Every year during Lent these feelings rise in me about the invasiveness and inappropriateness of children celebrating the Sacrament of Penance before First Communion. This is a practice that is mandated in the universal church since the time of Pius X in the early 20th century, though there continued to be some experimentation with other ages until about 1977. The logic behind it seems to be, at least in the mind of Pius X, a kind of habituation of grace as a preventive remedy to the habituation of sin. As with the Eucharist, he saw the sacrament of Penance as an opportunity for a customary practice in a person’s life that will block opportunity for the invasion of sin. For Pius X, the sacrament of penance was not simply for the confession of individual serious sin but an opportunity for intense, personalized spiritual direction.
The source of the disconnect or cognitive dissonance for me arises from the more ancient history of the church, which is that the Sacrament of Penance arose later in the church’s history as a kind of second baptism, or a “baptism of tears,” a remedy for a serious breach with the eucharistic community by people repenting of public sin such as murder, adultery, and especially apostasy. In the apostolic communities, there is no evidence of anything like this sacrament. But what was the church to do when a de facto excommunicant, someone who had betrayed or even caused deaths among the community by apostasizing and "naming names" to the persecuting government, repented and wanted to be part of the community again? The solution seems to have been a “second catechumenate,” called the “order of penitents,” which called for a long process, available to the penitent only once, of prayer, fasting, and public penitence until such time as the bishop saw fit to lay hands on that person and absolve them from the ban from the eucharistic table. Seen in this historical context (admittedly a limited one), using the sacrament of penance with seven-year-olds seems like using a fiery, pneumatic sledgehammer to kill a mosquito.
Of course, that’s mixing sacramental apples and oranges, since over the centuries, thanks to monastic practice mostly in Ireland and the places to which Irish monks and abbesses went on the continent to help spread the gospel, another kind of sacrament developed, more in the model of the anamcara or soul-friend, the spiritual advisor who would listen to the story of a pilgrim’s life, offer advice for spiritual growth, and offer the forgiveness of God in the absolution of the sacrament. It was this version of the sacrament, and not the more austere and monolithic approach of the Order of Penitents, that survived into the present, though the basic movements of the sacrament have remained the same—the telling of the personal story, confronting that story with the church’s scripture and tradition about the mercy of God, the “confession” of God’s mercy in the life of the sinner, a process of prayer and good works as a remedy and restitution for the evil caused by sin, and the absolution from sin.
What struck me and caused me to try to write some of this down and sort it out, was something about “lost sheep.” One of the images that is used with the children preparing to receive the sacrament of penance for the first time is the image of sheep. They have, in the past, made little white sheep on popsicle sticks with cotton balls, and put them into styrofoam pastures, and these have been placed in our gathering space for a week or so as a visible sign of their journey. It strikes me, has struck me, as odd to think of children coming to the sacrament as lost sheep. Exactly how is a seven-year-old lost in sin?
Then, playing for Vespers one night in support of the teens in the parish who were making their Kairos retreat, we heard the text from the gospel of St. Matthew that might have evoked the symbol mentioned above:
Jesus said to his disciples: “What is your opinion?It might have been hearing that, and it might have been the reflecting that I’ve been doing on the “mystery of sin” because of the scrutinies, I don’t know, but I had an insight about this. The thing is, there are all kinds of ways to be lost. We who are adults are quite capable, thank you, of getting lost on our own. “Oh! There’s a nice path. Yes, it’s going in another direction, but it looks great. Let’s try that one!” We’re pretty good about leading each other down paths to known and unknown places of grave danger, or at least of true separation from the rest of humanity. Sometimes we choose bad places, sometimes we’re just not paying attention, or we’re bored, or “one thing leads to another,” and we’re lost. We’re good at that, and generally, we know it. Generally. It’s also true that over years and centuries we adults have contributed so often and so generously to patterns of sin and injustice that we often participate in systemic sin in ways that we’re not even aware of. We can, in fact, be lost without even knowing it.
If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray,
will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray?
And if he finds it, amen, I say to you,
he rejoices more over it than over the ninety-nine that did not stray.
In just the same way,
it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.”
I think that the wisdom of the Church in this regard bears some reflection. Jesus doesn’t blame a sheep for being lost, just as he doesn’t blame the Samaritan woman for being a racist or an idolator, he doesn’t blame the man or his parents for being blind, and he certainly doesn’t blame Lazarus for being dead, or not eating right, or whatever Lazarus’s problems were. He is just there, with God’s presence, and creates an opportunity for belief. The sheep is lost, it doesn’t matter how it happened. One of the things we cityslickers have found out about sheep from exegesis on this passage is just how dumb sheep are. Getting lost just happens. And the shepherd brings the lost one back to the waiting ninety-nine.
What I have come to appreciate, though it remains to be seen how well this is borne out in the celebration of the sacraments, is that children who have reached the age of awareness, who can, with catechesis, tell the difference (or know the similarities?) between regular bread that they eat with peanut butter and jelly and the “bread of life,” also know in themselves the difference between what is right (to them) and wrong. And even though nothing they can say or do at that age could ever separate them from divine love or the table of Jesus, there is plenty of sin around them, systemic evil in family, society, government, culture, even church, that can render them lost before they’re even aware that there was a track to be on. The evils of unbridled greed, competitiveness, addiction in families, commercialized violence, laissez faire capitalism, nationalism, racism, almost every -ism, these surround and form the matrix in which these little people are growing into maturity. They might be seen as the ancient fruits of the first sin, the desire to be god. They are the habits of the Beast, and all of us who succumb to them are indeed lost.
But God has a remedy for this sin and all sin, and that is sharing in the very agape life of God through the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ given to us in baptism. This is not just a theological concept: it’s a reality made visible by the interdependent agape of the church, lived out in this place and this time in a real community of believers. God’s love and mercy came before and is stronger than sin. Unlike sin, it is not invasive or coercive, though, it waits, invites, searches relentlessly, stands with open arms, as it were. Baptism, confirmation, and eucharist are the way into this community for those who have heard the Shepherd’s call and desire his strength and protective love. The sacrament of penance is another instrument of divine agape — it offers to anyone aware of the power of sin to derail her life or his the incontrovertible and unchanging word of God’s forgiveness and love, the love that never fails, never wavers, and requires nothing, can give nothing, in return.
For children, swimming in a chaotic current of values competing for their allegiance, this outward sign of the invisible reality of God’s gentle love, tender mercy, and forgiveness extended before sin and in the midst of it, might actually provide a still point, something to which to cling, a life-preserver, in their personal development. The word of love and forgiveness might be heard, with the call to the table of the Messiah, as a sound to be trusted and believed above all the others courting their attention.
Of course, the experience of first confession can only be as good as the sacramental administrators, but I can say that the men I’ve come to know as priests in the communities I’ve lived in have been, by and large, men who are aware of God’s loving grace and who try to administer it transparently. Seeing first confession in this way, in the context of the possibility of “being lost” and not knowing it, being lost and blameless, like being caught in a blizzard, makes it possible for me to be at peace with what before seemed like a complete aberration of sacramental principle.
Now, if we can just get adults to talk about sin, and really confront some of these strategies and structures of sin into which we Christians have bought and invested our future, we might understand and appreciate again the Church to which we belong, and learn the meaning, at last, of Kyrie, eleison!