Non Solum: First Confessions

A reader writes in:

A year and a half ago I heard that a young woman named Erin was flying to the West Coast for her godson Bryce’s first confession. I mentioned to her mother who informed me of this: “Tell Erin that she will have to go to confession herself during the penance service. Her example will be very important to Bryce.”

Wrong! The liturgy was devoted entirely to the little second graders. Parents were in no way encouraged to take part in the sacrament of God’s merciful love and forgiveness. Not a single adult went to the sacrament that evening.

I have since heard of several other parishes where the parents and other adults attend their child’s first confession as it they were witnessing a cute thing. They even take pictures.

Am I missing something?

Fifty years ago I can recall hearing confessions monthly in preparation for First Friday for Catholic school youngsters.  This was to develop a habit, one that has been lost for most recent Catholic school graduates.

I hope I am not alone in my confusion about these children-only first penance services.

Celebrating a child’s baptism, first communion, confirmation, etc., is an exciting time for many families. These moments are times when we initiate our children into a new way of living, a sacramental life. It is a time for parents to be proud and snap a picture or two. Unfortunately, many parents seem to have forgotten the ritual significance that lies behind the sacrament being celebrated. The liturgical celebration is no longer seen primarily as a sacramental ritual, but a rite of passage detached in many ways from its religious function.

I too cannot stand “communal” celebrations in which only those being “honored” are able to fully participate in the liturgy. If you are going to have a penance service in which your children will give their first confessions, then everyone should be allowed and encouraged to participate fully by going to confession.

First confession is the one “first” that I would imagine would be immune to the pageantry and paparazzi so common for sacramental rituals like first communion. While our reader writes in specifically about first confession, I think his critique is not limited to the sacrament of penance.

How does your community conduct first confessions? In what ways does your community attempt to focus a child’s ritual “firsts” on the sacramental rites being celebrated and not the pageantry that can be so distracting to proper liturgical celebration?

Please comment below.

20 comments

  1. I have two children who have celebrated their first penance somewhat recently, and I have been impressed with what they do at our parish. They celebrate the communal rite and they strongly encourage (on multiple occasions) that family members (parents, grandparents, siblings) in attendance should participate fully and go to confession themselves. They tie it in well with Baptism and Eucharist. The resident priests hear the confessions of the children (and adults when the children are done), but there are 6 or so other priests so that others can participate. It’s a joyful celebration, but there is no doubt that this is a parish liturgy (rather than a show) and the focus is on reconciliation. It shows that the parish pastor, liturgist and musicians take the lead in preparation of the liturgy.

  2. I have been in parishes where Penance was offered (formally) only to first penitents, and in other parishes where Penance was offered to children yearly as part of the religious education program. In both instances (usually), parents & other adults were invited to participate.

    The regular offering of Penance to youngsters, I believe, did much to mostly dispell the notion of the sacrament being soley a ‘rite of passage’ and reinforced the importance of not only the sacrament of a Penance but also the practice of the virture of penance.

    The attitude of the adult community, as well as the parochial staff community, does much to influence how a sacrament is regarded.

    Does the parish even have a conspicuous place for Penance (a room with the option of screen or face-to-face)? I know of parishes that have no such place (as well as no ‘permanent’ or fixed place for baptisms). What does this say about the importance the parish attaches to these sacraments?

    In some places it has come to the point where even if the tabernacle remains in the sanctuary, the decorum of those in the body of the church would give the notion the folks consider it a gathering space instead if a sacred space. Is even the idea of the ‘holy’ dissipating?

  3. Our first Reconciliation service is done very well (much thanks to my predecessor Donna Eschenauer). It is very simple with no gimmicks or externals to distract from the Sacrament. We follow the rite for a Reconciliation service with individual confessions. We do not allow pictures and explain that we are respecting the integrity of the Sacrament and the privacy of those making their confession by not taking pictures. Anyone who attends, parents, grandparents, and siblings are invited to celebrate Reconciliation and many do. I usually get a lot of positive feedback after the service. The only thing I wish I could change was that everyone would stay until all have gone to confession and end with a blessing and closing song, but with 50 kids at each service, many with young siblings also in attendance, it is difficult to have them all sit and wait, so they quietly leave. We also have music (organist and cantor) which is a nice touch as they sing softly while confessions are going on. Usually we have 6 priests hearing confessions, out is the open, not in the Reconciliation rooms. It makes it easier for the children.

    1. @Jo-Ann Metzdorff – comment #3:
      Thank you Jo-Ann for posting this! We worked very hard to implement something that was true to the liturgy of the church, and meaningful for children, their family, and the entire community.
      While other parishes in the area were creating reconciliation services and experimenting with added activities within the service, we wanted the children to experience the prayer of the church and remember the ritual.
      Every year after the child’s “First Confession” we invited families to the parish Advent and Lenten Reconciliation Services.

    2. @Jo-Ann Metzdorff – comment #3:
      I am in full agreement that it would be very effective to have everyone remain for a common blessing and concluding hymn. and yes we changed this for the practical reasons you mention.
      Also, having the confessors out in the open (out of earshot to others, of course) gives the distinct sense that we are in this together. In other words, there is noting private about our sins. My sins effect the entire Body of Christ.

  4. Years ago, in the same diocese from which Jo-Ann writes, our parish decided to address these very issues with the first celebration of reconciliation. I was the lucky one sent to deliver the message.
    Since confessions were heard every Saturday afternoon, that was the direction we moved. Rather than taking the celebration out of the “normal” parish context, that’s where we put it. Catechesis began with the parents, reminding them of their commitment and role as “first and best teachers” in the ways of faith. Families were invited/encouraged to come to church together, on whatever Saturday worked for them, and to celebrate the sacrament as a family. While parents weren’t (initially) all that keen about having to bring themselves to the sacrament, for the benefit of their children as well as their own sake, they did so. Every encouragement was given to families to continue to celebrate that special day – whether by attending Mass that evening, going out to dinner… anything to celebrate as a reconciled family. In order to accomodate the anticipated increase in the number of penitents each week, at least two of the priests were scheduled to hear confessions, and the time was increased from one hour to two. It made for some long Saturday afternoons, but they were wonderful, and indeed moments of grace for that parish family of faith. The first requirement is a pastor who is willing to think outside that proverbial box. Thank God, we had one. In his recent visit with a Roman parish council, Pope Francis said it well: “The first pastoral commandment is closeness: being close to the people. Closeness.” As he is also fond of saying, “Cosi sia.” “May it be so.”

    1. @Dismas Bede – comment #4:
      I think putting confession in the normal parish context has to be the way forward. Otherwise, there is unlikely to be a second confession, at least not for a very long time. The example of parents and teachers is also very important, as is kindness on the part of the priest.

      One thing I would say, however, is that children,and a fortiori adolescents, always prefer the anonymity of the traditional confessional. Whenever I have been in a situation where both options are being offered, 99% of the young people choose anonymity. The same applies to adults who have got out of the habit of regular confession, or whom serious sin has kept away.

      1. @Fr Richard Duncan CO – comment #7:
        My experience with adolescent thru young adult penitents is that the great majority chose face-to-face and welcomed the opportunity to engage in dialogue about how to “turn away” from the sins they confessed.
        I like to tell parents that if they could be a “fly on the wall” when their teenager went to confession, their heart would melt and they’d never bawl their kid out for anything ever again. I’ve found most teens to be very honest and open and quite sincere, the most eager to face the reality about themselves. Sometimes they forget that part of the reality about themselves is that no matter their sins, they are still beloved children of the Father. It is my joy and privilege to remind them of that, and many times their emotional response to that reminder is one more testimony that yes, our young people do care about God and their relationship with Him.

      2. @John Swencki – comment #8:
        I agree that if a penitent wants, or needs, an extended conversation, then a face to face encounter is often, although not always, the best context in which this can happen. My comment was based on my experiences of hearing confessions during Penitential Services at a girls secondary school, and at young adults events at the Cathedral, where the confessional is so designed that the penitents can choose for themselves which option to follow.

        One issue that cannot be ignored these days is that of Safeguarding. Current UK guidance on hearing the confessions of children and vulnerable adults mandates visibility of priest and penitent at all times, which can be difficult to achieve in the context of a Reconciliation Room. The traditional Borromean confessional gets round these difficulties and has a lot to say for it.

      3. @Fr Richard Duncan CO – comment #10:
        I understand, and agree with you.
        Here, in some parts of the States, Reconciliation Rooms are constructed so that there is a good sized window on the entrance door. Also, the arrangement of the Reconciliation Room is such that at least either the priest or penitent (sometimes both) is visible through the window.
        When I’ve heard children’s confessions and they have been accompanied by a parent, I ask that parent to wait for their child at the door to the Room. They can see (but not hear) what is happening in the Room.
        There are times when the Borromean confesisonal has been of tremendous value.

  5. I have sympathy for family members who want to take photos at the celebration of sacramental moments in their children’s lives. In our culture, people mark important occasions by taking photos. I would be more concerned if no one cared enough to document the day.

    We had at least one mom who opened the door of the confessional to take pictures of her child during confession. That was problematic, but rather than stamp out a natural inclination we decided to redirect this urge. So we created a small-s sacramental moment and now encourage families to hold their photos for this moment.

    In the center aisle of church, we set up the paschal candle, a large copper bowl of white sand, and a holy water font. After making his or her confession, each child comes forward to light a small taper candle from the paschal candle and place it in the sand, then make the sign of the cross with holy water as a sign of renewing the graces of their baptism. This is fitting addition to the celebration, and it gives families a more appropriate moment to take photos.

  6. I have never been to a first confession where parents and other adults were not invited to also receive the sacrament. In fact, in our parish, the religious education children, who had classes either on a weekday evening or Saturday morning, celebrated the sacrament every year in a liturgy with their parents, who also were invited to participate. It was a lot of extra work, but worth it for the benefit of seeing parents take the responsibility for this part of their children’s development in faith.

    We tried to prevent picture taking at first confessions because it was just out of hand. I have had to stop parents from videotaping their child’s confession. It’s those kinds of experiences that make it so hard to be open to reasonable accommodation.

  7. My experience with adult confessions for the past 35 years has been both face to face and behind the screen. Because of the location of our “confessional” which is secluded, which had the option of face to face, a few years back that option was removed and the room made more like a traditional confessional. Since that time the number of people coming to confession has increased. Over the years I have noted that those who choose the screen over face to face admit sins that are much more serious than those who choose face to face. Obviously there are exceptions, but the traditional manner of confession in a more traditional confessional has led to more confessions and yes, more serious confessions.

  8. We also generally do first confessions in the context of a penance service. Each family approaches one of the priests as a family. The parents introduce their child, give their unsigned certificate to him and then step back to the line. The child goes first, and then any other members of the family that want to. I find I get about a 50% rate on parents going; higher for elder siblings, but there’s probably quite a bit of selection bias there, as only siblings often don’t attend if they’re not going to go to confession. After all of that family’s confessions have been heard, they come together for the priest to sign the certificate and get a family blessing. This is the time for photos.

    We don’t have any formal close to the service. Given we generally only have about 30 or so families to get through and can usually muster 6 priests without too much hassle, I wonder if we might be able to introduce a closing and reception.

  9. I am ok with confessors in the open so long as penitents are assured of their right to anonymity (the grllle, as it were).

  10. Can we be honest about the practice of hearing confessions behind screens. Back in the time around the Council of Trent there were many abuses involving priests hearing the confessions women. The leaders of the church imposed the practice of a screen between confessors and women. Flash forward to the influence of the great number of clergy from Ireland who being great buildings decided to construct churches with confessions of both genders to be heard from behind screens. This came in time to be regarded as a right of all Catholics. There are times when the availability of the screen helps those who may be psychologically impeded from confessing their sins sitting across from a priest. But Jesus, as we know, forgave people face to face. Why we would even think of offering children experiencing first confession the choice of hiding behind a screen is beyond me. I would never force someone to confess their sins face to face when there is an option, but at penance rites hundreds of people readily approach priests to confess in this manner.

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #17:
      Why? Canon law requires it to be available, and it’s not conditioned on a legitimate psychological need of the penitent. That’s why even children must be given the choice. And I’ve certainly seen it available at communal reconciliation; it’s not difficult to arrange, so long as someone takes the obligation seriously and doesn’t treat it as abnormal. FWIW, I employ both options.

    2. @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #17:
      Perhaps we offer children the option of confessing behind a screen because they might like to do so. Regardless of the historical origins of the practice, still more of our own preferences, who are we to judge?

  11. Our Parish approaches First Confessions in differing ways. The Catholic Schools in the area are generally allowed to confess their kids as a class (even though they may come from separate parishes). (There seems to be some kind of directed agreement among the Pastors on this.

    The Public school kids do it together in a CCD Penence Service environment.

    Then there are those who still do it separately. My child simply went to the Priest at school once she was ready.

    We found what had the most transformative effect on the Parish was making Confessions available 1/2 hour before any Mass and regular hours on Saturday 3PM-6PM) and Wednesday nights 7PM-10PM.

    What we found is that children who had just been through the Sacrament would wander up to Confession. And then, over time, we began to see significant signs of an increase in high schoolers attending regularly. After that, it was just a matter of time.

    We now have regular long lines of 15-25 of all age groups before almost every Mass. Wednesday nights are the most popular, as parents who cannot get there on Saturdays because of Sports congregate there for Confession and then coffee and donuts downstairs.

    What I found extraordinarily significant is that the only times the Priests would emphasize Confession was at the First Confessions. The practice of regular Confession itself was simply revived by example.

    We estimate that approximately 65 percent of the Parish attend Confession at least monthly.

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