Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Some lessons from hearing confessions

I spent the morning hearing confessions (along with two other priests) from our third, fourth and fifth-graders. Hoped to get to sixth-graders, but ran out of time, so we'll get them, with junior high, next week.

In a few, I'll hear confessions before evening Mass, then a weekly Bible study.

Here are some thoughts...

* It is...well, let's say "odd" since I can't come up with a better word--to have people confess my own sins to me. Maybe it's just me, or maybe God is sending me a message; effect is the same: it is humbling, and it challenges me to repent.

* Part of the value of bringing children to confession is so they become accustomed to examining their lives, and to recognizing sin as sin, and having discernment about it. The idea that young children don't have sin to confess is absurd. Oh, I am not saying they have mortal sin, only God can read souls. But if you think second- and third-graders don't have sin, what planet do you live on? I was talking to a 3rd-grade teacher last night, about today, and she said, "some of them said, 'but we did that last year!'" I said, if they have any problems coming up with sins to confess, I bet you can help them! She laughed, as did the others at the table; Sister said, "that's what my mother always said to me!"

Another part of it, of course, is so they learn the form. Some will say, the form doesn't matter. And, on one level, that's right. I can help anyone go to confession. But learning the form, and getting it down pat, is valuable because then the penitent can focus energy on the really important stuff: the self-examination. A lot of people use, "I don't remember how" as an excuse not to go, and months become years. Also, a certain rigor of practice contributes to a certain rigor of thought; i.e., it helps people organize their thinking, and that helps their spiritual growth.

* I told the kids, with the sacraments, we think about what God gives us; but did you notice how, in this sacrament, its important that we give Jesus something? And did you notice what we're supposed to give him? Our sins! And, incredible as it seems, he actually wants them! Because he knows how they weigh us down, and he wants to get rid of them for us. I also told them the confessional is "the garbage dump"--we get rid of our spiritual garbage. So I led them in a simple examination of conscience, and I said, we feel sorry for sin, we feel bad about it; that's appropriate. But in a moment, when we let Jesus take all our garbage, we will feel great! So before confessions, we said the Act of Contrition together, kneeling; after, we said a Hail Mary and Glory Be together, expressing our thanks and joy.

(For all you liturgy purists, let me know what you think of this. I also lit the Easter Candle, and asked the kids about that. My dialogue with them led them to see the connection with Baptism, and how Penance is about re-gaining that same purity.)

* There's a good reason for using rhythm in speech (and hence, song).

One of the odd things I notice in this sacrament is that the words of absolution seem kind of long; particularly for children; and I wonder if their eyes glaze over.

Today, it dawned on me; what if I said them with a certain rhythm, with emphasis rising and falling? Maybe it would help the children attend to certain words and images. That's when it dawned on me: that's precisely what we do when we chant prayers; that rising and falling, rising and falling, creates a pleasing cadence, along with the varying notes, and the varying lengths of the notes, to create variety but also something familiar, and keeps a long string of words from being monotonous (which they easily can be when spoken--which is precisely how we've become accustomed to hearing almost all our prayers offered!

No, I am not planning to chant absolution! But borrowing this tool from the practice of chant could be helpful, and it may shed light on the genius at work in this ancient form of prayer.


Tracy said...

Oh Fr.-

Your attitude on children and confession is so very refreshing. It is wonderful that you take the time to hear their confessions. Most of my 3rd graders for two years now (post FHC'ers) haad no idea what it was, just a step to getting to FHC!

We try to go as a family at least monthly, but it usually ends up being all of us more often quarterly. DS9 is a little discouraged because when he goes, he always gets cut short after 1 or 2 sins, told to say the act of contrition and is absolved before he is through confessing.

So I think you making the whole process of this sacramnet a little less intimidating is a wonderful thing, especially when one has run into too often preists who seem to only patronize children in this sacrament.

Someday when I grow up, I want to be a part of Fr. Fox's parish! You are a blessing to the vocation, but surely you know this!

Tim said...

It is...well, let's say "odd" since I can't come up with a better word--to have people confess my own sins to me. Maybe it's just me, or maybe God is sending me a message; effect is the same: it is humbling, and it challenges me to repent.

That is an interesting perspective, Father. I am glad you are discussing confession, it needs it and hearing about it from a priest's perspective is enlightening.

Sharon said...

Did you discuss with the children the need to try and not commit the sins again - they need to have a firm purpose of amendment.

Father Barry said...

I'm with Tim, Father.

That first point, in particular, had never occured to me. I guess it should come as no surprise that confession is good for "everyone involved," instead of just being for me.

But I don't usually think of it from the perspective of "those on the other side of the confessional screen."

And I think the chant idea is great, with this potential problem: if it becomes too sing-songy, it could feel like the priest is not particularly interested in it, either.

Not that you would have that problem, of course. Just thinking out loud...


Seamus said...

Thanks for another great post/topic, Father. I hope that in the future you might consider writing on what it was like as a newly ordained priest to hear confessions for the first time or, even better, celebrate Mass for the first time. I am sure I am not the only fan of yours that would be interested in hearing you -- or any priest, really -- speak to those topics.

"One of the odd things I notice in this sacrament is that the words of absolution seem kind of long; particularly for children; and I wonder if their eyes glaze over."

Long or not, I am one sinner that sincerely hopes and prays that some of the last words I ever hear in this life begin with the words, "God the Father of Mercies ..." But that's just me. I guess I am just one of those liturgical purists at heart.

With respect to young children, I would ask whether it is permissible or advisable to have "practice or dummy confessions" in front of a class of young CCDers (both pre and post FHCers)? By that I mean having "actors" play the role of the priest and the penitent, with pauses at various times to discuss what is going on.

Thinking back to my own first confession, I remember being both nervous and confused as to what was going to happen during the Sacrament. I think I would have benefited from actually seeing a few fake confessions before making my own first confession. I think the fake confession idea might also help young students better examine their consciences as well.

Father Martin Fox said...


It wasn't a point I recall emphasizing particularly in my talk with the children. I wasn't giving complete catechesis; I was preaching a brief homily before celebrating the sacrament.

Mark Anthony said...

Fr. says:

"The idea that young children don't have sin to confess is absurd. Oh, I am not saying they have mortal sin, only God can read souls. But if you think second- and third-graders don't have sin, what planet do you live on?"

This comment reminds me of the first time I really understood the concept of Original Sin. My son, now 19, was about 5 years old. He had been raised with dutiful care not to hit others, be nice, etc. He had, however, gotten into a nasty argument with the six year old next door, which had escalated into shoving and hitting.

I pulled him around the side of the house and sat down with him, ready for a "Mike Brady/Ward Cleaver" moment, discussing how we follow Jesus and do not fight and hit just because we are angry. I thought I was particularly eloquent. My son, though, looked me right in the eye and said, in an even tone: "If someone hurts me, I'm going to hurt them back."

Whither now, Mike and Ward? We had never instilled any idea even remotely like this in him, nor did my wife and I react to each other in this manner. Yet here it was, a perfectly natural reaction of retribution.

What I saw was the manifestation of the common sinfulness in all of us. Before that time, I had my reservations about confession for seven year olds, but came to understand that the sacrament, while necessary for mortal sin, also was extremely helpful in overcoming the pull of the underlying sinfulness that infects us all. And the sooner we make use of the sacrament, the better!

Jon said...

God bless you for each minute you spend in that box, Father, and may St. John Vianney say a special prayer for you in heaven tonight!

Diane said...

Excellent post, Father.

Your first point reminded me of the scene in Teresa of Avila, with Leonardo de Filipis (sp?), in which she kept going to a priest for confession, whom "everyone" sort of knew he was involved with infidelity. In the movie, I believe he got himself straightened out, but wondered if that was a true instance or not. It was the first time i wondered how our confessions affect priests in terms of their self-examinations. I know that when someone else talks about a fault of their own, it makes me dig a little. I can't imagine what hearing confessions must be like in this regard.

Then again, maybe that is why it is so hard for some people to even find a confessor who is available other than "by appointment".

Anonymous said...

Fr. I look forward to reading what you have to say every morning. Hoping that there is something new. As a parent of 2 of the students that you heard confession from recently, I asked them about this last evening. I wasn't even aware that they went to confession this past week. Not only did that make me realize that I need to talk to them more about what goes on in their lives but it led to a wonderful discussion about the sacrament. THANK YOU!!

Anonymous said...

A grade school chaplain once heard the confessions of eight-year old pupils. Many of the boys had very minor and almost inconsequential misdeeds so the priest was rather happy. One group of youngsters though confessed similar sin. One said, "Father forgive me, I threw peanuts into the river." Another admitted, "Father forgive me, I threw peanuts into the river." The third and the fourth also confessed, "Father forgive me, I threw peanuts into the river."

The priest was intrigued but a little alarmed so he cautioned the boys not to be too hard on themselves. "Throwing peanuts into the river is not really a sin." He would have asked one of the nuns in charge of the catechism to find out how they teach the doctrine of venial and mortal sins to these young kids when a sulking and chubby kid approached him. The priest warned him, "Don't tell me you also threw peanuts into the river?"

The kid was surprised and looked up at him and said, "Father, I'm Peanuts!"

John Waldren said...

Greetings Fr Fox. I am John Waldren of Immaculate COnception in Dayton Ohio, and we recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of the dedication of our church. I loved your Homily on the dedication of St Boniface and also your Lessons on Hearing COnfessions. I pray that the Lord gives you many happy years serving his Church. I found your blog thru the Nat'l Catholic Register, in case you didn't know about their list of Priests Blogs. I plan to share your Dedication Homily with Fr Geraci our pastor. You are in my prayers.