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Sheed & Ward

At the age of four Max had already grown tired of being the youngest of five children.  He didn't get to do what big kids did.  So when his sister Molly was preparing to celebrate reconciliation for the first time, Max suspected she was also preparing to make him once again the only kid in the family not big enough for what's important.  He decided to take matters into his own hands.

The sacrament of reconciliation celebrates God's forgiveness of our sins.  It proclaims a truth central to the covenant of Christianity: We frequently break the agreement through sin, while God remains constant in mercy.  Our first celebration of reconciliation is more, though.  It distinguishes our passage into an age of responsibility.

Max's whole family attended the parish reconciliation service with other families whose children had prepared for this day.  Molly had quietly prepared the recitation of her sins.  Max had quietly prepared his plan of attack.  As Molly stepped up for her first celebration of the sacrament, Max sprang into action.  He jumped from his pew and followed after her, taking his place next in line.

As I finished hearing Molly's confession, I spied Max, who had never prepared for the sacrament at all, determined to show that he could do whatever his sister could do.  I looked to his parents for direction.  They shrugged their shoulders.  I signaled Max forward.  Up he came.  And, by golly, he did it.  At the age of four, he made a confession as eloquent as any first timer has ever done.


Kids generally dislike first reconciliation.  But their dislike rarely comes from jealousy.  Quite the contrary.  Most kids are scared about this sacrament.  If they were given the choice, many would rather be vaccinated.  We market reconciliation through good catechesis: Confessing our sins celebrates the wonderful love of God.  But who can blame the skeptic child?  Children have already learned a more vivid lesson: When you mess up you get punished.  One way they avoid punishment is to clam up about their mistakes.  Admitting you're wrong to someone is like extending your neck to the executioner.  Confession just doesn't sound like a good idea.

Consequently, the preparation for first reconciliation produces more apprehension than excitement.  Kids go through it dutifully--rarely with the zealous determination of a Max.

Afterwards, another vista outstretches.  Kids feel great.  But the welcome relief that it's finally over may be mistaken for the joy of reconciliation.  After all, few kids rush back to church the following week to do it all over again.  Most will celebrate the sacrament next when parents, catechists, or the pastoral staff lean on them enough to get them to try again.


Apprehension over first reconciliation is learned.  Kids pick it up from older siblings, other churchgoers, and especially from parents.  Parents are their children's first teachers in the faith, and they teach in many ways, from the materials the catechist sends home to their own habits and attitudes.  The great many parents who disdain the sacrament of reconciliation in their own lives are teaching their kids in the process that confession is something to be avoided.

Parents avoid reconciliation for various reasons.  Bad memories.  Disbelief that it does any good.  High stress.  Laziness.  Reasons they probably haven't even thought much about.  Many of them were shepherded into confessionals from time to time when they were kids and dropped the practice as soon as it became their own responsibility.  Now with kids of their own they come face to face with their past.  Their own history poses a dilemma: If reconciliation hasn't been a big priority to them, how do they convince their kids it's important?

Parents want to do a good job with their kids.  They guide their children to good habits in health, social relationships, skill development, and faith.  Parents really want to pass on their values to the next generation.  In Catholic families one of those values is faith.  Even if parents misunderstand or disagree with some teachings, the church has somehow spoken to their hearts and helped them experience life in a deeper dimension.  The confession of sins to a priest sets Catholics apart from many other people.  Since the church holds the sacrament of reconciliation as one of its values, parents dutifully prepare children for its reception.

On a good day.  On a bad day they may find themselves communicating the worst.  Resentment about confession.  Frustration with the number of obstacles they have to jump over for kids who already cause stress at home.  Disinterest in regular Sunday Mass attendance.  Feelings of inadequacy to catechize at home when kids should be getting all this at church and isn't that why we send them up there in the first place?  Whether or not parents realize it, their kids pick up those feelings .  Many parents go through the motions to prepare their children for first reconciliation, but it could easily be their last reconciliation.

Our perception of first reconciliation frequently suffers a serious flaw.  We could be treating it as a means toward the lifetime habits of prayer, peacemaking, and personal growth, but usually it becomes something else--a step on the path toward first communion.  Once achieved, it may be left behind.  Like studying for a driver's license.  Once you've passed the test you don't habitually reread the State's driving laws, just for the sheer joy of learning.  Ordinarily, when we prepare children for first reconciliation we prepare them for an event, not a habit.


The flaws in first reconciliation reach further.  Not even the church sends a clear message about its purpose.

When it comes to first reconciliation, the church is sorting through the debris from a clash between obligations.  The sacrament of reconciliation is required of those who seek forgiveness from serious sin.  It is "recommended" for everyone else.  But reconciliation is also expected of children before first communion.  Here's where the obligations clash.  We impose the same requirement on young children that we impose on the worst of sinners.  If reconciliation is merely "recommended" for those who are not in serious sin, shouldn't that include young children?  If the sins of young children are required to be forgiven sacramentally, are those the sins which should be considered serious?  No wonder even adults determine with difficulty the seriousness of their offenses and their obligations to seek sacramental reconciliation.

Clearly, first reconciliation has another purpose for children.  It has become a preparation for first communion.  The church does not pretend that young children commit the serious sins which hobble adolescents and adults.  We just want kids to experience sacramental reconciliation.  The placement of confession before first communion smells like a suspicious fear that if we don't make kids celebrate reconciliation before first communion, they'll never confess their sins to a priest.  Let's face it.  First reconciliation is not really about conversion of heart.  It's a trial through which kids merit the right to holy communion.

But wait a minute.  Shouldn't the right to communion come from baptism?  Here the church faces another clash of beliefs.  Baptism forgives all sin, even original sin.  When adults are baptized they come to communion in the same celebration.  But when children are baptized, we withhold communion from them.  We expect them to prepare for a more reverent and intelligent reception of the eucharist.  Infants make no personal preparation for baptism, but children must show physical, mental, and spiritual maturity before they receive communion.  So we undergo another clash.  We believe in the all-powerful saving grace of baptism, but we value the worthy reception of eucharist.  As a result, we forbid perfectly pure newly baptized infants to receive communion until they are able to distinguish ordinary bread from the body of Christ.  Even in danger of death, an infant who cannot make that simple distinction may not be given the eucharist.  One begins to wonder what baptism has accomplished if children afterwards are still unworthy of receiving communion.

Suspicion about the effects of baptism grows stronger when we expect not just knowledge about the eucharist but also reconciliation before first communion.  Delaying first communion not only gives children an opportunity to learn, it gives them opportunity to sin.  Granted, all of us sin after baptism, but by inserting first reconciliation before first communion we practically make sin a requirement for participating in the eucharist.  Rather than celebrate the effects of baptism with the immediate reception of the eucharist, we wait for those effects to wear down a bit.

Even the popular term "sacraments of initiation" loses its focus when applied to infants.  Ever since Vatican II the church has defined the sacraments of initiation as baptism, confirmation, and eucharist.  Versions of those rituals were clustered in the initiation rites of the early church, and their celebration can be witnessed in parishes at the Easter Vigil every year.  However, with children those same initiation rites mutate considerably.  First communion is generally delayed at least seven years from baptism.  Confirmation may be delayed up to eighteen years, and a great many Catholics never receive it at all.  However, reconciliation has been introduced into the sequence of "initiation" sacraments if not theologically at least practically.  Ask a typical person in the pew to name the sacraments of initiation in their proper order and this is what you'll often hear: baptism, reconciliation, and first communion.  Oh, and maybe confirmation.  To add to the confusion, the church recommends reconciliation before confirmation too.  Are there five sacraments of initiation?  Baptism, reconciliation, eucharist, reconciliation, confirmation.

The inaccessibility of priests also interferes with the timely celebration of first reconciliation.  In some parts of the world only a few priests serve large areas of land and huge numbers of Catholics.  We cannot require reconciliation before first communion where priests are scarce.


So with the apprehension of kids, the misgivings of parents, and the murky direction of the church, the celebration of first reconciliation has some problems built in before we ever approach it.

Those problems fester within the context of an entire system which has sequenced confession before communion.  Most parishes regularly offer reconciliation on Saturdays.  The time-honored practice implies that you regularly need forgiveness before communion on Sunday.  Also, every Catholic is expected to receive communion at least once a year between the first Sunday of Lent and Trinity Sunday.  "Easter duty" properly pertains to communion, but most Catholics still assume that it applies to reconciliation as well.  Not exactly.  Reconciliation is necessary for those in serious sin who would like to receive communion.  So if you're in serious sin, and you need to make your Easter duty, voilą!  You're facing a trip to the confessional.  Confession precedes communion as night precedes day.

It wasn't always this way.  For over a thousand years we gave communion to newly baptized infants right away.  During the middle ages adults received communion only infrequently, and children followed the same pattern.  But communion remained part of the baptismal rites for infants clear through the first millennium of Roman Catholic Church history.  The first legislation of Easter duty, though, changed everything.  To encourage people to receive communion more frequently, the church in the year 1215 legislated it once a year during Easter for everybody, as part of a spiritual discipline which included an annual confession.  How old did you have to be before this law applied to you?  Literally, "the years of discretion."  The church gradually defined that as an age at which people seemed capable of committing sin and receiving the eucharist with reverence.  Eventually, that became age seven.  It was a short step from requiring communion at age seven to forbidding communion before age seven.  Since people had been encouraged to confess their sins before receiving their infrequent communion, and since communion was disappearing from the baptismal rite for infants, confession then preceded first communion as well.  Or more accurately, first communion was delayed past confession.

Consequently, the reason we require first reconciliation before first communion is that we stopped giving communion to infants.  We'd still be giving communion to infants if Easter duty had not been legislated for those who had reached the years of discretion.  And we wouldn't have Easter duty if people had been going to communion more frequently.  Well, frequency of communion does not seem to be a problem now.  An evaluation of the expectations for first communion would be welcome.


Solutions to the dilemmas surrounding first reconciliation do not all lie within our grasp.  For example, restoring communion to the baptismal rite of infants would permit us to train them in habits of ritual reconciliation which would accompany conversion of heart, not the preparation for communion.  But parishes are not free to open communion to infants; that prohibition belongs to universal church law.  Some, however, have freely chosen to offer first communion to children before first reconciliation, even though the church clearly prefers that the sacrament of reconciliation normally be celebrated prior to the reception of first communion.

Max's story actually provides an argument for celebrating reconciliation even earlier than most children do.  Children his age frequently experience nothing but unconditional love and forgiveness.  They may be naturals at a belief that the rest of us must come to embrace through a lifetime of betrayals, doubts, and disappointments.

Still, as adults, we could do more to promote reconciliation for our children.  We can individually approach the sacrament with a sense of its purpose.  Ultimately, reconciliation is a sacrament for the mature.  It expresses trust in the One we love.  It accepts responsibility within a community.  It constitutes a frank admission of guilt and a desire to improve.  It's the stuff of goal-setting, self-improvement, and spiritual advancement.  It depends upon teamwork with a divine assist.  It creates effective habits and celebrates progress in the spiritual life.  The penitent, far from being on trial, actually commandeers the driver's seat with this sacrament.  The penitent determines when to go, how much to say, and establishes the will to change.  In many ways, the priest just goes along for the ride.  Although it is hard to communicate such mature concepts of love, responsibility, and self-improvement to young children, (or to some adults for that matter,) a parent's pursuit of personal goals can be handed on to the child as a value.  That child will come to appreciate the importance of self-assessment, social correction, and spiritual union.

We have the power to approach the sacrament of reconciliation in a spirit of reconciliation.  If parents have been disillusioned by the sacrament in their personal experience or frustrated in their attempts to catechize their children, their resentment to reconciliation may actually reveal an unforgiving heart.  It's not surprising.  When someone hurts us, misleads us, or confuses us, we may feel resentful and angry.  We often take out those feelings on the people we love.  We take them out on the family.  Or we take them out on the church.

 Solutions are similar, whether the object of our anger is personal or institutional.  To reconcile with a person who offends you, you honestly confront the difference and extend mutual mercy and respect.  To reconcile with reconciliation, we honestly state the problems and respectfully try to make it meaningful again.

Then, as the members of the church come to value the spirit of reconciliation, our entire ecclesial community may be inspired to re-evaluate the sequence of initiation rites for children.  The answers that seem beyond our grasp may begin with solutions within our reach.

First reconciliation will be more meaningful to kids when repeated reconciliation is more meaningful to adults.  This sacrament strives to achieve an inner peace, a sense of growth, a stronger community, and a balance to life.  It's based on the principle that you're more likely to gain that inner peace in conversation and prayer, in community and sacrament.  It's not a bad idea.  It's got a few rough edges.  But don't we all?

This article first appeared online in Catholi c Pracitce in 1997.

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