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

So That a Bunch of Nine-Year-Olds Can Be Reconciled With God December 2, 2009

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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