The Return of the Prodigal Son
by James Tissot
She was so excited.
Seven years old. Smiling eyes. A toothy grin that never quits. And hugs that can simultaneously squeeze the wind out of you and melt your heart.
This is my youngest daughter. And tonight was her First Reconciliation.
Going to a Catholic school, her second grade teacher had been prepping the class for weeks on this their second Sacrament (their first being Baptism). Only two years before, she had seen her older sister go through the same process, though at the time she only paid the passing attention one would expect of a five year-old.
But now, it was her turn.
Dutifully and diligently, week after week she tackled the chapters of her First Reconciliation workbook. She eagerly participated in the retreat facilitated by our dedicated Director of Faith Formation. She committed the format of Confession to memory and, coming down to the wire, she memorized the Act of Contrition. As a matter of fact, as we were driving to Church this evening, she recited to us the anticipated interaction with the priest,
“Bless me Father, for I have sinned. This is my First Confession. These are my sins…”
“I am sorry for these sins and any others which I cannot now remember…”
And then, she proudly told everyone in the car to be quiet and proceeded to eagerly recite the Act of Contrition in a progressively faster cadence:
“My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against You whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with Your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.”
And as she finished, she bubbled over with irrepressible enthusiasm as she let out a trumpeting
And there you have it.
As we arrived at Church, we found our way into the pews as fellow parents smiled and greeted one another. Kids found a nearby friend and nervously whispered stories. Seven priests lined up in the front pew and awaited introduction by Father Mike before dispersing to quiet corners in the sanctuary. Many Confessions were about to be heard. The service began as Mary, our cantor, and Richard, our Director of Music, crafted gorgeous music which set the softest tone for an evening thoughtfully encountering God. A reading from the First Letter of John, a responsorial Psalm, the Gospel and a brief homily shortly followed. The time had now come. Andrew, the Director of Faith Formation, and Emily, the second grade teacher, stood at the front of the sanctuary and signaled the second graders to come forward.
As I gazed at my little girl, she stood up and went in line. She wasn’t slow or halting. Her approach beamed with a “Let’s do this!” attitude. It was classic for her.
In short order, she was pointed to the back of the Sanctuary. Fr. Mike, our winsome, devoted parish priest whom my daughter knew well from countless school and Sunday Masses, would hear her First Confession. When she realized this, her eyes simply lit up. You could almost see her skip to the empty seat at the back of the Church.
The Confession wasn’t long. It’s curious, because I thought of Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s comment on hearing the Confessions of delightfully scrupulous, yet innocent nuns.
“Hearing nuns’ confessions is like being stoned to death with popcorn.”
The sins, or perceived sins, of these kids are often so light, so lacking the ink-dark, heavy character of adult sins that it must give priests joy to see them starting to recognize an element of wrongdoing, sensing a responsibility to do what is right and feeling the lift of perfect absolution as they wander back to the pews and their lives.
And wander back they did.
As my daughter left her seat opposite Fr. Mike, I saw a seven year-old walking briskly – almost floating – back to our pew. Now that her Confession was finished, what I was beholding in that little girl grown so big was pure joy. A lost sheep was found. A lost coin rediscovered. An errant child ecstatically welcomed home. God had acted with the lift of absolution.
And it was beautiful.
And then I looked around at my daughters’ classmates and boys and girls from public schools that I had never met. Kids with missing tooth grins and cowlicks and delicate dresses and off-kilter ties. They all beamed. And adults who, though genuinely kind and engaging, had entered the Sanctuary a bit hunched, a bit weary from work at day’s end, a bit worn from those niggling things that were wrong in their lives…those adults seemed different. Taller. Lighter. Touched by Grace.
You see, what happened to my daughter tonight (and to her friends and all the adults and to me at my Confession) was nothing less than a visit from God. And in that visit, He pressed His gentle kiss of limitless Grace upon each of our foreheads.
A kiss of limitless Grace.
And, do you know what?
My daughter knew it. She knew it well. And she was so pleased.
Or as she would say,
Image Credit: Wikiart