My eight-year-old daughter made her First Confession recently, or First Penance as it’s now called. I had her well versed in exactly what to do and say – how to tell her sins, listening for her penance and reciting her Act of Sorrow. Unfortunately, she was sick on the big day, but was determined not to miss the special occasion.
With flushed cheeks from a high temperature, she was ushered forward by an observant teacher so she could leave a little early and get back to lying lethargically on the sitting-room couch.
I felt sorry that she wasn’t feeling her best on such a milestone in her Christian life, but I have to admit to being proud of her determination to be part of the community of other seven and eight-year-old children who celebrated the sacrament with such reverence and sense of occasion.
We’d reassured her that we could make special arrangements with the priest so she could make her First Penance when she’d recovered but she was having none of it.
It’s a little sad watching all the smiling faces returning to their seats after their First Confession and knowing that this beautiful sacrament of forgiveness won’t be a major part of their young lives.
This is the time of year when many 6th class girls and boys are receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation, which is linked to Baptism and the Eucharist as the Sacraments of Christian Initiation.
Confirmation invites young people to step up and take seriously the grace they have received, to leave fear behind and to take responsibility for spreading God’s love. This will be a tough task if the children have had minimal or no contact with the Church and their local Catholic parishes since they made their First Communion.
Besides attending Mass every Sunday, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is vital for a growth in the spiritual life of each child.
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website contains lovely uplifting words about the Sacrament of Reconciliation and children. Encouragingly titled, ‘To such belongs the Kingdom’, it’s a far cry from any old-fashioned images of Catholic shame or unfounded fear. It focuses on Jesus’ deep love and affection for children and how his attitude was always about letting the little children come to him.
It’s the special concern and affection that Jesus had for children that is the proper context for children who are learning how to examine their conscience and experience the healing of Jesus in Confession for the very first time.
The priest in our local church was very kindly and encouraging to the boys and girls reminding them that there was no need to be scared or anxious.
I was delighted that my daughter, who’d usually be a bit reticent, had no problem stepping up to the top of the church when her turn came. There was no doubt in her mind that she was about to receive God’s love and healing and it was really lovely to see her childish faith and trust.
A bit of the nervousness about going to Confession probably stems from an embarrassment about revealing our faults and failings. It’s important to remember that there isn’t a priest who hasn’t heard it all before and to focus on the sacrament as an encounter with a loving friend whose only concern is that we draw closer to him and develop spiritually.
If we want our children to avail of the sacrament often, we must assist and encourage them. Even at a very young age, a small child can learn how to include a review of their day in their night prayers. This should just take a minute or two, but it involves looking at the positive, good things the child did during the day and also the actions or behaviour that need to be improved.
As children get a little older, a more formal examination of conscience can be used.
For children who are preparing for First Communion, it’s best to keep it simple. The US Catholic bishops’ site has a short list of questions that are suited to that specific age group divided into responsibilities to God and responsibilities to others.
Questions help a child to remember where they’ve gone wrong, but focus on how to do better with references to trying to be kind and generous or rowing in with the household chores.
Sometimes, small children can view Confession as some sort of magical ritual where you say the right words, mumble your penance and the board is wiped clean. Children are used to the fast pace of life and to fast results and instant gratification.
It takes a bit of time and patience to help them to slow down and take the time to focus on their inner life. This won’t happen without some parental help. Schools and teachers do a great job, but parents are there all the time to deal with the tricky questions.
As children enter the teenage years, they’ll be faced with many pressures and moral dilemmas.
The grace of the Sacrament of Penance and the spiritual direction of a good priest will help them stay the, sometimes difficult, course, but it’s the involvement of committed parents that can make the difference between a faith that flounders before it even has a chance to grow or a faith that responds to Jesus’ invitation to healing and new life.