Confession is my favorite sacrament. Don’t misunderstand me – I love and appreciate all seven sacraments and the unique way each one of them mediates God’s love to us.
However, Confession, for me, is the sacrament through which I can sense and feel that personal encounter with the Lord most profoundly. Even the worst, most unprepared Confessions I have ever made have been grace-filled moments.
Those Confessions where the Lord has led me to a place of deep honesty and repentance have been truly life-changing.
When the time came to prepare my children to receive their first Confession, I was determined to impart to them all the joy and richness of the sacrament, so that they too could approach it with anticipation and gratitude instead of fear and apprehension.
Here are five ideas that my family used to prepare our children to receive this great sacrament of God’s mercy for the first time.
1. Live a lifestyle of forgiveness.
From the time they were very small, my husband and I have taught our children to go beyond the perfunctory apology when they have done something wrong. Instead, we ask each other for forgiveness and we extend forgiveness to each other when we have committed an offense.
This process is profoundly different from the more common “I’m sorry” – “It’s ok” dialogue. Saying we are sorry is not enough to repair a wrongdoing. Likewise, saying “It’s ok” when someone has hurt us is a falsehood. Wrongs are not ok, and in order to overcome the hurt we have incurred we need to be able to forgive those who hurt us.
This paradigm of humbly asking for forgiveness and receiving that forgiveness from the other person is a precursor to what happens in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and living it out in our home prepares all of us for the sacrament.
If you have never practiced this type of reconciliation in your family, I encourage you to try it. It is not an easy shift, and it is a very vulnerable position to be in to ask for forgiveness and to wait to receive it from another person. However, the fruits of this practice are extraordinary.
2. Be a Confession cheerleader.
Your own attitude as parents towards the Sacrament of Reconciliation will be the single most important factor in determining your children’s attitude towards the sacrament. If you approach the sacrament with dread, your children are likely to do the same.
Instead, focus on the gift of God’s mercy and love and what a blessing it is to have God’s forgiveness readily available to us in this sacrament.
On a practical side, take your small children with you when you go to Confession. Allow them to see the joy and relief on your face as you emerge from the Confessional. Let them witness the fact that when you see the priest who just heard your Confession, you can greet him and chat with him free from any feelings of shame or embarrassment.
Our children learn far more from what they observe in us than from what we teach them with our words. Let your actions demonstrate that you are a Confession cheerleader.
3. Practice in the confessional.
One of the most terrifying thoughts my children had in preparing for their first Confession was that they would forget what to say or do. While my husband and I constantly reassured them that the priest would help them if they forgot something, teaching them to master the mechanics of the sacrament was an important part of our preparation
In the weeks before my children received the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time, we visited the inside of the confessional of our parish church.
We looked around, talked about where the priest sits, why he wears a purple stole, and where my children could sit (if they chose to go face-to-face) or kneel (if they chose to go behind the screen). We discussed the pros and cons of each practice and which would make them feel most comfortable.
While we were there, we rehearsed the “mechanics” of the sacrament by taking turns pretending to be the priest and the penitent. We ran through a few “practice” confessions using some creative and, dare I say, comical pretend sins and penances. The confessional can be a scary, mysterious place, especially if it is unfamiliar.
Having the opportunity to check it out in advance removed some of the uncertainty. (Be sure to ask permission from your Pastor before doing this.)
4. Meet Father in advance.
My children were blessed to have their first Confessions heard by our Pastor, whom they had known since birth, and were totally comfortable with.
Still, a few days prior to his first Confession, my son shyly admitted to Father after Mass one Sunday that he was really nervous about going to Confession. Father bent towards him and reassured him gently that Jesus loved him so much and so did he.
I cannot overemphasize what a difference those words made to my son. That exchange gave him a great peace.
Giving your children the opportunity to get to know the priest who will hear their first Confession and ask any questions they may have in advance will go a long way towards giving them a sense of security and comfort with the sacrament.
5. Celebrate the sacrament.
The reception of First Holy Communion is often accompanied by great celebrations and festivities, and rightfully so. For our family, it was important for us to celebrate our children’s First Confessions in a unique and special way. After each child’s first Confession, we took pictures, went out for lunch, and presented our children with their own Bible and journal.
These celebrations impressed upon the children that they had now entered a new phase of maturity as Catholics – one which not only involved them taking ownership of their actions, but also gave them access to God’s grace and mercy in a new and powerful way.
Our celebrations helped our children view the Sacrament of Reconciliation not as something hidden and shameful, but as the doorway to healing, freedom and a deeper relationship with the Lord.
Above all else, pray for your children, that each and every time they avail themselves of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, they may be transformed by God’s mercy, grace and forgiveness.