So That a Bunch of Nine-Year-Olds Can Be Reconciled With God

Posted by Webster
When I told my father that I was converting to Catholicism, he said, “My Methodist mother would roll over in her grave.” Five minutes later, he said, “There are some things in my life that I am deeply ashamed of, and I haven’t even told your mother about them.” My mother was sitting at the table with us as he spoke.

I’m not giving away any family secrets here. Everyone in the world has things they’re ashamed of. If my father was an exception, it was on the side of virtue. My father was a highly moral man, my spiritual role model if I ever had one—Dad didn’t just preach it, he lived it—and I have no idea what he could have done that would have caused him shame.

But I think I know why he said this right after I had told him that I was converting to Catholicism. He associated Catholicism with confession. And I understood. As a former Episcopalian who sat and watched in uncomprehending silence as my friend Herbie Moloney went inside “his” Catholic church for Saturday-afternoon confession, while I sat ogling girls from a park bench outside, I confess: Confession was the thing about Catholicism that I found most intimidating, unusual, foreign, weird.

Wednesday afternoon, as a teacher of religious ed, I have to stand in front of sixteen fourth-graders and help them prepare for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which will be offered to them by Father Barnes the following Wednesday. This frankly intimidates me, about as much as if someone had told me I had to go to confession with Herbie Moloney.

Who am I to teach these children about confession? What do I know? These are two questions with distinct answers. It helps me to answer each clearly.

Who am I? Just a guy, what Bill Parcells called a JAG, apparently borrowing the nuttiness about acronyms that Frank picked up in the Marines. I am a guy (other than a seminarian, the only guy and fill-in father among twelve religious ed teachers on Wednesday afternoons). What’s more, I’m a guy who loves being Catholic. Somehow I am consoled by the conviction that my ordinariness and my love for the Church—bolstered mightily by the Holy Spirit—may just be enough to make the hour useful and enjoyable for those sixteen squirmers. I suspect that some of them don’t have perfect fathers. Some may not have any fathers at all. Few, I imagine, have anything like a spiritual mentor. While I can’t fill any of those roles adequately for them, I can at least let them see that such people exist. Isn’t that a source of hope?

What do I know? I know my own experience. Confession was every bit as scary for me the first time I went in that room and had to choose (behind the screen? face to face?) before even saying a word. And then there he was, Father Barnes, the priest I had come to respect so quickly and whose respect I surely wanted to win or retain. And suddenly our roles were going to shift and I was going to tell him all the worst things I had ever done in my life, it being my first, “general” confession.

That was terrifying. Yet almost the very moment it began and I got some wind in my sails (was that the Holy Spirit I felt powering me along?), it was an unimaginable relief. Somehow, I think I have to share both my fear and my great relief with the kids this afternoon.

Peter Kreeft, in his Cliff Notes for Religious Ed Teachers (a/k/a Catholic Christianity), offers me excellent bullet points for discussion: I figure the kids need to get a few definitions down: sin, contrition, reconciliation, penance, absolution. But I think there’s something much more fundamental at stake, and I have no idea whether I can or even should get this across to nine-year-olds. The issues at stake are:

1. We don’t believe in sin anymore, only mistakes.

2. We don’t think we need a priest to get over our mistakes.

So we don’t go to confession, and our souls are imperiled. Kreeft makes a statement and I’m going to copy it and put it on my bulletin board and somehow try to get it across today in nine-year-old terms:

“There is simply nothing that more quickly and effectively strengthens the average Catholic’s moral and spiritual life than frequent and regular confession.”

OK, I get it. I’m ready. Now I just have to get it through their thick little heads.

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  • Anonymous

    Hi Webster.Just a couple thoughts:1. We don't believe in sin anymore, only mistakes.Oh, couldn't we write a whole book on just that one point? A generation ago, cohabiting couples at least knew it was sinful and did it anyway. But today, most young couples think that's the norm and nothing wrong with it. I think you hit on a fundamental problem here, and it's up to us CCD teachers to do what we can to change that.For fourth-graders I would put it like this: A mistake is something you can correct yourself. That's why pencils have erasers. Sin is much more serious – it moves us away from God. For example, missing Mass on Sundays and Holy Days is an offense against God that we can't just correct. The Sunday is over, there's no going back. We have to ask God for forgiveness, and we have to mean it.2. We don't think we need a priest to get over our mistakes.Well, if it's really just a mistake, use the eraser. But if it is something that requires forgiveness, like disobeying your parents, or swearing, or fighting with someone, or missing Mass, then you have to ask God for His mercy. The only way you can ask God for mercy is through the priest, who is here to represent Jesus for us. Just saying "sorry" won't cut it. You have to mean it, and you have to promise that you will at least try not to commit the same sins, or any sins, in the future. Even if you know that it may happen again, when you go to confession you have to at least intend not to sin again. Confession brings us closer to God, and that's why we need to go to a priest. It's a very serious matter, even for "small sins".Hope that helps. Don't let the fourth-graders scare you. You're taller.Greetings,Michael

  • Webster Bull

    Michael, That's very helpful, thank you. Good advice, especially the part about "you're taller!" :-)But also, seriously, the stuff about mistakes: good perspective for talking with children about these things. I'll use it.

  • EPG

    Webster –It's odd, but the prospect of participating in this Sacrament is one of the things that is appealling to me about Catholicism. There is a rite for reconciliation, but it is not used much. However, after reading the rite as it appears in the Book of Common Prayer, I thought that this was something I wanted, and even needed. During a long consultation with the rector of my parish, I mentioned my interest. He was visibly uncomfortable, and appeared unwilling to offer the sacrament. Now, perhaps that is not inappropriate, as we worked closely together on some church business. But he was also unwilling to help me to connect with a colleague at another parish. It was all very strange. I can probably date the beginning of my serious interest in Catholicism to this event.(Of course, one thing I hadn't thought about before is the Episcopal church's attenuated sense of sin. It may be that some of the things I think are sins worthy of confession are things a lot of Episcopal clergy would write off as "mistakes.")In any event, the practice of confession fascinates me, even though IM not [yet] Catholic.Best wishes.

  • Webster Bull

    Hey EPG, Thanks for another great comment from my Episcopal "project." (Just kidding, have no ambition to "convert" anyone, but I am intrigued with your reactions as you dip your toe (further?) into Catholic waters.) I was sincerely intimidated by the prospect of going to confession, and in fact I still have to force myself to do so about once a month, but once there, once I am confessing and, miraculously, when I hear the reassuring words of the priest and the prayer of absolution, it is often all I can do not to cry. Father Barnes recalls a teacher in the seminary who used to say, "Always remember: each of the Sacraments does something." (It actually affects the world, changes people.) I can vouch for the efficacy of confession.

  • I maintained a stiff upper lip (and all that) during my first confession and then came the Act of Contrition. A flood of tears! But boy, what a relief!Now I still get butterflies and all but what a healthy vent this is for us. What a great gift the Sacrament of Reconciliation is and hopefully more will take advantage of it.

  • cathyf

    One thing that I think is good to keep in mind is that kids this age are quite naturally rigid and scrupulous moralists, and it's good to help them get over some of that. They often get all tangled up in form and structure. Sacraments each have matter, and the matter of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is sorrow for sins and intention to avoid sin in the future.So the sacrament is not invalid because you get to the Act of Contrition and your brain goes blank. Or if you don't have it memorized at all and bring the missalette into the confessional with you. It's not invalid if you have no idea how many times you committed some particular sin. (This is a biggie with the 9-yr-old set. Something you may want to talk to them about is the concept that a little sin committed many times can become a big sin. The requirement to confess the number of times is more about order of magnitude — once is different than a hundred times, but if you confessed that you did something 8 times and it was really 9, Jesus says that heaven is too busy rejoicing over one repentent sinner for anyone to keep count.) It's not invalid if you are pretty sure that the nasty little voice in the back of your head predicting that you are going to commit the same sins again is probably right.

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks, Cathy, several very good points. The thing that surprised me most is, the kids were more attentive today, while preparing for confession, than in any previous class. They were very serious and thoughtful about it (well, relatively!). I'm looking forward to next week as I'll be walking over to the convent with them and waiting in the chapel as, one by one, they go in to speak with Father Barnes. I feel privileged to be a witness to this.

  • EPG

    Webster — thanks for your encouragement above. This whole experience is fairly odd. It's not so much "dipping a toe" as watching, thinking, responding, taking in the atmosphere. One very valuable part of all this is getting to know more Catholics who are serious about their faith, both in this forum and in real life. And the thoughts of those who came to Catholicism as adults are very helpful, at times much more real than "cradle" Catholics. So thanks for all your efforts on this blog. It is a big help.