Frequent Communion: Reward or Need?

Frequent Communion: Reward or Need?


Pius IX (1846-1878) and Pius X (1903-1914) have much in common and differ in many ways as well. Pius IX lived in a time of transition.  New philosophies were affecting dramatic changes in the world and in the Catholic Church. John W. O’Malley, SJ has described these changes in his outstanding history of Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church.[1] Beginning with the Enlightenment of the seventeenth century and the tragic changes wrought by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era with the humiliation of Pope Pius VII followed by the creation of national states, moved the whole world into a new reality. Pope Pius IX asked the cardinals of the Roman Curia whether an ecumenical council was needed in the later decades of the nineteenth century. Their answer was yes. It was necessary and the only power (an absolute power) that could prevent the chaos that was threatening. Pius IX called the Council together, and the soldiers of Garibaldi piercing through the wall of Porta Pia on the Via Nomentana ended both the Papal States and the Council, and began a new era for Europe and the world.

Pius IX was “A Pope who would be King.[2] He was a prince of the church and state. In 1854 he declared the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary to be dogma of the Catholic Church and must be affirmed by all Roman Catholics. He approved the Syllabus of Errors, much debated by many theologians of the time and questioned by the resourcement of Vatican II. The Ultramontane delegates of Vatican I believed that only the absolute authority of the Pontificate was strong enough to dam the murky waters of the Enlightenment and the political forces working at that time.

Pius X came from another world. He was from Riese, a small town in northern Italy, from parents who were peasants and farmers. He was a pastor; he was interested in the sanctity of Christians, not their political interests. Like Pius IX he was a strong opponent to Modernists and Relativists, as well as Jansenists. He published a Roman Catechism as well as encyclicals on church music, especially on Gregorian Chant and Polyphony and reformed Canon Law and made the way for the first Code of Canon Law in 1917.

Our focus in this article is the two decrees published by Pius X on Frequent Communion (1905) and on the First Communion of Children (1910) which Pius X approved and was prepared by the Pontifical Council on Sacraments. These two documents address the problem of indifferentism of the laity on the use of the Eucharist, and the many obstacles placed to prevent the early reception of the First Communion of children and their frequent reception of the Eucharist. The latter position was held by the Jansenists before and after the pontificates of Pius IX and Pius X.

We are also interested in the contribution of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament and the theologian and Superior General, Very Rev. Eugene Couet, SSS.[3] This contribution is not always known by the members of the Congregation. it is a contribution that is still significant today.

Sacrosancta Tridentina Synodus (1905)[4] promotes and defends “frequent and even daily reception of the Eucharist,” and refers to the Holy Tridentine Council which affirmed the scriptural, canonical and liturgical foundations of this proclamation as clearly in the words of institution of the Eucharist and the tradition of the fathers of the Church and liturgical practice since the beginning of the Church. Pius X approved the document of the Pontifical Commission on Sacraments.

Pius X shared Pius IX’s views on the Eucharist. He was clearly opposed to the obstacles placed by Jansenists and others who would limit the Eucharist to infrequent and determined times, out of reverence for receiving the Eucharist. The decree simply requires that one receive Communion to please God, draw closer to him by charity, and receive the divine remedy for weakness and defects. They affirmed that the Eucharist was not a reward, but a need for spiritual growth and defense against daily sins and mortal sins.

Both Pius IX and Pius X opposed the Jansenists who required dispositions which one must have to receive frequent and daily Communion. Sacra Tridentina Synodus describes Jansenism as “a widespread plague” and their writers, who vied with each other in demanding more and more stringent conditions to be fulfilled for frequent communion. The decree condemned the idea that merchants and married persons should be denied frequent communion.

Quam Singulari (Children’s First Communion (1910)[5]

In 1910 Pope Pius X approved a second document of the same Pontifical Commission admitting children to First Holy Communion and frequent communion when they are able to distinguish the difference between Holy Communion and ordinary bread. “Let the children come to me” ((Mk 10:14) is cited from scripture and the tradition of the early Church to permit infants to receive the Eucharist with Baptism and frequently. The Council of Lateran IV (1215) reminds the church that children who have the age and use of reason (usually around 7 years of age) were obligated to observe annual confession and communion. The practice “died out” in the Latin Church after Lateran IV.  The Council of Trent returned to the earlier tradition. “All Christians of both sexes are bound when they have discretion to receive every year at least at Easter.” [6]

Quam Singulari made an important point, stating that it was wrong to separate what was required for Penance and Eucharist. Jansenists and others said it was sufficient to know right from wrong for Penance, but a greater age and a fuller knowledge of matters of faith and better preparation of the soul was required for the Eucharist. Some required that the children should have 10, 12, 14 or more years to be admitted to First Communion. The Decree reaffirmed the Lateran IV and references to the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas and Pius IX’s letter to Cardinal Antonelli to the Bishops of France “severely condemning the growing custom existing in some dioceses postponing the First Communion of children.”

The age of discretion for confession and eucharist are the same. A full and perfect knowledge of Christian doctrine is not required for First Communion – Christian doctrine is to be learned gradually. The decree also condemned not admitting children to Viaticum and Extreme Unction and burying children with the rite for infants as “an intolerable abuse”.

The Controversy

Pius IX and Pius X had similar problems at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. On the one hand there was modernism and on the other Jansenism. Pius X approved the two documents we described above, pastoral documents about frequent communion and the First Communion of children. He also defended the Church against modernism. Both popes have been canonized in modern times. John W. O’Malley SJ has written splendidly about the world of Vatican I, Vatican II, and the Council of Trent. And he believes that the influence of these councils endures in our time. How do we keep a balance between a world that is increasingly secular and materialistic, scientific and faithful, working for social justice and spiritual growth? The theologians of our time and the past are trying to understand a new game and how to play it, in a world that changes rapidly and profoundly. Pius IX urged restraint and accuracy and respect for the tradition of the past. Pius X urged correct interpretation of sacraments and reverence, as well as spiritual need for children and the laity.

Eugene Couet SSS

Very Rev Eugene Couet, SSS[7]

Father Eugene Couet, SSS entered into the controversy with a doctorate from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and a preparation by St. Peter Julian Eymard, founder of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament. He was born in the diocese of Angers in France in 1858. He received a bachelor’s degree, and when he was 20 years old, he entered the novitiate at St Maurice, taking the religious garb on Christmas day, 1878. Two years later he was in Brussels because of the expulsion decrees in France, where he pronounced his first vows. He was ordained in Rome in 1884 and obtained his doctorate in theology the following year.

Fr. Couet was elected Superior General of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament in June 1913 after Fr. Louis Estevenon died in December 1912. He was the director of the Annales du Tres Saint Sacrement, as well as Assistant General of the Congregation. He was the first director of the Priests’ Eucharistic League. It was in this capacity that he attended the International Eucharistic Congress in Rome and met with many ecclesiastics. He published in a series of articles by a Spanish Mercedarian, Fr. O. Coppin of St. Servais in Namur, entitled La Sainte Communion ou Pain Quotidien (Holy Communion or Daily Bread). Abbé Chatel in Brussels criticized this new translation and got a response from Father Lintello, SJ who retorted that he was pleased to be identified with Fr. Eugene Couet whom he lauded for his splendid work and “who was virtually alone in defending the teaching of the Church[8] on the issue.

Pope Pius X’s decree of 1905 vindicated the Church’s teaching about frequent communion that had grown cold after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 but was reasserted in the Council of Trent, hence the name of the decree of 1905, and the end of the controversy about frequent communion.


John W. O’Malley’s scholarly treatise on Vatican I indicates that Ultramontane is a phenomenon that continues to influence issues in our time. There is ever a need to study the history of the Church and its teaching. Sometimes the light of scripture and the Holy Spirit is diminished by the preoccupations of the times. Reading the signs of the times in the light of scripture and tradition is always needed and available.


[1] John W. O’Malley SJ. Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 32018.

[2] David I. Kertzer. The Pope Who Would Be King: The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe. New York: Random House, 2018, xxx, .474p

[3] Norman B. Pelletier, SSS. In God’s Time: A Brief History of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament after the Death of Saint Peter Julian Eymard (1868-2018). Cleveland, OH: Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, 2018. especially chapter 8. A Long Stretch, p. 139-147 devoted to Fr. E. Couet.

[4] Pius X, Pope. Sancta Tridentina Synodus (1905) On Frequent and Daily Reception of Holy Communion. Issued and approved by Pope Pius X on December 20, 1905.

[5] Pius X, Pope. Quam Singulari (1910). Decree of the Sacred Congregation of the Discipline of Sacraments on First Communion (1910] 10/p10quam.htm.

[6] Lateran IV (1215) chapter 21 (on obligation to receive Penance and Eucharist at least at Easter) Denzinger-Schonmetzer #812.

[7] Norman B. Pelletier. In God’s Time. Chapter 8. A Long Stretch, p. 139-147.

[8] Norman B. Pelletier. In God’s Time. P. 142