Catholic Activity: Confession Catechesis
Instructions on how to prepare your child for Confession and his/her examination of Conscience.
It is wonderful the way kitchens lend themselves to the teaching of catechism. And it is wonderful how much fun catechism can be for children when mothers make it kitchen catechism. Consider, for example, the task of preparing a child for his first Confession.
Children must be able to express their catechism answers in their own words, or one cannot be sure that they know it at all. But they must also know the definition words, because each definition is the most economical way of stating each teaching of the Catholic Church. Even the most delightful off-the-cuff explanation can, in time, wander far afield and end up in wild inaccuracy. When that happens, the last error (inaccuracy) is far worse than the first (knowledge by rote).
Whether a child goes to parochial school and learns his catechism there, or goes to released-time class and gets it there, when Father or Sister or whoever teaches him declares that he is adequately prepared to receive First Communion, no parent has to worry that his child is not. Priests and Sisters do not take the sacraments lightly. All of them, however, would love to feel that the child is better than adequately prepared, and this is where mothers make their entrance with kitchen catechism.
Assuming that the definitions are well learned, a mother can still help by explaining them again at home, checking with Sister and demonstrating as she does, if possible; inventing her own demonstrations if her children attend a public school.
The State of Grace
A long time ago a friend of ours wrote a book whose purpose was to make catechism come to life. Among other things he invented what he called a "catechemical method" for teaching children about their souls and the state of grace. Lacking the chemicals he used, we adapted his method to the kitchen and with leftover tea and coffee got the same effect. Some Saturday morning when the communicant-to-be is helping wipe the dishes, lift a glass of water to the window and with the sun shining through it, point out:
"See how the sun shines through clear water? It is that way with God and the soul in the state of grace. He can enter it, His grace fills it with light and it is beautiful. Have you ever thought how the soul is different when venial sin is present? It's something like this . . ." and you hold a glass of tea to the light.
"See? The sun still shines through but not so clearly as through water. God can remain in the soul even when there is venial sin there, and He does, because He knows we are weak and He chooses to remain to strengthen us as much as possible. But the soul is not so beautiful as it was when free of all sin. And God is not so happy there as when the soul is free of sin and He can fill it with Himself and His grace."
You go on. "Mortal sin is different. It is the worst offense of all and, in the presence of mortal sin, God cannot, will not remain. With mortal sin in the soul God is not there, nor any grace, nor any light — only ugly darkness, like this . . ." and you hold up a glass of black coffee to the light. A little girl whose understanding of mortal sin has been limited to a perfectly memorized definition will suck in her breath and whisper, "Oh, I see."
"What to do then, if the soul's beauty is changed by venial sin? Or worse still, if it is ugly with mortal sin? Why, go to Confession, of course, as fast as you can. You tell your sins to the priest with real sorrow, meaning never to commit them again, promise to say your penance, and through His priest God forgives the sin, and grace once more enters the soul. It's something like this . . ." and a glass of tea, followed by a glass of coffee, is held under the faucet. The water turned on full force pours into the glass, displacing all the color. Water is an eloquent symbol of grace. The Church uses it often. St. Teresa of Avila liked it best of all for teaching souls about grace.
Children love learning like this, and it helps them remember something about the sacrament of Penance which we are all inclined to forget — its sacramental grace. We get accustomed to going to Confession in order to go to Communion, and we forget that in receiving absolution we receive a separate sacrament. We forget to take advantage of its special grace. After Confession, the soul is not only filled with grace but also with an overpowering cheerfulness — one of the effects of grace. We feel as though we shall never want to sin again. It is one of those times when an emotion can be made to serve us well; so we must teach our children how to use it.
Because children when making their first Confession (and for some time after) usually ask their parents' help in defining their sins, parents become, in effect, their childhood spiritual directors. Not that the priest is not capable, but there is a limit to his time and he is not often able to know each child well enough to do more than direct in a general way. Using the same method as a spiritual director, a mother or father (one or the other consistently, if possible) may point out the importance of using this sacramental grace and suggest that the recital of penance be followed by special pleas for help with one outstanding fault. It is best to work at one fault at a time and get somewhere, than try the whole field and grow discouraged getting nowhere. Our Lord is there in the newly washed soul, waiting to help. Years can be wasted by regular penitents because they have not been reminded to ask for help.
Preparing for Confession
Even children who examine their consciences daily usually need help preparing for Confession. The important thing for parents to keep in mind is to avoid assuming an accusatory air. If there has been endless bickering with brothers, it is a big mistake to say: "What! You mean you can't remember all those fights with your brother?"
Even when he honestly can't remember, it is not up to us to hit him over the head with it a half-hour before Confession. It is our job to help him to remember and to be sorry he fought with his brother. "Well — you did get pretty rough with your brother, remember? Fighting offends God. Don't you think you'd better confess that?"
Then, as everyone knows, children should be taught to mention the number of times they have committed some sin. How many times did you fight with your brother? "Gee — I don't know. About a hundred times, I guess." Our pastor is satisfied to have them say "several times," and cautions mothers not to grow too emphatic with children about how serious a sin it is. Sometimes (most times, I would say), there is no deliberation at all, merely an explosion; it might better be called an imperfection than a sin. There is, however, no need to whitewash quarreling entirely. Penance is the sacrament that helps eliminate the imperfections; so it is good to keep track of these.
As for the times he was saucy or disobedient to his mother, this is Mother's big chance — if she wants to take it. But she had better not. If she is going to send a little boy off to Confession to confess sins against his mother, then where does God come in? Certainly he should obey his mother, because God expects him to obey his mother. His mother can help him be sorry for disobedience if she is gentle when reminding him of this.
"Remember the time Mother asked you to leave her pen alone, and you didn't and you broke it? That would come under disobedience, wouldn't it? I know you didn't mean to, and I know you're sorry. God knows, too. He always forgives sins the minute you're really sorry, if you mean to go as soon as you can to tell them in Confession."
There are others besides parents whom children must obey: teachers, their school bus driver, the policeman in front of the school, and more. At the proper time, each one of these is a "duly constituted authority," and helping children remember disobedience to them as a matter of Confession helps them develop a more reverent respect for authority.
As for missing prayers, I suspect that children who miss saying their prayers rarely do so on purpose. At the last mission in our parish the missionary made a point of saying that to miss morning prayers is not a sin (deliberately neglecting prayers is another matter). I rebel against afflicting children with scruples because now and then they forget their morning prayers in the hectic rush to the bus. For this reason we have our children say their prayers on the way to the bus. It takes about five minutes to get there, there is plenty of time for the Morning Offering, said together and aloud; and because they say it this way they help remind one another. Another mother has her boys kneel at their chairs and say the Morning Offering while she dishes up the oatmeal. I would hold myself more to blame than my children if they consistently forgot their prayers, and the best way to prevent this is to train them to pray aloud and together.
Naughtiness at prayers is easy to observe; we need only remind them to confess: "I didn't pay attention at prayers." Distractions are harder: "Mother, I mean to pay attention when I say my prayers but I keep thinking of other things."
How you can be sure a child is not wasting time with distractions, I don't know. You can't look into his mind. You can say, if you suspect he is distracted, "Try to think about what you are saying. If your mind goes wandering to other things, try hard to make it turn back." And we can remind him that praying without attention will probably get no results. It helps to have a picture for meditation, or a family shrine to pray before. When it is time to go to Confession, the best we can do is say, "If you purposely thought of other things at prayers, you had better mention that."
Missing Mass is one of the things very few children are themselves to blame for. They must understand that to miss Mass deliberately is a mortal sin. But they must also understand that to miss Mass because their father was sick and couldn't drive them, or the ice made the roads impassable, or the car had a flat tire — whatever valid reason it was — is not a mortal sin. Even when there is a valid excuse, however, it is good to recall it during preparation for Confession so that they won't make the mistake of treating the Mass obligation lightly.
Being late for Mass is something else again, and here sometimes children are to blame. It should be clearly explained to everyone in the family that oversleeping on Sunday morning, tearing out of the house, and barely arriving at Mass in time for the Offertory, is very bad business. The deadline for being late for Mass is the Offertory. Later than that, you've missed Mass. This makes sense when you recall that the purpose of the Mass is to offer Christ in sacrifice to God the Father. If you aren't there to help with the Offertory, you might as well not be there at all. Racing down in time for the Offertory, however, is hardly the way to assist at Mass and should be frowned on severely.
A child who will not get his clothes ready the night before (if it is expected of him and he is reminded), and will not get out of bed when he is called, and will not co-operate after being reminded that he must, can very well be to blame for the whole family's missing Mass. If this is the case, he should be reminded when preparing for Confession to say: "It was my fault the family was late for (or missed) Mass."
Telling lies is clearly a sin, with one possible exception. Children who spin tales do not fall into the category of liars. Most parents can tell the difference, and the time to make it clear is when the tales are spun: "Oh — go on. You're inventing a story. It's a pretty good story, but really only a story, isn't it?" And you laugh. He will laugh, too, and everyone will understand that it was all fun in the first place. But lies are serious; so remembering them with Mother before Confession is important. If it is hard for a child to tell the truth, perhaps this should be the fault Mother will suggest he pray about after Confession is over.
Eating meat on Fridays is hardly ever the fault of the child, and if his mother is to blame, it is matter for her Confession, not his. He need not even be reminded. It's good to recall this obligation when preparing for Confession, however, so that he will never forget. "Let's see, you didn't eat any meat on Fridays, or the days of abstinence (we should teach them the difference between fast and abstinence); so you don't have to remember that."
Almost all children think rebellious thoughts about their mothers and fathers after punishment; so it's good to help them be sorry for this. But not until resentment is gone and the world looks good again.
"You know, when people get mad at their mothers — especially after punishments — they usually think pretty mean thoughts of them. Now, I'm not saying you did, but it is possible. So if you did — stop now, and remember and be sorry. You know you were naughty and you know you had to be punished. God expects mothers and fathers to punish when punishment is called for. Tell Our Lord tonight that you really didn't mean it, and remember it next time you go to Confession."
This really works. Not long ago an embarrassed youngster came to me and said: "I have something I want to tell you, but I'm afraid." We got cozy and I said he must not be afraid, and finally he screwed up his courage and said: "When you made me go without dessert tonight because I was acting so bad at the table, I went upstairs and said in my mind: 'Mommy is a stinker. I hate Mommy.'" He was quite relieved to hear me say that I already knew it. It had been written all over his face. I knew he didn't mean it, and I wasn't mad; but next time he might try not to say it again. Because he never really means it.
Stealing is always listed among the sins children might commit, but I have honestly had no experience with it. Stealing involves not only the confession, but also restitution; hence I would think it wise (if the act were repeated) for a mother or father to consult with the child's confessor. Not for the sake of telling on him, but because if the confessor is alerted, he can single this sin out in Confession and give it his special, gentle attention. Great care should certainly be exercised in devising some means whereby the child can make restitution which would not expose his theft publicly. Usually a conference between parent and victim will develop some way for him to return what he has stolen, or the value of it, as gracefully and contritely as possible. I have never heard of a teacher (and apparently much childhood stealing takes place in classrooms) who was not eager to help the culprit, keep his secret, and encourage his determination never to do it again.
One thing should be understood very clearly about confessing bad words and naughty thoughts. The priest is not interested in hearing the words, only in having a child confess saying them. "Vulgar" is a good word for describing bad words; would that no one had dreamed up "dirty." Vulgar words usually have to do with bodily functions and these should never be thought of as "dirty." If "bathroom humor" is a problem serious enough to confess, a child nearly dies when he thinks he must confess it. How to tell Father about that! We help greatly by not appearing to be shocked (if your mother is shocked, think how Father will feel — he's a priest!), and calmly suggesting that he phrase it, "immodest thoughts," or "laughing and talking about immodest things."
Children must have help phrasing such sins for Confession so that they can make it clear to their confessor and not be frightened into some serious omission. I remember a woman's telling about trying to confess a little sin of immodesty when she was a small child. It involved using a word that had no meaning except to the snickering neighborhood children. She had no help preparing her confession. When she finally got there, worked up her courage, and spilled it out, the priest said, a little impatiently, "What? What's that?" All courage failing, she hastily covered up her confusion and for years she was tormented by the specter of a bad Confession. Children can develop terrible scruples and grow to hate Confession rather than love it. Parents can prevent this if they will take the pains to help their children prepare for Confession with sympathy and understanding.
The Question of Frequent Confession
Technically speaking, one may receive Holy Communion as long as the soul is not in the state of mortal sin. Frequent and well-prepared Confession, however, is important if there is to be real spiritual progress. The ideal is once a week; twice a month is fine. But there are families living in rural areas without easy access to Confession, and for these it would be presumptuous for me to prescribe. As often as possible is the best rule, and when parents are really interested in their own and their children's progress, they don't have to be told that.
Children will often develop scruples about receiving Communion without going to Confession each time, and they should be helped to understand that if they have committed no mortal sins, have examined their consciences and made a sincere act of contrition, Our Lord wants them to receive Him. They need Him. They cannot be good without Him. The devil likes best of all to keep people away from Communion by warning them that they are not worthy. Of course they are not worthy. No one is worthy. If they are not in the state of mortal sin, however, the Church says they may go to Communion; no need to worry more about it.
While they are little — and so confident of Heaven one day, so Sure of God's love — is the time to teach them the difference between imperfect and perfect contrition. A perfect act of contrition is true sorrow for sins because we have offended God, Who loves us and deserves our perfect obedience. An imperfect act of contrition is sorrow because we are afraid of the pains of Hell. It is a healthy thing to be afraid of the pains of Hell, but when we teach our children to tell God they are sorry for their sins, we can emphasize this difference and urge them to be sorry most of all because they have offended His goodness.
"But Mother, sometimes when I say an act of contrition the devil puts a thought in my mind that says: 'You're not really sorry. You don't really mean it.'"
How true, how true. And it isn't just children he torments this way. St. Teresa had some mighty sharp things to say about the way the devil can stir up an imagination. This is the time to understand the value of an act of faith.
"Of course he'll say it, dear. He'll say it to you lots of times all your life. He wants to upset you so you suspect you aren't sorry. Our Lord doesn't insist that you be all droopy and weepy with sorrow. Maybe some day He will give you the grace to weep for your sins. Until then, He is content when you say to Him firmly, 'I'm truly sorry.' Tell the devil to get along, push his tempting thought out of your mind, and apply yourself to a firm, careful act of contrition. That is all that is necessary."
One night I heard the children at their prayers, and before their act of contrition this same child said: "Let's all say: 'Dear Blessed Jesus, I mean everything I say.'" He doesn't ask for more.
A Plea for the Priest
Last of all, confessors and their human weaknesses. It must call for heroic patience to stay cooped up in a box for hours, listening to the deadly repetition of one sin after another, and retain a disposition that is all sweetness and light. Should a priest finally break down after a long day of "hearing the kids," and give someone's pride and joy a short, sharp answer, please — let's give Father a break. It's an occasion which could, if parents encouraged it, inspire compassion and a few Hail Marys for the priest who is hot and tired, weary of hearing how many people have wounded Our Lord once again.
"Perhaps Jesus is testing you. He has forgiven your sins; now He waits to see if you will forgive Father for being a little cross with you. He didn't mean it. He's just tired. You say three Hail Marys for him, and next time he will be able to stand that stuffy confessional even longer without losing his patience."
It is important that children be taught to pray for their priests always. We cannot live in Christ or die in Him without them. And especially after Confession. If it were not for that man, in that box . . .
"Thank you, Blessed Jesus, for forgiving my sins in Confession. And thank you for Father, who heard my Confession."
Activity Source: We and Our Children by Mary Reed Newland, Image Books, 1961