Why must children confess?

Question: As a catechist, I am often asked the question as to why children must go to confession before first Communion, since the Church teaches that a person is only obliged to go to confession if there are mortal sins. Some parents object to the idea that their children are able to commit serious sins. Please shed some light on this. 

Name and city withheld, Missouri

Answer: It is true that nobody is obliged to go to confession if they are not in mortal or serious sin. Thus the obligation to go to confession annually applies only in the case of mortal sin. Nevertheless, the Church strongly recommends the practice of frequent confession as a means of dealing with lesser sins and for a general renewal of life.

The reasons why the Church holds that children must go to confession before first Communion were set out on an 1986 letter to the U.S. bishops from the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. The communication reads as follows: “The basis for this observance of children is not so much the state of sin in which they may be ... but to educate them from a tender age, to the true Christian spirit of penance and conversion, to growth in self-knowledge and self-control, to the just sense of sin, even of venial sin, to the necessity of asking pardon of God and, above all, to a loving and confident abandonment to the mercy of the Lord.” 

Children do not go to confession before first Communion, then, because the Church has judged that they are possibly in mortal sin. The intent is to educate them in the practice of penance from an early age and to bring them to a realization of the importance of penance in the life of a Christian. Children are certainly capable of venial sins once they have come to the age of reason and they are able to distinguish between right and wrong. Training them in the practice of penance as a means of ongoing renewal of life is what the Church has in mind by the requirement of first confession. In the preparation of children for first penance, the sacrament should be seen and presented to children — and to parents — as something positive and good for children and something which forms in them a positive sense of conscience. 

Papal tiara 

Question: I read that some German benefactors have donated a tiara to Pope Benedict XVI. I though the tiara had been abolished. Do you think Pope Benedict will restore it? 

Ron G., Boise, Idaho

Answer: A group of German Catholics has indeed commissioned a tiara for Pope Benedict, and the pope received it graciously. I would bet that the pope will never wear it, however, since he did not wear a tiara at his installation as pope. 

The last pope to wear a tiara — and to be crowned with it — was Pope Paul VI. Pope John Paul I dropped the concept of a coronation and the use of the tiara and was invested instead with the pallium — the characteristic symbol of archbishops and a sign of the unity of the pope with the bishops of the world. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI continued this innovation. It is likely that we will never see the tiara used again in papal ceremonies, as the papacy since the Second Vatican Council has not been seen as analogous to a secular monarchy.  

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.