Family Resource - Joseph D. White, PhD

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The Catholic FamilyPrepares to Celebrate the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation

by Joseph D. White, PhD

The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation

For some 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 Church.

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 Forgiveness

As 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 purposeful act.

Preparing for the Sacrament

There are 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 or errands.

″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

1.Examination of conscience by the penitent

2.Welcome and blessing

3.Confession of sin

4.Assignment of penance

5.Act of Contrition


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 rest?

4.(For 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?

6.Have I treated my body and the bodies of others with respect?

7.Have I 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.