Patience and gentleness are necessary for adults and children approaching their first confession. CNS photo

Various people have commented to me that Reconciliation is a sacrament that needs a certain refreshing, both in the liturgical form and in our approach to celebrating it, so I would like to offer some theoretical and practical thoughts on one approach or manner of celebrating God’s enduring love and forgiveness that seems to work well for me. 

My own religious formation as a child led me to see Reconciliation as a “confession” of sin to God followed by prayer and then a “penance,” a form of punishment, which was almost always more prayer. Anything the priest would say to me in the confessional would be most general, pious, and applicable to me individually only in the most vague way, so I went to confession because it was part of my faith, not because there was anything about it which really attracted me. 

Pastoral Approach

The way that I feel about Reconciliation now is based not so much on the paradigm which centers on juridical procedures, on judgment and reparation and the separation of the sheep from the goats, with a clear distinction between the saved from the damned (Mt 25:31-46). I look more to Lk 13:6-9, the parable of the fig tree that doesn’t bear fruit: the vinedresser cares for the barren tree and will encourage it, offer it support, and help to save it from being lost. As confessors, we need to have this same caring and pastoral approach, and we must remember that Christ worked primarily with the lost and broken, the sinful and outcast, and He healed them and gave them hope and encouragement. 

I see the celebration of this sacrament as a moment where one of the faithful comes to ask for forgiveness for sins and faults but also to seek healing, hope, and guidance in coping with these problem areas in the future. Such a view of this mediation of God’s mercy focuses not so much on the application of rules (although the priest must obviously be well versed in morals and their application) as on the celebrant’s personal approach of warmth, welcome, healing, encouragement and joy. Our sacramental interaction is then not aggressively impersonal and anonymous, but we seek instead to be present in every way possible to the person who comes to the Lord. 

The way that we practice and experience the Eucharist seems only too often that we consider it to be a rite that the priest accomplishes while the faithful remain on the outside of what is happening. The people have a very limited active participation in all that occurs during the celebration and, more important, they feel a consequent lack of attention and focus: “My attention wanders during Mass.” Reconciliation, on the other hand, is always a sacrament in which a person feels the most personally involved and touched, and we need to take advantage of such an opportunity: this moment is as close as most people get to a personal, concrete and practical approach to their spiritual lives, and we confessors should make the most of it.

Beyond Absolving

I am not advocating that we substitute this sacramental time for spiritual direction; that has its own proper time, place, and format. Nonetheless, in the celebration of the sacrament we can go beyond absolving the penitent of a simple list of sins toward seeking the sources and motivations of those sins as well as toward suggesting some basic directions for healing and growth. What we as priests can offer to the individual who approaches us should be practical and concrete as well as spiritual: we need to communicate the fact that we have listened and have heard what they have to say. Offering insights and ideas that they can put into everyday practice is a good sign of that. 

The 1974 “Introduction to the Rite of Penance” (Bishops Committee on the Liturgy, section 18) states that the priest imposes an act of penance or expiation on the penitent; this should serve not only as atonement for past sins but also as an aid to a new life and an antidote for weakness. As far as possible, therefore, the penance should correspond to the seriousness and nature of the sins. This act of penance may suitably take the form of prayer, self-denial, and especially service to neighbor and works of mercy. These will underline the fact that sin and its forgiveness have a social aspect. 

There are some very specific helps to doing this. I recommend that we literally approach the confessional or, preferably, the Reconciliation room, praying for wisdom and a pastoral spirit, an ability to really be present to the confessants, and that as we leave we pray for those whom we have reconciled, both as individuals and as a group. I find, more concretely, that people respond very well if I begin our time together by asking the penitent his or her first name and then use it in the formula of absolution. And, if I ask older people whether they would like to hold my hands as I absolve them, they sometimes break out in tears of relief.

Meaningful Penance

I also ask those who come to me whether the penance I suggest (and we need a better word for this element of the sacrament!) is something they can accept and whether they think it will help them: they rarely demur, and this participation in choosing the penance helps them to “buy into” this sign of contrition and to step toward living more fully in Christ. The result is that the penance will be more meaningful and will be more likely to have an effect on them; this also evinces a greater personal commitment and acceptance of personal responsibility. 

All of that is preliminary and really very general, and I’m sure that most priests would either have things to add or might prefer to say the same thing in a different way, but that is not at the heart of what I would like to offer. 

I have found that it is very important for me to offer a penance that meets the major problem or sin that the confessant is trying to cope with, the area that she or he most wants to make progress in. These penances must be age-appropriate, obviously, but they must also touch each person in the actual life that he or she is living. For this reason, once the person communicates what he or she wishes forgiveness and healing for, I usually ask some general questions, taking care to make sure that I am not giving any impression that I am seeking to identify the person.

Personalize Encounter

Depending on the circumstances, I ask their approximate age and occupation, their marital status, sometimes the age range of their children, approximately what sort of job they hold, or whether they are retired. This personalizes the encounter and invites the confessants to share as much as they wish of who they are. In practice, most penitents relax when I do this and feel moved to give more of what they consider relevant; almost never do any indicate that they are reluctant to share that information, nor do they overdo their response. 

Just as an example, many people nowadays have positions which demand a high level of awareness and critical thinking, a strong readiness to judge situations and events and act on them; when they come to confession and accuse themselves of being judgmental, it is good to know this background in order to help them distinguish between a professional bias or strength and an unwholesome or even sinful application of that ability. 

With this enhanced sense of where their lives are and what problems they are facing I can usually offer fitting and practical advice in dealing with such difficult problems as gossip or masturbation, and over time I have come up with some concrete ideas in regard to appropriate penances. I do not offer these as boilerplate solutions, merely as examples of what I do and as something that might fire other priests’ imaginations. In every case, we need to make the penance appropriate and fitting, something that will maybe lead the penitents to find some insight into their behavior but will also help them to find healing for themselves and for the others that they believe their sin has touched. I want the penance to heal the hurt, both for the sinner and those they believe that their sin has hurt, as directly as possible.

First Confession

For children approaching their First Reconciliation, I seek to be as patient, gentle, loving, and joyful as possible. This can be difficult when the parish asks parents to accompany their children to where I am sitting, to present the child to me, to stand at a certain distance from the priest and the child during the child’s confession, and then to approach the sacrament themselves. 

I cannot tell you how many parents begin their confessions by telling me that they haven’t been to confession for 10 or 15 years but that they believe that it is tremendously important for their children for them to do so and are coming to Reconciliation to set an example or to end a hypocritical situation — and then they often begin to weep, with the child looking on and wondering what I am doing to Mom or Dad. 

It is important to bring not only forgiveness to the confessant, not even healing in addition to the forgiveness, but to give them a smile and joy as they leave. If we can’t do that, I doubt that the children who have been watching will feel like the sacrament of Reconciliation should be part of their future.

Helping Mom and Dad

When I hear the children tell me that they have been disobedient, I urge them to try to get close to their parents and to learn to contribute to family life instead of being a problem for their Mom and Dad. Specifically, depending on the child, I ask them to have their mothers teach them to cook breakfast; in a world where both parents work and early mornings can be rushed, mothers can find this to be a welcome support. More importantly, though, it brings the mother and child together in a situation where they are working together, doing something of value, and acting for the whole family, and the child can see that following directions for making pancakes — and for everything else — makes a difference: there is bound to be some transfer of these lessons to the area of obedience. 

At this age kids are not quite ready to do something similar with Dad, such as helping with various sorts of repair work around the house, but this could be a very similar moment: helping paint a room, taking a “field trip” to the hardware store, or. . . ? 

If the child’s problem is more a matter of squabbling with older or younger siblings, I ask them to sit down with Mom or Dad and to seek some guidance about how they can do better with their brothers and sisters; having this conversation when it is not a matter of confrontation or punishment, just as in the case of learning to cook some simple dishes, allows some growth of the bond between the generations and can be a real moment of personal growth in itself. 

Another penance that seems to work well is to have the young confessant embrace the brother or sister in question and tell him or her that they really love them and that they are trying to be nicer to them. This doesn’t solve all the problems in those relationships, but it is an interior step forward for the child, an affirmation of their humility and courage, and a sign to the sibling and to the parents that he or she is really trying to work on these relationships. 

When it is a matter of lying or cheating I will sometimes ask the child how he or she feels when someone else lies to them or cheats them; I will then encourage them to seek to be strong, honest, and trustworthy so they can avoid making others feel that way. While I urge them, as a penance, to find some way to balance the cheating or to return to the person they lied to in order to correct the lie, I have found no very good and appropriate concrete approach. It is much easier to deal with older confessants who accuse themselves of lying; they can more easily understand that lying is a form of self-protection and an evasion of what it takes to be really strong and reliable. Older confessants like to look not so much to the sin as to the satisfaction of becoming someone whose word is trustworthy and who does not “speak with a forked tongue,” while for children this integrity and credibility is not as important as finding safety and comfort. 

In the case of First Reconciliation for adults, I try to be as patient and as open to questions as possible and to explain what we are doing: while the sacrament itself is paramount, a major pastoral concern for me is to prepare them to live the time until their next confession in the most spiritually fruitful way they can and to make them feel welcome to return to the sacrament.

Boys and Girls

Boys do not change much in the first years following their initial experience of this sacrament, but by the time that girls are in about the fifth through seventh grades they are entering that period of self-doubt that is such a major part of their adolescence. They feel that they need to put up a front so that everyone will love them, and this “everyone” extends to just about anyone but boys (at least at first): parents, teachers, and especially other girls are the most important here. 

This constant rating of themselves and comparing themselves to other girls leads to judging others negatively, to jealousy, and to excluding some girls so that they themselves can be part of what we used to call “the in-crowd.” Gossip is what the girls name most often as the most visible act involved in all of this, but it is symptomatic of the rest. Lying is here more a means of self-aggrandizement than a form of misguided self-protection, as it was earlier. 

For the gossip, I ask people (not just younger girls) to remember an occasion when someone once told them something nice about themselves, not on some special occasion such as a birthday, where such a comment might be expected, and I ask them how they felt. They generally respond that they felt light and wonderful for a day or two. As a penance, then, I ask them to do something similar to two other people in order to repair the harm of gossip even if it does not involve the people originally concerned. I tell them that this is a form of blessing. 

They need to choose two people who have no power over them (and vice versa), people who are outside their usual circle of friends if possible, and to pray for them for about a week. They are to look for the person’s best qualities, especially things that others might not see or value, and when they believe that they have really seen into the heart of the other person they should just walk up to her and tell her something like “Ethel, you are just the gentlest and kindest person, and I wish I were like that. I just wanted you to know that I really admire that in you because I don’t think that many people see it.” And then they should just walk away.  

I am counting on their building a habit out of this, changing themselves rather than trying to affect the people they might have gossiped about: at this age, going back to face the people that they feel they have hurt would just be asking for trouble, but maybe this blessing process will give them the insight and courage to try such an approach when they are older. TP 

(To be continued next month)

Father Kestermeier, S.J., teaches in the English Department and is a campus chaplain at Creighton University, Omaha, Neb.