Children and the Sacrament of Penance


Introducing children to the sacraments of the church is something that needs to be done sensitively and well if they are to be a meaningful and ongoing part of the faith life of the child. It is important that the process be seen as one of passing on the faith tradition of the church rather than as a series of hoops that must be jumped through to gain a reward at the end.
When the sacramental guidelines for Brisbane were reviewed after some years of use, parents and catechists were strong in their opinion that that children of the age of 6 or 7, who were celebrating their first confession as required before confirmation and first communion, were far to young for the individual form of the sacrament.
Hence the section on Penance in the current Sacramental Policy for the Diocese states that children are introduced to the sacrament of penance through the communal (second) rite in a simplified form and that preparation for and celebration of the individual rite of reconciliation is delayed until about the age of 10. Any parent or teacher will immediately recognise the good sense and sound pastoral judgement in this decision.
Canon Law does require children to celebrate penance before first communion. This is rather a strange situation, because it imposes a much stricter obligation on young children than exists for adults, who are required to celebrate penance only if they are conscious of serious sin. It is extremely doubtful that any child of 6 or 7 would be capable of committing serious sin, although there were times when I wondered about our middle son (just joking, Richard!). The communal rite is the appropriate away to celebrate penance at this young age.
The children however do need to learn about and experience the first rite at some stage. It makes sense to delay the individual rite of reconciliation for a few years after confirmation /first communion. With a couple of years of experience of the communal rite, the child is ready to make the step up to the individual form. It enables the child to celebrate this important sacrament with a greater degree of moral maturity. At the age of 10, children are starting to make moral decisions and understand the consequences of wrong choices.
Separating the first rite of penance from confirmation and first communion by a few years makes it clear that penance is not one of the sacraments of initiation and is not something that is ‘done’ once and then forgotten. It also gives parishes an opportunity to connect again with families which may have drifted away from the worshipping community after confirmation / first communion.
Within this positive, however, lies the challenge of getting the young people back to the church without a carrot to offer them at the end. This is more than outweighed by the positive ‘selling points’ – the opportunity for young people to experience the rite when it has real meaning for them and can be seen as something with ongoing relevance for their spiritual journey, and the chance provided by the preparation program for parents to learn about and celebrate individual reconciliation as envisaged in the revised rites.


Elizabeth Harrington