Data Protection and the Seal of Confession

I have posted before about the conditions in Ireland, particularly about the challenges of having most of our liturgical catechesis taking place within a school system that is under Catholic patronage (or management), but today with the added challenge that many of the teachers do not regularly practice Catholicism and many of the children receiving their sacramental preparation are coming from non-practicing families. 

When I made my First Confession in 1979, there was no particular significance given to the event. It was just something that we had to do in preparation for our First Communion. We were herded down to the parish church during the school day shortly before our First Communion and there was no involvement of our families. Irish people of my parents’ generation still think of First Confession in terms of the famous Frank O’Connorshort story.

In recent years many parishes try to separate the celebration of reconciliation from the actual First Communion, inviting the parents and sometimes even trying to have the children experience Confession more than once beforehand.  However, things can sometimes get a little out of control. I believe that those involved in the preparation of the sacrament could do with some more sacramental training themselves. A few weeks ago a particular example was commented on in the national press and the radio. The Irish Independentreports that “children at Cratloe National School, Co Clare, were asked to write their sins on artwork to be displayed at first confession Mass.”

I am not sure what a “first confession Mass” is. I presume it must be some part of the catechetical preparation for First Holy Communion.  Many parishes in Ireland use a program called “Do this in Memory.” This program helps to integrate the parish community and the family with the catechetical formation that is mainly centered on the local Catholic school. On the parish level it designates around 10 Sunday Masses as “Do this in Memory” Masses in the year before the First Communion and encourages the parents to bring their children to Mass on those Sundays, so that the First Communion Mass is not the first time that the children are in the parish. The weakness that becomes apparent in many parishes, is that if it wasn’t for the program the children would never be in church and in some parishes the parents arrange among themselves that one of them will take a car full of children to the Mass and save the other parents the bother of having to go to the Mass, thus defeating most of the purpose of the program!

In an attempt to make this particular liturgy meaningful “around 30 [children] had made a paper cross, each with the child’s photograph at its head. Stretching across the arms of the cross was the word ‘sorry’ in decorative writing completed by the child. The child’s sins were written at the shaft of the cross. They were laminated and had a ribbon to attach them to the end of the pew.”

Apparently, this has been the practice of that particular parish for many years and every year the teachers in the local primary school used the same templates to prepare the confession crosses with the First Confession children. However, this year one of the parents objected that “the use of this cross is a breach of the seal of confession, GDPR and privacy rules.” Unfortunately the objection that was made directly to the parish did not get passed on to the school and the liturgy with the offending artwork went ahead as usual. This led the parent to register public complaints that “it was bizarre and inappropriate for children to write their sins on a cross that can be viewed by other people in a church. Naming and shaming sins is medieval.” Now, after the exposure to national ridicule in the media, the parish promises that it won’t happen again (and after this year’s hoo-ha it is sure that it won’t).

It is interesting that the objections were on the grounds of GDPR which stands for General Data Protection Regulation, or data protection, which is much stricter in the European Union than in the US. This is a particular concern in Ireland in general as so many multi-national tech firms are headquartered here.

From a theological point of view, I believe that the practice was not a formal breech of the seal of Confession, the confessors were probably not even aware of the artwork.  However it was not the most prudent thing to do and it is easily understandable that parents might take offense and that the children might be ashamed by it.  I think the take-aways from this are that we need to give better liturgical formation to those who are preparing children for the reception of the Sacraments. The case also underlines the danger of simply uncritically carrying over particular liturgical practices from year to year. While there is no need to reinvent the wheel every year, we should also periodically ask ourselves if the Sacraments are being celebrated well and whether we are fulfilling the advice of number 352 of the current GIRM:

The pastoral effectiveness of a celebration will be greatly increased if the texts of the readings, the prayers, and the liturgical songs correspond as closely as possible to the needs, spiritual preparation, and culture of those taking part. This is achieved by appropriate use of the wide options described below.

The priest, therefore, in planning the celebration of Mass, should have in mind the common spiritual good of the people of God, rather than his own inclinations. He should, moreover, remember that the selection of different parts is to be made in agreement with those who have some role in the celebration, including the faithful, in regard to the parts that more directly pertain to each.

Since, indeed, a variety of options is provided for the different parts of the Mass, it is necessary for the deacon, the lectors, the psalmist, the cantor, the commentator, and the choir to be completely sure before the celebration about those texts for which each is responsible is to be used and that nothing be improvised. Harmonious planning and carrying out of the rites will be of great assistance in disposing the faithful to participate in the Eucharist.

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