jesuit who was giving a retreat to the students of a large public school, "are child's play now to what they used to be. In the old days they took two or three days—now nearly all the boys are daily communicants, and the confessions of the whole college take little more time than an hour."
"Yes," said a young working-girl to a Sacred Heart nun, "I go every day. I cannot stay till the end of Mass, because I have to get to my work. But there are several of us who are all daily communicants, who take the same train to business, and we get into the same carriage and make our thanksgiving on the way. And we love to think that in that train, full of people who seldom think of God, there is one carriage where He is being adored and worshipped. And we find it such a help in the day's work."
And not girls only. The author will never forget a very early morning Mass in a big London church. The church was full of working men in their working clothes. The procession to the altar seemed never ending, communion was still being given after the Mass was finished. They had come for help and comfort in their daily toil to One who on this earth had been a working man like themselves, One who is "rich unto all that call on Him," and they had learnt the strength of that union.
Was it not the "man in the street" for whom our Saviour came? Were not the crowds who followed Him mostly composed of "men in the street"? And did He not choose from their ranks the Apostles who were to carry His message throughout the world? "In these days," says the decree, "when religion and the Catholic faith are attacked on all sides, and true love of God and genuine piety are lacking in so many places, it is doubly necessary that the faithful should be strengthened, and the love of God kindled in their hearts by this saving practice of daily communion."
"Holy communion is the shortest and surest way to Heaven," said Pius X to the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament. "There are others, innocence, for instance, but that is for little children; penance, but we are afraid of it; generous endurance of the trials of life, but when they come we weep and ask to be spared. Once for all, beloved children, the surest, easiest, shortest way is by the Eucharist. It is so easy to approach the holy table, and there we taste the joys of Paradise."
A second decree was published in answer to questions regarding the frequent communion of children who had only recently made their first communion, and of the infirm who were suffering from some chronic illness. The answer given was that frequent or daily communion was for young children as well as for their elders, since it was highly desirable that their innocence and goodness should be shielded by so powerful a protection. As for the sick, every facility was to be granted them to receive communion as often as possible. This was followed four years later by a decree which fixed the age of first communion at about the seventh year, the time at which the child begins to use its reason. In some cases it might be earlier; in some it would have to be later; this would depend on the intelligence of the individual child. The pope went straight to the root of the matter.
"The pages of the Gospel witness to the very great affection shown by Christ to little children when He was on earth," he begins. "It was His delight to be in their company; He was wont to lay His hands upon them, to embrace them, to bless them. And He was indignant at their being turned away by His disciples, whom He rebuked in these grave words: 'Suffer the little children to come unto Me and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven'." After having pointed out that in the earliest days of the Church holy communion was given even to babies, and that if later for good cause the age of reason or of discretion was fixed as the time for first communion, this did not presuppose that a fuller knowledge was required for the reception of the holy Eucharist than for the sacrament of penance. The decree went on to deplore the postponement of first communion until twelve, thirteen or fourteen years of age, according to local customs. "Even if this ensures a fuller understanding of the sacred mysteries, a careful sacramental confession and a longer and more diligent preparation," it continues, "the gain in no wise balances the loss. The innocence of childhood, deprived of this most powerful protection, is soon lost; bad habits have time to grow and become strong. The little ones, being in the happy condition of their first candour and innocence, stand in great need of that mystical food, on account of the many snares and dangers of the present time." "As soon as children begin to have a certain use of reason, so as to be able to conceive devotion to this Sacrament," says St. Thomas Aquinas, "then may it be given to them."
In order that the above-mentioned abuses should be entirely removed and that "children from their tenderest years should cling to Jesus Christ, live His life, and find protection from the dangers of corruption", regulations concerning their first communion were laid down and ordered to be observed in every part of the world.
The decree caused a certain commotion in some Catholic countries. Once more the remnants of Jansenist teaching arose to frighten the faithful. Would a child of seven understand the reverence due to the Sacrament? was the question anxiously asked—children of that age are so thoughtless. The objection had already been answered by Monsignor de Ségur: "To communicate well, it suffices to receive the Saviour with a good will. This is found just as much in children as in adults. The child loves Jesus Christ; it wishes to have Him; why, then, not give Him to the child? Thoughtlessness is no obstacle to holy communion, unless it is wilful. Children are thoughtless—yes, but they are good and affectionate; and because of their need of love, we must give their love its true food."
Another objection, and one that seemed more plausible, was that sometimes a late first communion tended to preserve children from much that was evil; for this reason it was often delayed as long as possible, an apparent safeguard which the new decree threatened to do away with altogether. Experience has long since proved that here again the good obtained far outbalances the bad.
As for the argument that such little children cannot understand what they are doing, those who have the task of preparing them for their first communion have a different tale to tell. "I have found it much easier," writes one who has had much experience, "to prepare little children than those who are older—the preparation is so much more objective than subjective. It is more a realization of how lovable, how desirable, how loving our Lord is, than a preoccupation of how they can make themselves worthy—or less unworthy—to receive Him. . . . The actual first communion appears to the little ones as the very loving embrace of a much-loved Father; to the older ones it is more a welcome to a loved and honoured guest, with—if I may so put it—the preoccupations of a hostess."
The pope delighted in the letters he received from many little first communicants thanking him for their joy at being admitted to the holy table; he loved children dearly and they returned his affection, crowding round him, speaking to him without the slightest fear or shyness, and giving him their confidence at once. He loved to give them communion with his own hands; there was an affinity between the white-souled pontiff and the white-souled children who knelt at his feet—the innocence that had fought and conquered and the innocence that was as yet untried. All the little first communicants of Rome, gentle or simple, were invited to the Vatican. He would give them a short instruction suited to their understanding, ending with the hope that their last communion would be as fervent and loving as the first. Then he would talk to them, and they to him, simply and without any ceremony. Unconventional sometimes were the appellations by which they called him. "Yes, Pope," would be the answer to a question. But the very little ones, seeing the gracious white figure bending over them and looking up into the gentle holy face of him that spoke, would sometimes answer softly, "Yes, Jesus."
An Englishwoman who had a private audience with the pope brought her little boy of four to receive his blessing. While she was talking the child stood at a little distance looking on; but presently he crept up to the pope, put his hands on his knees and looked up into his face. "How old is he?" asked Pius, stroking the little head.
"He is four," answered the mother, "and in two or three years I hope he will make his first communion."
The pope looked earnestly into the child's clear eyes. "Whom do you receive in holy communion?" he asked.
"Jesus Christ," was the prompt answer.
"And who is Jesus Christ?"
"Jesus Christ is God," replied the boy, no less quickly.
"Bring him to me to-morrow," said Pius, turning to the mother, "and I will give him holy communion myself."
François Laval describes the impression made on the children of a pilgrimage of 400 first communicants who went from France to thank Pius X in 1912. "As soon as they had returned from Rome," he says, "I went to see some little friends of mine to question them. There was no need, they talked without stopping of all they had seen. Everything had been wonderful, but most wonderful of all—wonderful enough almost to blot out the memory of everything else—had been the pope. They had not been a bit shy with him, they explained—it was impossible, he was so kind. 'The tears were in his eyes—but lots of us were crying too,' nearly all who could get near enough to speak to him were begging him for graces. 'Cure my sister, Holy Father; convert my father; I want to be a priest . . . and I a missionary!' It must have been rather like that when the people came to Jesus in Galilee."
"It seems to me," added the writer, "that in these days, when so many people are trying to enforce obedience, and failing signally in the attempt, that there is only one man in the world who is really master of the minds and hearts of others—an old man clothed in white garments . . . ."