A Catena of Quotes from the Ancients
The earliest support for paedocommunion can be found in the unity presupposed between baptism and the Lord's Supper (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13). After describing baptism as "regeneration," Clement of Alexandria (c. A.D. 150-210) writes,
As soon as we are regenerated, we are honoured by receiving the good news of the hope of rest. . . receiving through what is material the pledge of the sacred food.
Direct statements concerning paedocommunion come a few decades later, from the pen of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage. We have two passages (written c. A.D. 250) which demonstrate that children were communed at the Lord's table. Both of these references come in the context of the terrible Decian persecution, when Christians were ordered to engage in pagan rites honouring the emperor, or face fatal consequences. In On the Lapsed, chapter 9, Cyprian writes,
But to many their own destruction was not sufficient. With mutual exhortations, people were urged to their ruin; death was pledged by turns in the deadly cup. And that nothing might be wanting to aggravate the crime, infants also, in the arms of their parents, either carried or conducted, lost, while yet little ones, what in the very first beginning of their nativity they had gained. Will not they, when the day of judgment comes, say, "We have done nothing; nor have we forsaken the Lord's bread and cup to hasten freely to a profane contact; the faithlessness of others has ruined us. We have found our parents our murderers; they have denied to us the Church as a Mother; they have denied God as a Father: so that, while we were little, and unforeseeing, and unconscious of such a crime, we were associated by others to the partnership of wickedness, and we were snared by the deceit of others?"
The claim of not forsaking the Lord's bread and cup which Cyprian places upon the lips of little ones whose parents have apostatized apparently presupposes the fact that they were indeed participants at the Lord's table by right.
Even clearer is the passage later in the same work:
Learn what occurred when I myself was present and a witness. Some parents who by chance were escaping, being little careful on account of their terror, left a little daughter under the care of a wet-nurse. The nurse gave up the forsaken child to the magistrates. They gave it, in the presence of an idol whither the people flocked (because it was not yet able to eat flesh on account of its years), bread mingled with wine, which however itself was the remainder of what had been used in the immolation of those that had perished. Subsequently the mother recovered her child. But the girl was no more able to speak, or to indicate the crime that had been committed, than she had before been able to understand or to prevent it. Therefore it happened unawares in their ignorance, that when we were sacrificing, the mother brought it in with her. Moreover, the girl mingled with the saints, became impatient of our prayer and supplications, and was at one moment shaken with weeping, and at another tossed about like a wave of the sea by the violent excitement of her mind; as if by the compulsion of a torturer the soul of that still tender child confessed a consciousness of the fact with such signs as it could. When, however, the solemnities were finished, and the deacon began to offer the cup to those present, and when, as the rest received it, its turn approached, the little child, by the instinct of the divine majesty, turned away its face, compressed its mouth with resisting lips, and refused the cup. Still the deacon persisted, and, although against her efforts, forced on her some of the sacrament of the cup. Then there followed a sobbing and vomiting. In a profane body and mouth the Eucharist could not remain; the draught sanctified in the blood of the Lord burst forth from the polluted stomach. So great is the Lord's power, so great is His majesty. The secrets of darkness were disclosed under His light, and not even hidden crimes deceived God's priest.
This much about an infant, which was not yet of an age to speak of the crime committed by others in respect of herself.
Here a small child, too young to even communicate what she had experienced while in captivity, has "its turn" to partake of the eucharistic cup. Cyprian gives no hint of anything abnormal in the fact that the sacrament was offered to one so young. His interest lies, not in arguing for the practice, which he presupposes, but in showing the danger of partaking if one has engaged in idolatrous practices - even involuntarily, as here.
The liturgical instructions of the Apostolic Constitutions (late fourth century) also attest to paedocommunion. Here are a couple of passages:
Let none of the catechumens, let none of the hearers, let none of the unbelievers, let none of the heterodox, stay here. You who have prayed the foregoing prayer, depart. Let the mothers receive [or, take] their children; let no one have anything against any one; let no one come in hypocrisy; let us stand upright before the Lord with fear and trembling, to offer.
. . . . let the bishop partake, then the presbyters, and deacons, and sub-deacons, and the readers, and the singers, and the ascetics; and then of the women, the deaconesses, and the virgins, and the widows; then the children; and then all the people in order, with reverence and godly fear, without tumult.
It is important to notice that, as was common in the early centuries, the visitors and even catechumens were dismissed from the service when the Supper was to be celebrated. But not only did the children remain, they are called upon specifically to partake. Thus, catechumens refers to converts awaiting baptism, not to covenant children.
Around the same time frame, Augustine (354-430) also mentions paedocommunion repeatedly. Here are a few examples. Discussing original sin, Augustine comments,
They are infants, but they receive His sacraments. They are infants, but they share in His table, in order to have life in themselves.
Why is the blood, which of the likeness of sinful flesh was shed for the remission of sins, ministered that the little one may drink, that he may have life, unless he hath come to death by a beginning of sin on the part of some one?
In On the Forgiveness of Sins and the Baptism of Infants, Augustine argues that the reference in John 6 to eating Christ's flesh and drinking His blood refers to "the sacrament of His own holy table." He insists that the requirement of John 6:53 is universal ("Except you eat of my flesh and drink my blood, you shall have no life in you"), stressing the universality of Christ's statement, including with reference to infants. This is in support of his argument, which is meant to demonstrate the reality of original sin. He concludes, "From all this it follows, that even for the life of infants was His flesh given, which He gave for the life of the world; and that even they will not have life if they eat not the flesh of the Son of man." (Book I, ch. 26-27)
A few chapters later, Augustine adds,
And what else do they say who call the sacrament of the Lord's Supper life, than that which is written: "I am the living bread which came down from heaven;" and "The bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world;" and "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye shall have no life in you?" If, therefore, as so many and such divine witnesses agree, neither salvation nor eternal life can be hoped for by any man without baptism and the Lord's body and blood, it is vain to promise these blessings to infants without them. Moreover, if it be only sins that separate man from salvation and eternal life, there is nothing else in infants which these sacraments can be the means of removing, but the guilt of sin. . .
Regardless of what we think of Augustine's notions of the absolute necessity of the sacrament, it is beyond question that his argument here is based on the fact of paedocommunion being widespread (and probably, universal) practice. Augustine had been to Milan and Rome, and so knew the practice of the broader Church. Furthermore, his primary opponent, Pelagius, was from Britain, and Pelagius's disciples had travelled extensively in the East. Consequently, Augustine could never have argued on the basis of a practice which was unique to his own locale in North Africa.
Leo the Great (Bishop of Rome A.D. 440-461) will serve as our final early witness to paedocommunion. When asked what should be done in the case of believers who were unsure if they had been baptized, he responds:
Those who can remember that they used to go to church with their parents can remember whether they received what used to be given to their parents.
He then further concedes that they may not be able to remember even that, which shows that he is clearly thinking of very young children indeed!
Compilation and comments by Tim Gallant. Special thanks is owed to Tommy Lee for his excellent essay, "The History of Paedocommunion."