Q: Why do Orthodox Christians confirm their infants at baptism and also permit babies to receive the Eucharist, and why do Catholics wait? (Deer Park, New York)
A: Thank you for your interesting question! First, it's not only Orthodox Christians who confer all three sacraments of initiation at the time of baptism -- Eastern Catholics do this as well.
For some background, the universal Catholic Church includes not only the Latin (a.k.a. "Roman") Catholic Church to which most of us Catholics in the United States belong, but also a number of smaller Eastern Catholic churches. Eastern Catholics are fully Catholic and fully in union with the pope, but they follow a slightly different form of canon law, and they are organized into their own dioceses led by their own bishops.
Often, individual Eastern Catholic churches are connected to a particular geographical area and culture. (For example, Byzantine Catholics are generally of Slavic descent, and the Syro-Malabar Church has its roots in India.) Because of cultural and historic reasons, Eastern Catholics have their own distinctive liturgical traditions and customs.
The difference in customs regarding the Christian initiation of infants amounts to a difference in emphasis between the broad liturgical traditions of Christian East and West.
In the church's early days, when most Christians were adult converts, it was standard practice for the local bishop to baptize each new Christian personally, conferring confirmation in the same ceremony as the baptism. As Christians grew more numerous and as more Christian parents brought their children to be baptized, it became impractical for the bishop to baptize and confirm every new Catholic. Eventually, it became clear that other clergy would need to celebrate most baptisms.
In the Christian East, there was a great emphasis on the fundamental theological unity of the sacraments of initiation, which is why Eastern priests confirm and give the Eucharist to the babies they baptize.
In the Latin Catholic West, there was a greater sense of the importance of maintaining a direct connection with the diocesan bishop as the father of the local diocesan church. For Latin Catholics, the sacrament of confirmation came to be celebrated at a separate, later ceremony -- the idea being that even if a simple parish priest celebrated an infant's baptism, the child could still be confirmed by the bishop himself.
For Latin Catholics, the history of our practices surrounding first Communion is long and rather complicated, as customs varied across the centuries. But our modern practice of children receiving their first Communion around the age of seven -- the canonical "age of reason" -- was established by Pope Pius X in 1910 with his decree "Quam Singulari."
Q: Sometimes I become distracted at Mass and only really get refocused when I hear the consecration bells. Is that a sin? (Bunnell, Florida)
A: No. If you are accidentally getting distracted on occasion, this is not a sin. The Catholic faithful have an obligation to attend Mass by being physically present on Sundays and holy days of obligation; but the church's law doesn't and can't require the faithful to have their minds perfectly focused for the entire length of the liturgy.
Of course, the more focused we reasonably can be, the better. Sometimes there are actions we can take to minimize distractions -- perhaps turning off gadgets or taking time before Mass to recollect ourselves -- and we should do what we can in this regard.
But God understands that we are human, and our active minds wander sometimes. The important thing is just that we keep turning our focus back to the Mass whenever we catch our attention straying.
- Canonist Jenna Marie Cooper is a consecrated virgin, a practicing canon lawyer, and columnist for OSV News.