At the writing of this piece we have just completed the celebration of First Penance for our School and Religious Education children. While there are children of various ages who received this sacrament for the first time, most of them were second graders. As one can imagine they were very cute and even when they were nervous there was a wonderful sense of the goodness of these children.
Some might ask ‘is it too early to receive this sacrament?” and “Are they even capable of sin?” Of course, we are not talking about serious sin in any of these children. They are incapable of misusing their freedom knowingly to such a tragic extent. Then why lead them to this sacrament so early in their lives?
This question was brought up a few years back. In some programs the sacrament was given in the 4th or 5th grade. So the children actually received First Penance a few years later than the first reception of Holy Communion. The trouble with this sequence is that the child lost a sense of preparing for Holy Communion by a confession of sinfulness. It seemed to diminish the holiness of the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
Actually one of the benefits for the child is the preparation necessary for the Sacrament of Confession. We try, early on in their moral and psychological development, to train the child to see living life in a moral way. By moral I mean the ability to distinguish in the ordinary demands of our lives what is good to do and what is bad to do. Even at the young age of 7 a child is already able to distinguish what is right from wrong. Granted this ability is limited by the very fact of their age. But the basics are there. When a child is playing with a toy and another child grabs it from them, you can see the first child’s outrage at the unfairness of what just happened. So from an early age children are encouraged to see that their behavior has consequences not only in their relationships with family and friends but also with God. God cares how we live our lives and rewards the good that we do and corrects the bad to help us. So it teaches the children to evaluate their actions both as regards to the consequences to those around them and to God who sees all things and is invisibly involved with how we live our lives. This is a very good consequence of moral development.
There is a passage in Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” when the young Cordelia complains that the Sister at the School she attends corrected her on the poor order that she kept the shoes in her closet. The Sister said to her that Our Lady would not be happy with the sloppiness of how she kept her things, to which Cordelia replied that she thought that Our Lady did not care at all how she put away her shoes. At that point another member of the family replies that Our Lady does care about obedience and Cordelia’s disobedience to the directives of the school needed to be put right. This is a good example of how the very small and seemingly insignificant dealings in the life of a child can help that child or hurt that child depending on the way the child reacts to it. Confession gives the child an opportunity to learn from the experience and to correct in a small way the moral edifice that the Child is building that will direct a whole lifetime of decisions.
Confessors can tell you how inspiring it is to see a small child ponder their behavior, trying to discover those areas that can be harmful to spiritual development. This is not an empty, or as some would say, harmful introspection. It teaches the child that no action is free of moral consequences. It teaches the child that their behavior is important to God. It teaches the child that God has placed in them an ability to discern what is right and what is wrong. It teaches a child that there is a God who is interested in the smallest action and its eventual consequences. It teaches a child that God loves them and wants them to be good simply because it is good to be good. It teaches a child that they are never alone and that someone watches over them and is happy with their good choices and grieves with the lost opportunities that result from poor choices.
All in all one can truly see that the catechesis surrounding the Sacrament of Penance and the performance of the Sacrament is very good for the intellectual and moral development of the child and hence has great political, civic, and interpersonal ramifications for the world around them. When the catechist then trains a child to receive the Sacrament they are doing tremendous and unheralded good for the future of the child and the world. That truly is something to be glad about!