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.

***
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. 

Lent Film Movie Review #1: I CONFESS

We are watching an edifying, religious-themed movie with the family on Fridays in Lent. Complete list here. Review #1: I CONFESS (1953). Every time I number something, it peters out pathetically, but this time will be different. I can feel it. 

Honestly, I didn’t expect a lot from this movie. I expected some rather stilted drama and rushing around and dramatic lighting, but not a lot of plot. Silly me, it’s Alfred Hitchcock. It wasn’t absolute Grade A Hitchcock, but it was tightly constructed, compelling, a little weird, and unpredictable throughout the whole movie, with lots of yummy dramatic camera work. I wanted the kids to see a movie where the priest is the hero, and it did a good job of portraying a priest (Montgomery Clift) who is pretty noble and brave, but is also a regular guy. Not only does it show him struggling with the choices he has to make, but it shows him before he was ordained, as a soldier and as a normal guy with a girlfriend.

I don’t want to give any spoilers, but once the painfully suspenseful part is apparently over and Fr. Logan has come out victorious, and you think, “Ah, he’s passed the test and done what a good priest ought to do!” . . .  that’s when the really awful part begins for him. It doesn’t last long, but it’s pretty rough! Good stuff. A solid and engaging movie, and the final scene packs a good punch. 

The whole family watched this (youngest is five and oldest is 21) and they all seemed to follow it easily. Some of these kids do get squirrelly when we try to show them a black and white movie, but they seemed interested and engaged throughout.

It turned out a few of the kids were a little wobbly on the details of the seal of confession, so we did stop the movie a few times and reinforce that what they were seeing on screen was accurate (if somewhat more dramatic than what most priests face). They were impressed.

The only weensy theological complaint I had was that, when Fr. Logan is staggering around Quebec going through his agony, he doesn’t run to the tabernacle for solace, which is what I would expect a priest in dire straits to do; but he just kind of suffered around town.  He speaks and behaves as if God is very real to him, but it doesn’t actually get shown much in the movie itself. He does pass under a statue of Christ carrying the cross at one point. I just would have liked to see more of the spiritual side of his suffering. What we see is mostly the emotional side. But it’s not really that kind of movie, I guess. 

Oh, and I feel the gal (Anne Baxter) ought to have had a lot more comeuppance than she got, but in a Hitchcock movie, you should just be glad he didn’t have her skinned and made into slippers or something, I guess.  

It was odd and sad to see everyone on screen behaving as if a Catholic priest is the last one you’d ever suspect of doing something wrong (and there are so many priests! Just priests everywhere!). But the central plot was a good reminder that the priesthood itself hasn’t changed, and I know priests nowadays who would absolutely do just what Fr. Logan did. They just don’t happen to look like Montgomery Clift.

All around, entertaining and yes, edifying. Recommended. 

We watched this through Amazon Prime. It was $2.99 to stream it as a rental. 

Next up: Either Song of Bernadette or Babette’s Feast.

The emerald ash borer and the priest

It’s a strange thing, but when I hear sensationalized documentaries about environmental devastation, I come away drained and horrified, exhausted with despair over what is becoming of the natural world.

Not so with listening to this man, who has spent his life literally face to face with the enemy. He was, as I said, placid, and I went away feeling hopeful about the future of the forest. Not complacent, but hopeful.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Photo by USDA via Flickr (Creative Commons)

17 ways to make confession easier for 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 help kids even learn to look forward to confession . . . 

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.  

photo credit: Gwenaël Piaser Ryan via photopin (license)

Do we ask priests for things only they can offer?

A priest who’s too busy to focus on the sacraments is either a priest who’s squandering his vocation, or a priest whose vocation is being squandered.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image by kisistvan77 via Pixabay (Creative Commons)

Have you ever thought of being a priest? An interview with Fr. Alan Tremblay

I’ve been interviewing pastors around the state for Parable, the magazine of the Diocese of Manchester, for a series called “Have You Ever Thought of Being a Priest?” This article was originally published in Parable. It is reprinted here in extended form.

****

Fr. Alan Tremblay grew up in the small, heavily French Canadian town of Biddeford, ME, the third of four children. His family was Catholic, but no one ever talked to him about becoming a priest, and so he never even considered it until he was 19 or 20 years old. Now at 41, six years after his ordination, he’s the pastor of the Parish of the Holy Spirit and Mary, Queen of Peace, which includes churches in Keene, Troy, Winchester, and Hinsdale.

In his rare free time, Fr. Alan likes to take in a baseball game, or, true to his rural upbringing, he will occasionally go hiking, kayaking or skiing. He recently travelled to Northern Quebec to go fly fishing for brook trout with his father and nephew, and he loves to have dinner or a cookout with family or friends. I asked him:

What would be your ideal meal?

I love lamb and lobster. Lamb is definitely a favorite when it’s done well. I cook. I do Blue Apron. I just finished cooking and eating chicken tandoori with cucumber yogurt, with potatoes with poblano peppers.

Who was your hero, when you were growing up?

John Paul II and Mother Teresa were huge in my life when they were alive. I had comic books of both of them. I miss them. I look back with fondness and wish they were still around.

What attracted you to them?

It was their visibility. You could see them, hear them, watch them, get a sense of their holiness. That’s why I fell in love with them. It’s not more deep than that.

When did you first hear the call to become a priest? How did you get from there to here?

I was 19 or 20, and had never thought about it before then. I moved out of my parents’ house when I was 18. I struggled through high school, not academically but motivationally. I didn’t want to be there. I was kind of shy, and wanted to get out. College was not something hot on my list right after high school.

I moved in with my best friend, and that lifestyle was leaving me not just unsatisfied, but kind of unhappy. I never questioned the Church, but I was not as faithful as I wanted to be. This contributed to depression and unhappiness and unease with my place in life.

I was watching Mother Angelica one night, and she was talking about how I was feeling. She said, “It sound like you have to go to confession!”  So I made an appointment with the parish priest. He was talking about the Life In the Spirit seminar. I had never heard of it. It was charismatic, which took some getting used to. But I was open to it. I went through the seminar, and by the end I kept hearing this question in my mind and heart: “Do you think you’re supposed to be a priest?”

It wasn’t earth-shattering; it was just a question, like Elijah and the whisper. I put it away for a while. I went to college, was in a relationship for a while. I started working, and found myself working at Catholic Medical Center [in Manchester, NH]. By then it was seven years later, and the question was still there.

I was loving my faith and practicing, wanting to serve God. The question was stronger than ever, and I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I applied in April, went to seminary in August. Doors flew open once I turned and looked at it seriously.

How did people respond when you told them you were entering the seminary?

It’s a funny story: I hid it from my coworkers. I was relatively new there, and it would have meant leaving. I went through months without knowing if was accepted [to the seminary] yet. Everyone thought I was looking for a new job or had an illness, because I kept missing work to do interviews.

Then there was a computer glitch to print out my bio for the diocese, and I came back to work, and it had printed while I was away. My coworkers read it and found out. They were floored. It was foreign to them, but they were supportive.

 How about your family?

My mother’s old school French Canadian. She would never have asked that of God. She couldn’t imagine something like that happening. It was overwhelming in a good way.

Did anyone respond negatively?

Only a couple of people, both Catholic, both dissenters. One was a woman I worked with who had a crush on me. She said, “What a waste.” That made me angry. The other one was an older woman who had a chip on her shoulder. She said, “Why would you want to do that?” This was post-2005.

What was the most challenging thing you faced as a priest?

Probably something that isn’t unique to the priesthood: Self doubt and insecurity. Am I up to the task? What will people think? These are temptations you have to face. There’s strength and grace that comes through walking through that. Each time, it’s like the cross, and then there’s a resurrection, life after death. It gives me strength to pray through those interior places, when I have to look to God for help.

What is the most rewarding? What’s your favorite part of being a priest?

When someone who has been hungry or longed for something for a long time breaks open and you’re there to offer that to them, or walk with them through it. People melting, and finally receiving. It’s always happening in one form or another. You walk through it with lots of people, counsel them, direct them. I’m always walking with someone, always looking for it.

When’s the last time something about the priesthood really surprised you?

Every day. People are predictable and surprising at the same time. About my priesthood: I’m noting, especially within the last couple of years, losing myself in it more and more, and finding myself. It’s so who I am, but there’s still so much to discover. It’s a mystery. The closer we get to Christ, the greater the awareness of that mystery.

What advice do you have for those contemplating the priesthood today? 

Talk to people about it. Find someone you trust, and talk about it. Because it seems so strange and foreign, we don’t necessarily see ourselves that way. There’s the obvious answers, like prayer, but I think I went through it alone a lot; and no on in my life, no priest, no family member, no one ever approached me and told me they thought I should do this. It wasn’t until I came forward.

What advice do you have for their family and friends?

It’s about being supportive without expectations. Let the person figure it out on their own, but let them know you’re there with them.

****

This article was originally published in Parable, the magazine of the Diocese of Manchester. It is reprinted here in extended form.

 

Would a female priesthood disrupt sex abuse?

Let’s just let women be priests.

Right? These damn men can’t keep their hands to themselves, whether they’re straight or gay or pedophiles or ephebophiles or married or allegedly celibate, so the hell with them. Let’s just let women have some power for once, and put a screeching halt to all the abuse, all the lies, all the cover-ups.

I keep hearing this argument, and now I’m going to respond.

First, one more time, with feeling: female Catholic priests are an ontological impossibility, and the Church could not ordain women even if it wanted to, any more than it could ordain butterfly as dragonflies. We like butterflies. But they are not dragonflies, and dragonflies are not butterflies. So it’s not going to happen. The Church is not going to start ordaining women priests.

But if somehow it were possible to do — or if, say, the pope decided to appoint women cardinals, which is theoretically possible — would the presence and influence and oversight of women be the clean sweep we’re looking for? Just clean out all that nasty male sexual aggression, perversion, and abuse and replace it with clean, honest, feminine integrity?

I’ve asked myself this sincerely, and I keep coming back to two words: Dottie Sandusky.

Dottie Sandusky has been married to her husband Jerry for over 50 years, and she still stands by her man. She had no idea what was going on in the basement of her own home, in the shower, in the bedroom, in the locker room, in that marriage, in that man’s heart, for decade after decade after decade, as she shared a life with him. She could have blown the whistle any time, but she didn’t. She says she didn’t know.

But if she didn’t know, it’s because she dedicated her life to not knowing. And so have countless other women who’ve come into contact with countless Jerry Sanduskys, in sports, in education, in medicine, and in the Church. He couldn’t have done what he did if she wasn’t willing to do what she did, which was nothing.

We need to stop indulging in the kind of magical thinking that says, “Women just being women will fix everything.” Let’s look at a few non-magical facts:

Women do abuse. When women do have authority over people with less power, they do abuse them. Sexual abuse by women, whether against men, against other women, or against children, is far more widespread than most people realize. Men and boys are less likely than women and girls to report being sexually abused; and pop culture still halfway thinks it’s funny or kinky when, for instance, a female teacher has a sexual “relationship” with a male student. But it’s still statutory rape even when the adult is female, and it’s still predatory; and it does happen in the Church, when women do have power over vulnerable people.

Women are just as capable of cruelty and abuse as men. They are perhaps less inclined to use sex, specifically, as a weapon, but they do wield what weapons they have. If women were priests and bishops and cardinals and seminary rectors and had the respect, authority, and invulnerability that goes along with those roles, the kind of abuse might look different, but there’s no evidence to suggest there would be less abuse. If women had the power that bishops have, women would abuse that power, because women are human.

As Leticia Adams says:

Rape and sexual abuse of children have nothing to do with sexual orientation or sexual gratification. The goal is not sex, the goal is power, control and to destroy another human being.

Hunger for power and control, and the desire to destroy. Those are not male desires; those are human desires.

But the second part of the answer is: Whoever the perpetrator is, abuse doesn’t flourish in a vacuum. The decades or centuries of abuse that we’re continuing to uncover today could never have happened without the silence and complicity of women.

There were women everywhere — everywhere –who knew what Larry Nasser was doing to all those girls. He could not have gotten away with his abuse for all those years without the complicity and silence of dozens or maybe hundreds of women who chose not to say anything, who put pressure on girls to doubt themselves and blame themselves for what happened to them.

You might say that women do report abuse, and are less likely to be believed, because they are women. Maybe? But there were also a good number of men blowing the whistle on abusive priests, and they went just as unheard. Meanwhile, the savagery with which women turn on other female whistleblowers is breathtaking. I have seen it myself.

Why do women allow abuse to happen? Same reasons as men do:

They can’t think beyond the false dichotomy of “likable person who does a lot of good” and “ravening monster.” Sometimes an abuser is both. Sometimes a man runs charities, helps people, is kind, and is a true friend and support to many . . .  and also rapes people. This phenomenon is magnified a hundredfold if the abuser is a priest, and his accomplishments have some spiritual weight. The congregation can point to how he’s invigorated the parish, how well he understands scripture, how reverent his liturgy is, how stirring his sermons, how well the school is doing, how many babies he baptizes every year, and tell themselves, “If he were truly a bad man, would he be doing all these good and holy things?” We aren’t comfortable with acknowledging that the same person can do some very good things and also some very bad things. It disrupts our understanding of how well we know people and how well we can know ourselves, so we reject the possibility of contradictions, and instead opt for blind loyalty.

They know about it, but they blame the victim. For a variety of reasons, they don’t want to acknowledge that the abuser is an abuser, so they shift the blame to the victim. We saw this with Fr. Groschel; we saw this with . . . lord, you know where we saw it. Everywhere. My friend who was raped at gunpoint heard two women wondering what she had been wearing at the time. It makes us feel less vulnerable if we can figure out some way the victims brought it on themselves.

They know about it, but they keep quiet because they love the Church. They think it would hurt the Church if it went public even more than it hurts the victim to be abused. You know what I think about that.

And sometimes, they just don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to put their own jobs at stake. They don’t want to disrupt the familiar. They don’t want to interrupt the flow of goodies that come their way, so they learn to live with the status quo. They don’t want to threaten their own security, and so they tell themselves whatever they need to tell themselves. They slowly and steadily put more and more of their conscience to death, until they simply don’t care about other people.

When I first started to realize the depth of corruption in the Church, I told myself that I needed to be willing to follow the story wherever it goes. As a faithful Catholic female advocate for victims of sexual aggression, I cannot be content to give the easy answers. I want to say,  “It’s the traddies’ fault!” or “It’s the fault of the sexual revolution!” or, most enticingly, “It’s men’s fault!” Those frigging men. Right?

But that doesn’t answer it. It’s just another red herring. It’s not the evil of maleness that is the problem. It’s the evilness of humanity. It’s the weakness and corruptibility of human nature. We don’t need more women on the inside. We need more clear-thinking, courageous women and men on the outside, willing and able to see clearly and speak loudly, and, most importantly, capable of bringing the guilty to justice.

Thrusting more women into existing power structures won’t disrupt anything. It’ll just give more women the opportunity to become complicit.

 

 

 

Dear priests: I am begging you to speak about this scandal

Tonight I’m mustering the courage to start reading through the comprehensive grand jury report on sexual abuse and its coverup by the Church in Pennsylvania. And I’m looking up my local bulletin online, trying to find out when Mass is tomorrow. It’s a holy day of obligation, and my family will be in the pew.

Since the first news stories came out, I’ve had my head in my hands. There is nothing else to do. I read about a boy who was so violently raped by a priest, his spine was injured. The victim’s pain was treated with opioids, he became addicted and then overdosed, and now he is dead. I don’t know if the priest is also dead. I don’t even know what to pray for. Mercy on us all.

Mercy on our priests, who must be feeling this atrocity so keenly.

To you parish priests: please, you must speak to your flock about what is happening. Don’t let another Mass go by without saying something. I am begging you. Some of the parishioners somehow don’t know what is going on, and they must know. And many of us have been following the news with dread, and we must know that you understand how nearly unbearable this is. We can’t stand the silence anymore.

We need to know that you are as struck with horror as we are. We need to know that you would be on our side if we were the ones calling the police. We need to know that you care for us more than you care about falling afoul of some toothless pastoral directive from above. We need someone to be with us in this free fall of horror.

I know there are children in the pews, and you don’t want to frighten them; and you don’t want to test the faith of anyone who’s on the brink. But in the pews are also Catholics who have been abused before, and once again, no one is speaking up for them. There are converts who gave up family and happiness to join the Church because they believed the promise of something new and beautiful. They haven’t left yet, but they’re not hearing any Catholic talk about how badly we’ve failed. There are lifelong faithful who feel sick, bewildered, duped, and lost, and we don’t know what to do with this anger and misery, and too many of our bishops are still, still minimizing, complaining, obfusticating, justifying. Or saying nothing at all, hoping that will make it all go away one more time, like it’s gone away so many times before.

I am begging you to say something. Find a way to let us know that you, at least, haven’t turned your back on the victims of the Church. Tell us you’re bringing all that suffering to the altar. We need to hear it.

Dear, faithful priests, we love you and we are praying for you. You’re the one who moves between us and Christ; and you’re also the one who must put himself between us and every one of those wretched thousands of your brother priests who treated the bodies of the faithful like so much kindling, to be tossed into the furnace, consumed, turned to ash, forgotten.

I am begging you to say something. It is a holy day of obligation, and we will be there, listening. You don’t have to have answers for us. Just say something, because the silence of the Church is too hard to bear.

 

How the Church can help (or hurt) women in abusive marriages

When she went looking for help from the church, she was still susceptible to the idea that everything was her fault. One priest said it was a shame she was suffering, but all she could do was offer it up. Another told her she had a demon in her.

But a third priest listened to her story . . .

Read the my latest for America Magazine.

This is one of the most important pieces I’ve ever written, and I’m very grateful to the courageous and honest women who shared their stories with me.

Photo by George Hodan (Creative Commons)