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. 

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.

On Notre Dame, the seal of confession, and Esmerelda

Here’s some good news:

The French Senate voted to approve plans to rebuild the Notre Dame Cathedral and added a clause stipulating that it must be restored to how it was before the fire.

No greenhouses, no swimming pools, no holograms, no disco balls, just back the way it was, because the way it was was good. Even though the dreadful fire helped me remember that all temporal things will pass, and that Jesus is the remedy to all loss of every kind, I’ll be as glad as anyone to see good old Notre Dame restored. 
 
We’re certainly in need of some good news, some restorative news. As someone pointed out on Twitter, you know things are going poorly when America turns to a TV show about Chernobyl for escapism. 
 
As always, good news is where you can find it. As the never-ending misery of the sex abuse scandal never ends, but just keeps compounding and compounding, I’ve thought more than once: How good it is, how weirdly restorative, to be reminded so clearly what really matters. Jesus matters. The sacraments matter. The Gospel matters. Works of mercy matter. Everything else, no matter how entrenched and enmeshed it has become with our experience our faith — anything at all can become a distraction from what our faith truly is. So as painful as the 21st century has been, it’s also been clarifying, painfully restorative. It strips away the things we want so we can see clearly what we really need.
 
That’s what kind of century it is, not only in the Church. This is the year when a Texas woman, Teresa Todd, was driving along a road at night when, NPR reports, a young man ran out and pleaded for help for his sister, who was dying of dehydration and exhaustion. Todd stopped and let the man and his sister, Esmerelda, and their companion rest in her car while she texted a friend, who is legal counsel for the local U.S. Border Patrol, for advice on what to do next. 
 
Todd is now under federal investigation for human smuggling. Her phone was confiscated for 53 days, because of what she did.
 
“I feel like I did the right thing. I don’t feel I did anything wrong,” Todd said. And she is right. She was simply performing a basic corporal work of mercy. But her own government is telling her that, in order to be a good citizen, she should have kept on driving. They’re telling her it was wrong to stop and see what she could do for someone who was begging for help — that Americans obeying American law don’t do that kind of thing. That’s not who we Americans are.
 
 
This kind of law is clarifying. It’s the kind of law you cannot in good conscience obey — not as an American, not as a Christian, not as a human being. These laws help us remember who we are. The politics around immigration is just a distraction, and has nothing to do with your actual obligation when you have a live, dying human being named Esmerelda in front of you. 
 
There’s more. This is the year when laws that threaten the seal of confession may pass from rumor to reality. And dozens of priest and even, hallelujah, more than one bishop, have come out and said, “I will go to jail before I will obey this attack on our religious freedom.”
 
The proposed law is clarifying. It gets us to remember who we are and what we are supposed to be doing. Sometimes good times muddy the waters. Sometimes peace clouds our vision. So we have to have some restorative hard times to clarify things.
 
Can you not get me wrong, here? There are some things more cut and dried than others. Priests can never ever ever break the seal of confession under any circumstances. There’s no nuance, at all. Immigration is more unwieldy, and when we talk about how to manage it, sometimes good people come across as harsh and opportunists come across as merciful. It’s rare that it’s so black and white as a dying person directly in front of you begging for help. And the roof of Notre Dame is . . . a roof. Just a roof.
 

But as I said, good news is where you find it. It’s good practice to ask ourselves, “What would I do, if it were me? What should I do, and why?” If Notre Dame were remade into a temple to modernity, what would it do to my faith? If my son were a priest facing arrest, what would I tell him to do, and why? If Esmerelda’s brother staggered out in front of my car, what would I do?  Would I stop

This is what we’re talking about, when we talk about freedom of religion. It’s not the freedom to give political speeches in church, and it’s not the freedom to be tax exempt. It’s not the freedom to pass the laws we, as religious folk, think ought to be passed. It’s the freedom to follow Christ and to obey his commands, no matter what the cost. 
 
The truth is, we do have religious freedom. We always will. It’s just that we might be sent to jail for exercising that freedom.
 
And that is clarifying. 
 
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Supreme Court will not hear confession confidentiality petition

confessional

By Ib Rasmussen (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Not good: U.S. Supreme Court will not hear Baton Rouge Catholic confession case.

Backstory: A young woman is going to testify in a civil suit against the Diocese of Baton Rouge. She says that, when she was a girl, she revealed during confession that a member of the parish (who has since died) was molesting her, and that the priest told her she should hush it up.

Every priest who hears something during confession is morally obligated not to reveal what he heard during that confession. So if this woman testifies that he told her not to speak about her abuse, he may neither confirm nor deny that she said what she claims she said, or that he responded the way she says he did; and he may go to jail for refusing to testify.

So the diocese asked the federal Supreme Court to consider their petition to prevent her from testifying about what was said during the confession, and to prevent the priest from being compelled to respond to her testimony. Yesterday, the Supreme Court declined to hear the diocese’s petition.

I previously didn’t understand why it was dangerous for the woman to be allowed to testify about her confession, because I erroneously believed that a penitent may release a confessor from the seal of confession. I thought that she would simply have to give her permission for him to testify, and that he would then be free to confirm or deny what she said in the confession; but this is not so:

Can.  983 §1. The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.

If a penitent wishes to discuss something he or she revealed during confession, he or she must have the conversation again, restating the issue outside of the sacrament. That is the only way that a confessor may morally discuss the topic that was confessed: if he hears the information outside of the seal of confession.

The young woman is, of course, still free to have a second conversation with the priest, and the priest would then be free to testify about that second conversation; but what is at issue is what happened in the original conversation, years ago.

Please note that there is no reason to believe that the young woman is lying about what she told the priest or about what he told her. The diocese is not trying to impugn her reputation, and we should not assume that its goal is to protect a guilty priest. The point is that the seal of confession is there to protect both the priest and the penitent. If the seal of confession may be legally violated, it would prove disastrous both for priests and for penitents, who have both always understood that what they say in the confessional is known only to themselves and to God. Jen Fitz explains, with her usual clarity and concision, why the seal of confession is vital for the safety of both the priest and the penitent.

If the woman’s testimony is allowed, then priests will constantly be in danger of having to remain silent in the face of accusations against them. I could make up any dreadful story about what happened inside a confessional, and a priest would not be able to defend himself. They would have to choose between going to jail and endangering their own souls by betraying their vows.

A well-trained confessor can find a way to get help for someone who has been victimized. It is not necessary for anyone’s safety to destroy the long-standing legal respect for the seal of confession.

At the Register: Some Questions about the Seal of Confession

As far as the state is concerned, the statutory respect for the seal of confession is intended to protect the penitent, not the confessor (although an unscrupulous confessor could certainly take advantage of the privilege in order to protect himself, if he did something wrong in the confessional). As far as I can tell, the same is true as far as Canon Law is concerned: the seal of confession is there to protect the penitent, not the confessor.

However, a penitent may give a priest permission to talk about what was confessed. The penitent may release him from the seal.  And this is why the recent legal case in Louisiana doesn’t quite make sense to me.

Read the rest at the Register.