When neuroscience discovered hardness of heart

Does lying become easier with practice?

Common sense and experience say, “Of course,” and now some neuroscience researchers agree with that assessment. In Aeon, Neil Garrett of Princeton describes how he and three other researchers tested a group of people to see whether and how they could be acclimated to dishonesty. Here’s how the study worked:

“We had participants lie in an fMRI scanner and send messages to a second person, who sat outside the scanner, by entering keyboard responses. Participants were instructed that their responses would be relayed via connected computers. In some stages of the task, participants had repeated opportunities to make their messages dishonest in order to earn additional money. Importantly, they could be as dishonest as they wanted to – it was entirely up to them and could vary from message to message. This allowed us to see if the messages were equally dishonest, or if there was a change in people’s willingness to be dishonest over time.”

They discovered, as expected, that people initially had a strong emotional and neurological response to lying; but as they continued to lie, they felt less and less of a physical emotional response (flushed cheeks, racing heart) and, accordingly, their brains’ amygdalae responded less and less.

The study is especially interesting because the participants’ brains were reacting not to conditions outside their control, but to their own free choices. So, yes: Lying gets easier with practice.

It’s hard to know what to say about a study like this, other than, “Well, duh.” We’ve all seen this phenomenon. The first time we do something wrong, it feels wrong, and it feels bad. The second time we do it, it doesn’t feel great, but there’s less of a hurdle. The third and fourth time, it becomes even easier and less troubling. And eventually, with practice, we can barely remember why we thought the behavior was wrong in the first place, much less muster up any enthusiasm for quitting it – especially if we think we’re getting away with it. As any alert human knows, consciences are shallow wells, and run dry quickly if they’re not replenished.

The Church already has a word for this phenomenon, even if she hasn’t specified which region of the brain does the legwork. It’s called “hardness of heart,” which leads to vice, or a habit of sin, and it first rears its head in Genesis. It’s only a few chapters from Eden to the Flood. Vice is very efficient. Sin clears the way for more and more sin to roll through on more and more level ground.

Not only does sin become easier, but it becomes easier to commit worse sins. The researcher in the “dishonesty” experiment noted that, after a few repetitions of dishonesty,

“eventually, the door flew open: they could be much more dishonest than at the beginning, but with increasingly limited emotional sensitivity.”

And the Catechism nods gravely:

 

“Deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin.”

The author in the study says,

“This study might suggest a pessimistic view of humanity, with everyone gradually becoming emotionally null to bad behavior, more corrupt and more egotistical. But that’s not the only way to see these results. One positive message to take away is that emotion plays a crucial role in constraining dishonesty. Perhaps that means a solution to dishonesty is available: strong emotional responses in situations where dishonesty is a temptation could be reinstated so as to reduce one’s susceptibility to it.”

I don’t mean to be rude; but again, I say unto you: DUH. The Church is way ahead on this one, too. Why do you suppose we confess our sins out loud to a priest? It’s not because the Church wants to humiliate or discourage the penitent, but because she is well aware that strong emotional responses reduce one’s susceptibility to temptation. It grabs our attention when we have to kneel in a little box and croak out loud, “I hit my little sister” or “I masturbated to porn” or “I stole five dollars from the cash register.” It reignites that healthy, desirable emotion of shame and revulsion, which makes it easier to resist doing those things again.

(Of course confession also offers forgiveness and grace, which strengthen our souls and reunite us with God! But I’m speaking here only of the psychological effect of confession, as it’s intended to work.)

The researcher continues:

“There have also been a number of behavioral interventions proposed to curb unethical behavior. These include using cues that emphasize morality and encouraging self-engagement. We don’t currently know the underlying neural mechanisms that can account for the positive behavioral changes these interventions drive. But an intriguing possibility is that they operate in part by shifting up our emotional reaction to situations in which dishonesty is an option, in turn helping us to resist the temptation to which we have become less resistant over time.”

He is right again. “Cues that emphasize morality and encourag[e] self-engagement” are, for Catholics, things like reading the Bible, praying sincerely to God and the saints, doing penance, spending time with other Catholics who share your values, talking and reading about the Faith, receiving the sacraments regularly, and actively and consciously pursuing virtue, rather than just trying to avoid sin. These behaviors are all “cues” that bolster that emotional/neurological response, making it easier for us to be honest rather than dishonest.

Now, we can approach these actions as “positive behavioral changes” which we hope will stimulate emotional responses which will, in turn, engage certain areas of our brains, making it easier for us to do what we perceive as moral. But the question is, Why? Why go to all that trouble to manipulate your own brain?

You could say that it’s an evolutionary imperative, something we do because society rewards us for behaving in ways that are sometimes mutually and directly beneficial to those involved, and sometimes beneficial to the survival of the species.

Or, you could say that our eternal Father created us to love him and serve him in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next, and that his Son gave us the Church and the sacraments to help us find our way back home, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The two realities, neurological and spiritual, do not oppose or negate each other. When we discover how our brains actually function in response to the world, this is not proof that there is no soul, or no such thing as objective morality. But recall the scene in C S Lewis’ The Dawn Treader, where Eustace (converted, but still habituated to certain patterns of thinking) says,

“In our world, a star is a huge ball of flaming gas,” and Ramandu responds, “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”

Practice habituates us to sin, deadens our consciences, reduces our horror of evil, accustoms us to vice – or, if you like, neurally adapts us, making us less sensitive to stimuli after repeated exposure. Either way, thank God we have the sacramental means to fight back.

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Image by pramit marattha from Pixabay
This essay was originally published in a slightly different form in The Catholic Weekly in 2017

Children’s confessions are just as real as adults’

Recently, I’ve come across several instances of people taking the seal of confession lightly. Not priests, thank God (although I have heard priests disclosing things that skirted too close to the line), but laymen — specifically, laymen talking about their children’s confessions.

(Before I go any further, here is my vital reminder: If you do encounter a priest who has broken the seal of confession, or if you find evidence that this has happened, SAY SOMETHING. Tell his bishop, and demand a response. This is a big stinking deal and you should make sure it gets addressed. A priest who breaks the seal of confession needs to be stopped ASAP.)

Carelessness around children’s confessions represents two failures: A failure to take confession seriously enough, and a failure to take children’s spiritual lives seriously enough. Both can be disastrous; or, at very least, they can erode our understanding of what sacraments are for, and therefore erode our faith.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

I feel like I should note that I was a little crankier than absolutely necessary while writing this. Sorry about that! 

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

 

First confession cheat sheet!

Since many people are getting their kids to their first confession after covid cut things short last spring, I thought I’d share the cheat sheet I made for my class. I’ll paste it in at the end, but here’s a printable pdf: how to make a good confession. The class brought these cheat sheets into confession with them.

My child’s first confession was this morning, and it went great. Last night, we did some practice runs with silly sins, just so my kid would know the basic routine; and we reminded her repeatedly that it’s fine to tell the priest if she’s not sure what she’s supposed to do next. Here she is confessing to Fr. Bigsister that she polished off the last of an endangered species. 

She was assigned three Hail Marys and 20 push ups for a penance. This is a good example of one of my best tips for confession preparation: Normalize, normalize, normalize. Make it just a regular thing your family does, and not something dark, weird, or rare. 

Here is an essay I wrote about 17 ways to make an anxious kid’s confession experience easier (and most kids, and many adults, are anxious about it!).

Here is an essay about the sheep game I played with my first confession preparation class, to teach them what confession really is, before we dug down into the logistics of how to do it

And here’s the confession cheat sheet (or click here for the printable pdf):

HOW TO MAKE A GOOD CONFESSION

At home or before you go in:

1. Examine your conscience. Think over your life and ask the Holy Spirit to help you remember your sins, the things that keep you away from God and hurt you and other people. Write your sins down if you like.

2. Be sorry for your sins and tell God in prayer that you are sorry.

3. Make up your mind not to do them again. At least decide you will try!
In the church:

When it’s your turn, go into the confessional. You can sit face to face or kneel behind the screen. Remember Jesus loves you and wants to help you!

4. Say: BLESS ME, FATHER, FOR I HAVE SINNED. THIS IS MY FIRST
CONFESSION. THESE ARE MY SINS . . .

SAY YOUR SINS clearly and simply.

Finish up with: FOR THESE AND ALL MY SINS, I AM TRULY SORRY.

Listen to whatever the priest tells you, including your penance. When he tells you to say your act of contrition, say:

O MY GOD, I AM HEARTILY SORRY FOR HAVING OFFENDED THEE.
I DETEST ALL MY SINS BECAUSE OF THY JUST PUNISHMENTS,
BUT MOST OF ALL BECAUSE THEY OFFEND THEE, MY GOD,
WHO ARE ALL GOOD AND DESERVING OF ALL MY LOVE.
I FIRMLY RESOLVE, WITH THE HELP OF THY GRACE,
TO SIN NO MORE, AND TO AVOID THE NEAR OCCASION OF SIN.

or

LORD JESUS, SON OF GOD, HAVE MERCY ON ME, A SINNER.

LISTEN while the priest says the words of absolution. He will say:

[God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sen the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the church, may God give you pardon and peace, and] I absolve you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Now you are forgiven and your sins are gone forever! Say “thank you” to the priest and leave the confessional.

After confession:

5. DO YOUR PENANCE right away if you can. If you have written down your sins, tear up the paper and throw it away! Those sins are gone forever!

 

17 ways to make confession easier on your kids

Adult converts sometimes sheepishly admit that confession scares them. What they may not know is cradle Catholics often feel the same way. Very often, anxiety around confession begins in childhood, when well-meaning parents send kids all the wrong messages about when, how, and why we go to confession.

But children aren’t doomed to hate confession. Here are some things you can do to mitigate anxiety and even learn to look forward to confession:

Practice ahead of time. Nothing eases anxiety like familiarity; and humor helps, too. Let the kid take turns acting out confession as different penitents with appropriate sins: Their two-year-old sister, for instance, or Indiana Jones. Let them know the routine inside and out before they make it personal.

Let them have as many crutches as they like, including a cheat sheet with the act of contrition or even the entire form of confession written out. They can bring in a paper with their sins on it, and throw it away or burn it afterward There are also online confession aids.

Let them check out the confessional during “off hours,” so it’s not a mysterious or terrifying place. Or arrange for confession in a setting that is familiar. Confessions don’t have to be in a confessional to be valid.

Remind them repeatedly that father has heard it all before, and remind them that he’s used to people being nervous, too. It’s okay to say, “I forget what I’m supposed to say next,” and it’s okay to tell the priest you’re scared or embarrassed, too.

Sometimes the waiting is the hardest part. If a child finds it truly excruciating to wait in line, consider making an appointment where he can just pop in and get it done.

It’s okay to avoid difficult or unpleasant priests and to seek out helpful, reassuring ones. Yes, it’s always really Jesus in there; but it’s also a particular man. If your kid likes and trusts some particular priest, he may be willing to schedule a confession if that’s what make the difference between going and not going.

But for some kids, knowing the priest makes it worse.  Some kids would rather have an anonymous experience with less social awkwardness. If your kid would prefer to confess to a stranger, make an occasional pilgrimage to another parish for this purpose.

 

In any case, remind the kid about the seal of confession and what dire consequences face a priest who breaks the seal.

If you’re going as a family, let an adult go first and alert the priest there’s a nervous kid coming up next, so he can do everything in his power to make it a good experience.

Make it sweet, not bitter. Associations are powerful things, for good or ill.  The Jews have a tradition of giving children honey as they learn the Torah, so they will know that the law of God is sweet. It’s not bribery; it’s helping children internalize something true. So celebrate at least the first confession with a small treat, and consider making subsequent confession trips as pleasant as possible. It may not be practical to include ice cream every time, but at last don’t make it wretched.

If necessary, wait. Some kids simply aren’t ready when most of their peers are ready. A young child isn’t going to be committing mortal sins, so it’s far better to wait an extra year or so than to force a traumatic first confession. If you have to literally drag your kid into the confessional, or if you have to threaten or coerce them into going, you may be harming your child’s relationship with God, and making it less likely that they’ll go at all, once they’re old enough to choose.

Make it a normal normal normal. Let them see you and their siblings going regularly, and then going about their day. Talk about it like it’s the normal thing it is. Let your kids hear you say things like, “On Saturday, we’ll pick up some cat food, then get to confession, then do a car wash,” or “I remember going to confession at St Blorphistan, and boy, those kneelers were squeaky.” No good can come of making it rare and unfamiliar, or speaking as if it’s some kind of mysterious, arcane experience that doesn’t fit into everyday life. Many people (not all) find that frequent confession is easy confession.

Be open about your own struggles and joys surrounding confession. If confession makes you nervous, acknowledge this to your kids. If you feel intense relief when it’s over, talk about that. If you ever feel grateful to God for the gift of forgiveness, talk about that. The last several times I went to confession and the priest said the words, “I absolve you from your sins,” I had to fight down the urge to shout, “JUST LIKE THAT?” It seemed like such an incredibly good deal, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Every time I feel this way, I talk about it to whichever kid is with me.

Let it be a standing offer. Remind them they can always ask to go to confession, and resolve to bring them any time they ask, no questions asked, no fuss, no complaints, no exceptions. Acknowledging and overcoming sin is hard enough; the last thing a kid needs is for her parents to add obstacles by embarrassing her, or making her feel like she’s causing trouble.

Mind your own business. Yes, you have to educate them in a general way about what kind of things they ought to be bringing to confession, but it’s not a great idea to shout, “Ryan, you apologize to your sister’s hamster right now, and you better be confessing that next week!” It’s the penitent, the priest, and God in there. Parents aren’t invited.

But do check in. Without asking for any personal details, occasionally make sure the experience they’re having at confession is okay. If they seem distraught when they come out of the confessional, ask if anything happened that makes them feel weird. Kids should know that confession can be difficult and intense, but it’s not supposed to be excruciating or humiliating; and they should know that safe adults never ask children to keep secrets.

Take anxiety seriously. If a child is showing severe reluctance or anxiety around confession, don’t assume it’s because he’s a reprobate who’s resisting spiritual improvement, and don’t be sarcastic or dismissive of his anxiety. Maybe something bad happened to him in confession, in which case you need to find out what happened and address it swiftly.

Or maybe he’s suffering from anxiety in general. If confession is just one of many things your child can’t bring himself to do because of anxiety, then you should be talking to a pediatrician to figure out what the next steps are. Put confession on the back burner until you have a better idea of what’s really happening, rather than cementing the association of confession with fear and misery.

When a penitent meets Christ in the confessional, it’s about a relationship. Like any relationship, it takes time to develop naturally over the years, and there will be highs and lows. Sometimes helping our kids through the lows helps us become more comfortable with this great sacrament, too.

***

This essay was first published in The Catholic Weekly in April of 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

photo credit: Gwenaël Piaser Ryan via photopin (license)

How I’m prepping kids for first confession with the sheep game

My faith formation class — mostly eight-year-olds — has watched this amazing video several times. It’s short, and shows a man rummaging around in a hole in the deep grass. He grasps something and starts to pull, and we eventually see legs, and then realize that it’s an entire, full-grown sheep who’s somehow got himself buried. The man pulls steadily and the sheep emerges, very much like in a birth. The sheep shakes himself, looking confused and relieved, and gallops away while the men chuckle.

Our class is getting closer to the big day: Their first confession. They won’t receive their First Communion until next year, so I had the task of teaching them to understand sin and repentance and forgiveness, without overwhelming them with guilt and self-accusation. They’re learning what their sacramental relationship is with God, and I would hate to frame it as some kind of adversarial trial. That’s something I’m still unlearning, myself.

So I’ve been trying to lay a lot of the emotional framework for confession, before we really dig into the logistical part of it. We talk a lot about how the whole story of salvation is how much God wants to be with us, and how he keeps coming up with plans to save us from all the problems we get ourselves into. I want very much to teach confession as a place we want to go when we need help, rather than a place we have to go when we’re in disgrace.

One class, I showed them the sheep video without any introduction. We watched it twice, and I asked them to talk about what the sheep was like. They decided he was pretty silly, and confused, and that he needed help, and he was probably scared, and it was dark and awful in the hole, and he wouldn’t be able to get out by himself. And maybe it wasn’t the first time he had fallen down in there, either, and he might even do it again.

Then we talked about the man who saved him. They thought he was Spanish, first of all. Ha! Okay, what else? He was strong, and he cared about the sheep, and he knew what to do, and he wasn’t going to give up until he got the sheep out. And he felt sorry for the sheep (“Pobrecito!” meaning “poor little thing” he says at one point), and he liked the sheep, and didn’t want it to get hurt. And he liked seeing it come out of the hole (“El milagro de la vida!”, ‘the miracle of life’ one of the men exclaims.) It was his job to take care of that sheep. That was why he was there.

Then I told them we are like the sheep, and Jesus is like the man who pulls the sheep out. This was a little confusing for them at first, but kids this age are quite capable of understanding analogies with some help.

We talked about different kinds of things we can do that make us fall into a hole. Calling someone a mean name. Not doing what our moms tell us to do. STABBING SOMEONE. (They liked that one.) We wrote these and other sins down on little paper sheep and then I had them all crowd together on one side of the room, each clutching a sheep. I shouted, “I am the good shepherd! Come on, sheep, follow me and I’ll take care of you!”

One by one, they came toward me. But there was one spot on the floor that was designated as a hole. When they reached that spot, they fell down. We looked at their sheep together and read the sin. I asked, “Are you sorry you killed someone [or whatever the sin was]?” They said they were sorry, and I said, “I forgive you! Come out of the hole!” and I hoisted them up and sent them on their way.

They. Loved. It. It was fun and exciting and memorable, and it captured something of the nervousness and anticipation of waiting in the confession line, and the relief and joy of coming out on the other side.

 

Next week, we watched the video again and played the game again, but this time, when they fell into the hole, I had them say, “Bless me, father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession” before they “confessed” their “sins.” In the next few weeks, we’ll add in more and more elements of the actual form of confession. My hope is that, by the time we hit the big day, they’ll be good and familiar with what they’re supposed to do, but they’ll also associate it with feelings of rescue and relief — something they actually want to do, something that is there to help them, because this is why Jesus came: To help us out of the hole.

Will it work? I have no idea. It’s possible I’m scarring these kids for life. It’s possible we’re having TOO much fun, and they’ll go into the real confessional and start hopping around and baaing like sheep, and the DRE will conveniently forget to ask me to teach again next year.

I did have one concerned parent carefully inquire why his child came home with a crumpled paper sheep that said “KILLING” on it.

But you know, these kids keep coming back. They keep asking questions. They really like being pulled out of a hole. And so do I.  Baaa!

***

This essay first ran in The Catholic Weekly in February of 2020. Reprinted with permission.

Duty and salvation

When my oldest kid was about four, she happened to wake up around midnight to go to the bathroom. She stumbled through the living room, where my husband and I were sitting.

On this particular night – which was not a typical night! – we happened to be watching Daffy Duck cartoons and eating candy. She didn’t say a word, but just nodded to herself and kept walking. She was clearly thinking, “I KNEW it!”

It was, as I say, not a typical night. A typical night would be more likely to find us filling out insurance paperwork, trying to get stains out of someone’s favourite overalls, or simply trying to muster up the strength to get up, brush our teeth, struggle our way under the covers, and get a few hours of sleep before the baby woke up for her first feeding, so we could catch another few hours of sleep before it was time to get up and do it all over again, take care of everybody and everything all over again.

But what she saw was burned into her brain, and she thought she had found the real secret of adulthood: As soon as the kids’ bedroom door closes, you can do WHATEVER YOU WANT.

She wasn’t really wrong. Adults CAN do whatever they want. The catch is, if they DECIDE to do whatever they want, they’ll almost certainly ruin their lives and the lives of everyone around them, and go to hell when they die. It’s kind of a big catch.

What I tell my kids is that, when you’re a child, people make you do things you don’t want to do. But when you’re an adult, you have to make yourself do the things you don’t want to do. You have to be the unwilling worker and the strict taskmaster, both!

It occurs to me that we, even as adults, often fall into thinking of God as the strict taskmaster: the one who descends from on high, telling us what we can and cannot do. Every time we feel the urge to do WHATEVER WE WANT — uh oh, here comes God, saying “no, no, no.” Get up, take care of the thing, don’t do the thing you want to do, do the thing you don’t want to do instead. Then, tomorrow, do it all over again, even though you’re tired.

Following the ten commandments can feel very much like this, some days, or some years. And then we go to confession and admit, “I didn’t do the thing you told me to do. I failed.” And God forgives us, which is nice.

I’ve been teaching my faith formation class, over and over again, that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we are the sheep. We are the silly ones who need to be saved, and He is the saviour. We are the wandering ones, and He is the one who finds us. We are the ones who fall into the hole, and He is the one who pulls us out again.

So I was making up my lesson plans and I realised that, with all this talk about sheep, I had not yet introduced the kids to the idea that Jesus is the paschal lamb. And boy, the strangeness of it hit me right between the eyes. God is not only the shepherd, but also the lamb.

I know you know this. You’re a Catholic, so you’ve heard it all before. But have you ever thought about how strange it is?

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Baptized, confirmed, and ordained in two weeks: My interview with Fr. Matt Hood

For a man who had just been baptized, confirmed, ordained and catapulted into the headlines in the space of two weeks, the Rev. Matt Hood of St. Lawrence Parish in Utica, Mich., sounded remarkably relaxed. I caught the 30-year-old priest on the phone while he and his father drove to Minnesota, where they were going to pick up a puppy named Sherman.

Father Hood’s story is no shaggy dog tale, though. It was only a few weeks ago that he discovered by chance that his baptism in 1990 was not valid, and therefore neither was his ordination in 2017 nor were many of the sacraments he presided over in the past three years, when he thought he was a priest but was not.

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit issued a letter on Aug. 22 informing his flock that in light of a recent statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Father Hood’s baptism and ordination had been invalid because the presiding deacon at his baptism in infancy had said, “We baptize you” rather than “I baptize you.” Once that was discovered, the archbishop explained, Father Hood had been properly baptized, confirmed and then ordained as a deacon and a priest.

Father Hood’s situation has been remedied, but the revelation of his invalid baptism and speculation about what that means for all the people he interacted with as a priest, are still rippling outward. This record of our conversation, which continued over Facebook, has been shortened and lightly edited.

Read the rest of my interview with Fr. Matt Hood in America Magazine.

Only listen

Everyone who knows me knows I have a big mouth. I love to talk, I love to give advice, I love to leap in with my take on something that I only just barely found out about. It doesn’t help that I often get rewarded for it: I get paid to write, paid to talk, paid to share my opinion and analysis.

The exception to this is when I do interviews. I was comparing notes with my husband, who is a reporter, on how readily people will tell us intensely private things. It is truly amazing what people will reveal.

I used to think I had some particular talent for getting folks to open up, but now I know I don’t. It’s just that most people want to talk, and if you ask them to, they will. They want to tell their stories. Most of all, they want someone to listen.

When I go to conferences as a speaker, I’m there primarily to (as the name implies) speak. But I’m also there to listen. For every 40 minutes I spend speaking, I spend about five hours listening. It happens before the speech and after the speech, in an out of the conference space, on the sidewalk, in the hotel, in the bathrooms, on the plane.

Last time I was at a conference, I ended up sitting in the bar of the hotel for three hours, listening to some woman pour her heart out to me, an utter stranger. She told me the most terrible, dreadful, astonishing, heartrending things, and it was very clear to me that my job was to get comfortable and receive it without comment. People want to tell their stories. People want someone to listen. They need it. Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: The Old King (detail) by Georges Rouault; photo By Tabbycatlove – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74815857

Acts of contrition for Catholic toads

In the story ‘Alone’ from the beloved children’s book Days with Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel, Toad goes to visit his friend Frog, only to discover a note on his door saying that Frog wants to be alone.

Toad, as is his wont, immediately falls into a panic, assuming Frog no longer cares about him. He puts together an elaborate lunch and hitches a ride on a turtle’s back, launching himself out across the water toward the island where Frog is, intending to win his affection back. As he comes in earshot of the island, he shouts,

“Frog! I am sorry for the dumb things I do. I am sorry for all the silly things I say. Please be my friend again!” Then he slips and falls, sploosh, into the water.

Every time I read this story, I laugh, because Toad’s words are so familiar. They are, in effect, an act of contrition, and I am Toad.

We are all Toad. What we may not all realise, though, is that an act of contrition can be expressed in many different words, including something like what Toad shrieks out in his misery. Many of us were made to memorise a particular prayer when we were growing up (or when we joined the Church), but we don’t have to say that specific prayer.

When the Rite of Penance describes a sacramental confession, it says, “The priest … asks the penitent to express his sorrow, which the penitent may do in these or similar words . . .” and it suggests 10 possible prayers, and leaves room for anything that expresses contrition.

Many people in my generation can rattle off something like this one:

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell [or: because of thy just punishments]; but, most of all, because they offend You, my God, Who is all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, to avoid all occasions of sin, and to amend my life.

or this shorter one:

Oh my Jesus I’m heartily sorry for having offended thee, who are infinitely good, and I firmly resolve, with the help of the grace, never to offend thee again.

About 93 per cent of Catholic children hear “hardly” instead of “heartily.”  A few enterprising children thread this needle by saying, “I am hardly sorry for having been a friend of thee.” And that works. It’s the sincerity that matters, not the getting it perfectly right.

As Fr Kerper says:

“[T]he Act of Contrition is not primarily a magical formula rattled off thoughtlessly to guarantee instant forgiveness. Rather, it expresses in words a deeply personal act that engages a person’s affections and will.”

So it’s less important to have something memorized, and more important to think deeply about what we intend. A good act of contrition should include an expression of sorrow, a renunciation of sin, and a resolution to change; and there are many different ways you can say it.Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Kids’ first confession? Here’s how to make it easier

Adult converts sometimes sheepishly admit that confession scares them. What they may not know is cradle Catholics often feel the same way. Very often, anxiety around confession begins in childhood, when well-meaning parents send kids all the wrong messages about when, how, and why we go to confession.

But children aren’t doomed to hate confession. Here are some things you can do to mitigate their anxiety and even help them learn to look forward to confession:

Make sure your kids fully understand that confession is a place you go for help, not a place you have to go when you’re in disgrace. Mercy mercy mercy. Tell them until they’re sick of hearing about it. 

Practice ahead of time. Nothing eases anxiety like familiarity; and humor helps, too. Let the kid take turns acting out confession playing the part of different penitents with appropriate sins: Their two-year-old sister, for instance, or Indiana Jones. Let them know the routine inside and out before they make it personal.

Let them have as many crutches as they like, including a cheat sheet with the act of contrition or even the entire form of confession written out. They can bring in a paper with their sins on it, and throw it away or burn it afterward. 

Let them check out the confessional during “off hours,” so it’s not a mysterious or terrifying place. Or arrange for confession in a setting that is familiar. Confessions don’t have to be in a confessional to be valid.

Remind them repeatedly that father has heard it all before, and remind them that he’s used to people being nervous, too. It’s okay to say, “I forget what I’m supposed to say next,” and it’s okay to tell the priest you’re scared or embarrassed, too.

Sometimes the waiting is the hardest part. If a child finds it truly excruciating to wait in line, consider making an appointment where he can just pop in and get it done.

It’s okay to avoid difficult or unpleasant priests and to seek out helpful, reassuring ones. Yes, it’s always really Jesus in there; but it’s also a particular man. If your kid likes and trusts some particular priest, he may be willing to schedule a confession if that’s what make the difference between going and not going.

But for some kids, knowing the priest makes it worse.  Some kids would rather have an anonymous experience with less social awkwardness. If your kid would prefer to confess to a stranger, make an occasional pilgrimage to another parish for this purpose.

In any case, remind the kid about the seal of confession and what dire consequences face a priest who breaks the seal. Remind them that the priest can’t tell the penitent’s parents what was confessed!

If you’re going as a family, let an adult go first and alert the priest there’s a nervous kid coming up next, so he can do everything in his power to make it a good experience.

Make it sweet, not bitter. Associations are powerful things, for good or ill.  The Jews have a tradition of giving children honey as they learn the Torah, so they will know that the law of God is sweet. It’s not bribery; it’s helping children internalize something true. So celebrate at least the first confession with a small treat, and consider making subsequent confession trips as pleasant as possible. It may not be practical to include ice cream every time, but at last don’t make it wretched.

If necessary, wait. Some kids simply aren’t ready when most of their peers are ready. A young child isn’t going to be committing mortal sins, so it’s far better to wait an extra year or so than to force a traumatic first confession. If you have to literally drag your kid into the confessional, or if you have to threaten or coerce them into going, you may be harming your child’s relationship with God, and making it less likely that they’ll go at all, once they’re old enough to choose.

Make it a normal normal normal. Let them see you and their siblings going regularly, and then going about their day. Talk about it like it’s the normal thing it is. Let your kids hear you say things like, “On Saturday, we’ll pick up some cat food, then get to confession, then do a car wash,” or “I remember going to confession at St Blorphistan, and boy, those kneelers were squeaky.” No good can come of making it rare and unfamiliar, or speaking as if it’s some kind of mysterious, arcane experience that doesn’t fit into everyday life. Many people (not all) find that frequent confession is easy confession.

Be open about your own struggles and joys surrounding confession. If confession makes you nervous, acknowledge this to your kids. If you feel intense relief when it’s over, talk about that. If you ever feel grateful to God for the gift of forgiveness, talk about that. The last several times I went to confession and the priest said the words, “I absolve you from your sins,” I had to fight down the urge to shout, “JUST LIKE THAT?” It seemed like such an incredibly good deal, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Every time I feel this way, I talk about it to whichever kid is with me.

Let it be a standing offer. Remind them they can always ask to go to confession, and resolve to bring them any time they ask, no questions asked, no fuss, no complaints, no exceptions. Acknowledging and overcoming sin is hard enough; the last thing a kid needs is for her parents to add obstacles by embarrassing her, or making her feel like she’s causing trouble.

Mind your own business. Yes, you have to educate them in a general way about what kind of things they ought to be bringing to confession, but it’s not a great idea to shout, “Ryan, you apologize to your sister’s hamster right now, and you better be confessing that next week!” It’s the penitent, the priest, and God in there. Parents aren’t invited.

But do check in. Without asking for any personal details, occasionally make sure the experience they’re having at confession is okay. If they seem distraught when they come out of the confessional, ask if anything happened that makes them feel weird. Kids should know that confession can be difficult and intense, but it’s not supposed to be excruciating or humiliating. And they should know that safe adults never ask children to keep secrets.

Take anxiety seriously. If a child is showing severe reluctance or anxiety around confession, don’t assume it’s because he’s a reprobate who’s resisting spiritual improvement, and don’t be sarcastic or dismissive of his anxiety. Maybe something bad happened to him in confession, in which case you need to find out what happened and address it swiftly.

Or maybe he’s suffering from anxiety in general. If confession is just one of many things your child can’t bring himself to do because of anxiety, then you should be talking to a pediatrician to figure out what the next steps are. Put confession on the back burner until you have a better idea of what’s really happening, rather than cementing the association of confession with fear and misery.

When a penitent meets Christ in the confessional, it’s about a relationship. Like any relationship, it takes time to develop naturally over the years, and there will be highs and lows. Sometimes helping our kids through the lows helps us become more comfortable with this great sacrament, too.

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Image by Michael_Swan via Flickr (Creative Commons)
This essay was originally published in a slightly different form in The Catholic Weekly in 2019. Reprinted with permission.