Lenten Conversion and Repentance: The True Vine and the Sacrament of Reconciliation

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Mar 20, 2015

On Ash Wednesday the Church exhorted us to "Repent and believe in the Gospel." The ashes were the sign of the turning of our hearts back to God. The main themes throughout Lent are 1) baptism and 2) conversion and repentance. Not all of us are catechumens preparing to receive Baptism for the first time, but this is a period of time to recall our personal Baptism, and try to restore our souls'  connection with Christ as on our original Baptismal day. Baptism can only be received once, but the gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Penance is the sacrament that can be received over and over again for repentance, forgiveness, and restoration of our souls.

It is the minimal requirement that:

Can.  989 After having reached the age of discretion, each member of the faithful is obliged to confess faithfully his or her grave sins at least once a year.

The Lenten season is a very appropriate time to utilize the Sacrament of Penance, and perhaps more than just the minimum. Unfortunately, due to either poor catechesis and formation or just bad habits, this sacrament is underused and misunderstood. My first confession was one of dread. I had my list of offenses, and let other classmates go ahead of me because I was so scared. Some of that fear was childlike shyness and angst of telling my faults, but thoughts of "What will Father think of me?" and "Did I miss any sins?" also ran through my mind. When I read little St. Therese's description of the love, contrition and life-changing moments of her First Confession and First Communion, I regretted that my first reception of these sacraments did not have that same depths-of-soul impression. Sadly, over the years that idea of creating my checklist of sins and using confession only for "forgiving my sins" continued and seemed to miss the true spiritual riches of the sacrament.

Our second (and youngest) son will be receiving his First Holy Communion on the first of May, and making his first confession the day before. He attends a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium and much of his sacramental preparation is through the atrium. This Lent my husband and I have been participating in the meditations in preparation for the sacraments and have recognized some aspects that have helped our own approach to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which has heightened our own Lenten journey.

Sacramental Preparation through the Atrium

In the atrium, the sacramental preparation is for both the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Sacrament of the Eucharist. The approach is quite unique and such a beautiful experience for both the children and the parents. This preparation and reception is so essential to the work of the Catechesis that The Characteristics of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd: 32 Points of Reflection has six points dedicated just to this part of the catechesis.

The remote preparation includes five weekly meditations outside of the atrium session during Lent on certain parables. Only the children who are going to receive the sacraments come to the special evening sessions for the meditations. The meditation is presented to both the children and their parents. The Gospel passage is read and then certain points are discussed and highlighted. The parents receive the identical meditation, but in a separate room.

After the five meditations, there is the immediate preparation, which is a First Communion retreat of four to five days. No new presentations are given, but the time can be used working on previous meditations, illumination, prayer, and discussion of the reception of the sacraments. The final day of retreat includes a renewal of baptismal promises, a reception of a white garment in remembrance of the white garment at Baptism, and then making their First Reconciliation. The next day, dressed in the same white garments, the children attend Mass and receive their First Communion.

It is a beautiful formation and process, but of particular note is the unique treatment of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. First of all, the approach insists upon pairing the two sacraments together, with confession celebrated on the vigil or day of the First Communion. Many other parishes have the child make their confessions months before their First Communion. As Sofia Cavalletti, the primary developer of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, explains:

In this way the truly festive nature of the sacrament of reconciliation is emphasized. When children celebrate the two sacraments separately, and especially when first confession comes much earlier than first communion, they begin to fixate on themselves and their failures. Thus, the human part of the covenant tends to take first place, and this should never be. When we keep the two sacraments together, as parts of one great celebration, the children much more readily experience the sacrament of reconciliation as the beginning of the feast (The Religious Potential of the Child, 6-12 Years Old, p. 100).

She continues with the theological reasons (emphasis mine):

We believe that celebrating first reconciliation and first communion in the same time frame makes it clearer that it is not a matter of communion requiring confession (except in rare circumstances) but of confession requiring communion: Confession begins a celebration that calls for the fullness of the eucharistic feast. Like every other sacrament, reconciliation is oriented toward eucharist, the focal point of Christian life. Reconciliation finds its purpose in the eucharist. In the introductory statements of the Ordo paenitentiae we read: "The eucharistic banquet is the culmination of reconciliation with the Church and with God" (Appendix II, 33) and later, "By means of the sacrament of penance...the Holy Spirit sanctifies its temple in order to arrive at a renewed and more servant participation at the table of the Lord (Ibid, pp. 100-101).

God's Gift to Man, Our Response: Covenant

The Catechesis is based on the Bible and the Liturgy, and keeps at the central focus the Covenant between God and man. In preparing the children, there is this emphasis of the gifts from God, and our response. From Sofia Cavalletti:

We cannot speak about the Sacrament of reconciliation without addressing, if only in passing, the problem of sin. Our religious life can be thought of as dialogue between God and the human person, a dialogue that God initiates and that calls forth a response form us. The entire history of salvation is basically this dialogue: God speaks to us, offers us gifts, and we respond (or do not respond) to God's word and accept (or do not accept) God's gifts. With this twofold movement from heaven to earth and earth to heaven, a bond is established between God and us, a bond which in biblical language is called covenant (pact, testament). But whereas God's act of self-giving in the covenant is constant and faithful, our response is not always as constant and faithful (Living Liturgy: Elementary Reflections, 111).

God's gifts of love to man are so plentiful. This is an aspect that is emphasized over and over within the atrium. There is also the aspect of how great and vast God is and how small man is in return, but enveloped by His providential love at all times. The perfect example is the Presentation of the Chalice, which ponders the drop of water into a larger amount of wine, repeating the words from the Offertory of the Mass:

By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

By the time of the first confession, the examination of conscience is presented as examining all the ways God has shown His love. The child praises God for all His gifts, and then looks at his/her own response. Were there ways that he/she did not love in return? Were there actions that he/she turned away from God and His gifts?  The child recognizes their littleness compared to God, and the failings in returning love to God Who is so great and loves him/her so much. Previous presentations on the Summary of the Law and the Maxims (a list can be found at the bottom of this page) give some guidance on preparing their confession. (NOTE: I refer here to formation of a child who has just reached the age of reason, around the age of 7. Further detailed formation of conscience using moral laws will be incorporated within the Catechesis in the following years as the child develops.)

Confession is a prayer of repentance and a prayer of petition, but most of all it is a prayer of praise. St. Augustine says confession needs to begin with confession laudio, a confession of praise:

We confess both when we praise God and when we accuse ourselves. Both confessions belong to "mercy," whether you correct yourself, you who are not without sin, or whether you praise the One who cannot sin.... In confession, accusing oneself is praising God.... When we praise God, we proclaim him as One who is without sin; when we accuse ourselves, we give thanks to him through whom we are brought back to life.... When one confesses one's own sins, one must confess them by praising God, and in order to be religious, the confession of sins must be without despair and must ask for God's mercy. Thus it contains prose of God, both in words, when we proclaim that He is good and merciful, and even in sentiment praise God in a true and devout manner without the confession of sins; but, there is no devout and profitable confession if God is not praised, whether with the heart, or with the mouth and words." (St. Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms 105, as quoted in Living Liturgy, pp. 113-114).

The True Vine and Other Parables

The Level I atrium for ages 3-6 centers around the image of the Good Shepherd. He knows and cares for everyone individually and calls each by name. This is the beginning of a personal relationship with Christ.

In Level II the connection with the Good Shepherd continues, but there is a widening of this relationship in which the child recognizes his or her role to answer Christ's call to love, and work in the Kingdom of God. The central image at this older level is the True Vine and the Branches from the Gospel of John, chapter 15.

Each person is grafted to the Vine at Baptism. Within the True Vine parable, Christ exhorts to remain, to love, and to bear fruit. The life-giving Divine Sap (or grace) nourishes the vine, including all the individual branches. Although Christ repeatedly says to "remain" so as to bear fruit, humans often sin, which set up blocks to the flow of sap, just as kinks in a hose impede the flow of water.  It is the gift of confession that removes those blocks, and restores the flow of sap.

The Vine and the Branches is the parable discussed in the first two weekly meditations, and then four other parables are included in the following meditations. The list for the five weeks:

  1. True Vine and the Branches I, John 15:1-9
  2. True Vine and the Branches II, John 15:1-9
  3. The Found Coin, Luke 15:8-9 and the Found Sheep, Luke 15:3-6
  4. The Forgiving Father, Luke 15:11-24
  5. The Healing of the Centurion's Servant, Matthew 8:5-10, 12-13

Within the parables of the Found Coin, the Found Sheep and the Forgiving Father, there is the loss, the finding and repentance, forgiveness, and then the immediate celebration, illustrating the close connection of the Sacraments of Penance and Holy Eucharist. These parables expand the connection of God with His loving gifts and how at times we turn and lose our way, but God will always be there, loving us, meeting us with His mercy and forgiveness when we come in repentance.

This approach makes it a more internal understanding of seeing where love was not returned as it should be, otherwise known as sin. The child sees quite clearly where he/she has failed in these areas, and doesn't need an external list of "shalt nots" to help them discover his sins.

...The penitent leaves the sacrament of reconciliation reinvigorated and able to look to the future with more trust. That branch that baptism grafted onto Christ, the true vine, that branch that had impeded the flow of sap not itself and so made it appear less luxuriant, once more receives the divine sap in abundance that will make it capable of bearing fruit (Sofia Cavalletti, Living Liturgy, 114).

The difference is visible. There is eagerness and ease before confession. Most of the children leave confession with such expressions of joy, even physically expressing by hopping or dancing with joy. My husband and I saw this with our oldest son when he made his First Confession. He was so happy that it seemed his feet didn't touch the floor.

Recognizing the Gifts and Confessing Our Love

Presenting these meditations in the atrium to the parents, everyone in the room breathes a sigh. They see the beauty on hearing this approach for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. There is a regret to not having the same formation as a child, but a joyful recognition that moving forward their approach to confession will be different.

So often I find myself in a rut in regards to confession. I make my list of sins and only focus on my failings. I plunge into reading a suggested examination of conscience. All these are external approaches, based on fear of punishment and more emphasis on the human side of the Covenant. I lack that dialogue between God and me.

The themes of Lent of Baptism and conversion and repentance come to a culmination through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Seeing this sacrament through the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd formation and the eyes of a child, I see how I have missed some important steps. I forgot to first contemplate the Covenant, to remember God's Revelation and gifts to man and my response. With those thoughts in mind, I can focus on God's love and His gifts and confess my love and praise. This provides an internal measurement of seeing myself and my failings compared to an All-Loving and Merciful God. I can see more clearly how I have offended Him, "Who is all good and worthy of all my love." It is then that I can confess the ways I did not return God's love or love Him enough, and repent. After my repentance and penance, I can then celebrate the mercy and restored flow of sap to me as a member on the True Vine, particularly through the Holy Eucharist. What a beautiful gift on the Lenten journey! 

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, home schooler, and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org's liturgical year section. See full bio.

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