The Catholic FamilyPrepares to Celebrate the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation
by Joseph D. White,
The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation
adults, discussion of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, also sometimes
called "confession," evokes feelings of anxiety. They may picture dark,
foreboding confessionals or remember feelings of shame or guilt associated with
incorrect catechesis surrounding the sacrament. First and foremost, the
Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is a powerful experience of God's
forgiveness and mercy. It is a tangible sign of God's desire to reach out to us
throughout our lives, even in our sinfulness, and help us reconcile ourselves
with him and with our brothers and sister, repair the damage done by sin, and
grow in our relationship with God.
The word sin comes from an ancient Greek word
that was used in archery. It literally means "missing the mark." God has a plan
for our lives—a plan for goodness and love. When we make choices that are not loving,
we "miss the mark"—we settle for less than the goodness we were created for.
Sin disrupts our
relationship with God and with the community. Jesus illustrated the communal
aspect of forgiveness of sins when he forgave those who had alienated themselves
from others, such as Zacchaeus the tax collector and Mary the prostitute, and helped
them rejoin the community (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], no. 1443).
In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the priest represents both Christ and the
Christian community, a sign of the restoration of our relationship with God and
our fellowship with one another.
The Catechism (no. 1448) describes two major elements of
the Sacrament of Reconciliation: our actions and God's actions.
Our actions consist of contrition, or feeling truly sorry for our sin; confession
of our sin to the priest; and satisfaction, intending to do what we can
to repair the damage we have done through sin. God's actions in the sacrament
include restoring us to his grace and reconciling us to himself and to the
There are three forms of
the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (CCC, nos. 1480-1483). Most often, the penitent (the person
confessing) meets with the priest individually. The priest welcomes and blesses
the penitent and may read from Scripture. The penitent then confesses his or
her sins to the priest. The priest gives the penitent a penance (a special job
to help repair the damage done by the sins confessed) and then says the words
of absolution. The rite ends with a prayer of thanksgiving and praise and a
blessing by the priest. When the sacrament is celebrated in a communal context,
the people gather together to listen to God's Word and make an examination of
conscience. The assembly may sing songs and pray the Act of Contrition
together. Individual confessions are then celebrated. In a third form of the
rite, communal celebration with general confession and general absolution,
sins are not confessed individually to the priest, but the priest grants
absolution to the whole assembly.
Baptism imparts to us
God's free gift of forgiveness. But each of us continues to make unloving
choices at times. God desires to be close to us and to help us in loving him
and others. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is like a gift that can be opened
again and again. God's mercy and forgiveness are ever present and ever new.
Children's Understandng of Sin and God's
children reach the age of reason (usually around age seven), developmental
changes in their thinking make them more aware of the fact that the world works
according to rules. They understand the laws of cause and effect, and they
learn that rules and guidelines bring order to our lives and communities. As
they learn about God's rules, they will simultaneously realize that they
haven't always followed them. This can cause some children guilt and shame. We
can help them feel good about who they are but also realize the need to keep
growing in goodness by saying the following: "Everyone has sinned, but when we
sin, we are being less than we were made to be. God is merciful and forgives us
when we are truly sorry. Through God's grace and our cooperation with it, we
can grow in goodness."
Children might sometimes
need help understanding the difference between a sin and an accident. They need
reassurance that sin involves an intentional act and that spilling a glass of
milk, for example, is not a sin. It's important also that we be patient with
their unintentional mishaps. We can confuse them if we treat an accident as a
Preparing for the Sacrament
several ways families can prepare for a child's first celebration of the
Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation:
″Parents, be sure to model forgiveness
for your children—both inside and outside the home. Let them see you working
things out with others. You have a unique opportunity to model mercy, grace,
and forgiveness as you say you are sorry, ask forgiveness of one another, and
forgive each other. Don't argue in front of your kids about rules for their
behavior, adult-oriented issues, or very emotional issues that are likely to
lead to a heated exchange. However, with smaller issues, let them see you
express different points of view and arrive at a compromise.
″Practice "penance" in the home. When
hurts have occurred between family members, encourage them to do something to
help repair the relationship. For example, the big brother who let playful
teasing progress to bullying may be required to do something extra nice for the
sibling he offended.
″Be a good example. It's critical that,
as children learn about God's laws, they see their parents working to follow
them faithfully. For example, when children learn that the third Commandment
(to keep the Sabbath day holy) means, for Catholics, going to Mass every Sunday,
children can become confused if their parents are choosing not to go to Mass.
This puts children in a very difficult dilemma, in which they have to choose
between believing their parents are in sin or that God's laws do not really
matter. Children this age are very concrete thinkers. They need to see us
practicing what we preach.
″Help children see connections between
God's Commandments and their everyday actions. For example, point out when they
are honoring their mother and father and when they are not. Challenge them to
see the connection between the tenth Commandment (not coveting neighbor's
goods) and showing gratitude, rather than jealousy, towards a sibling.
″Have a family "examination of
conscience," in which, as a family, you discuss ways in which you have shown
love to God and other people and ways in which you need to grow. Using a
child-friendly explanation of the Ten Commandments and Beatitudes can be
helpful for this activity.
″As a family, pray the Act of
Contrition and other traditional Catholic prayers (some of which might be given
as a penance in the sacrament). Choose a different prayer each night, and pray
just before bedtime, or pray a prayer in the car on the way to or from school
″Let kids see you (and other family
members, such as older siblings) going to celebrate the Sacrament of Penance
and Reconciliation. One particularly good opportunity would be at a parish-wide
penance service with individual confession. Many parishes have these services
in Advent and Lent. Of course, celebrating the sacraments year-round as a
family practice is the ultimate goal for each family. In these services,
children can often see the sacrament being celebrated (though, of course, they
don't hear what is being said). It's also important for kids to see that their
parents need God's forgiveness too, and celebrating the sacrament also allows
us to partake of God's grace as we build a home of love and reconciliation.
A child's first
celebration of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation can be a powerful
family experience of God's mercy and love. It is an important milestone for
your child as he or she continues on the path to all the good things God has
planned for his or her life—a means of experiencing, in a very particular and
powerful way, God's love and mercy.
Steps in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation
of conscience by the penitent
2.Welcome and blessing
Family Examination of Conscience
1.Have I put
God first in my life? Does he have priority in our home?
2.Do I use
God's name with care?
3.Do I attend
and participate in Mass on Sunday? Do I keep Sunday as a day of worship and
children) Do I honor my mother and father? (For parents) Am I patient and kind
so that my children can easily respect me?
5.Have I been
hurtful to others, either in words or actions?
treated my body and the bodies of others with respect?
respected the belongings of others?
8.Have I told
the truth? Have I been open and honest with others?
9.Have I kept
my mind and thoughts pure?
10.Have I been
happy with what I have instead of being jealous of others?
Copyright © 2014, United States Conference of
Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby
granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.