Reconciliation
Part 6 Theological and Pastoral Issues

Chapter r66 First Reconciliation and Initiation

Preliminary Questions

Bibliography

Initiation: The Door to Understanding Reconciliation

Catechumens

Candidates for Full Communion

Candidates for Easter Confirmation

Order of the Initiation Sacrament

 

History of Reconciliation with Children

First Celebration of Reconciliation with Catholic Children Who Were Baptized in Infancy

To Think About

Preliminary Questions

How would you describe the relationship between Initiation and Reconciliation?

What do you remember of your experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation? Did you celebrate First Reconciliation before or after your first reception of the Eucharist?  What rite was used? How did you feel?

Has your learning regarding Reconciliation been in terms of initiation or in terms of Reconciliation as a distinct sacrament?

Does your (arch)diocese have guidelines regarding the first celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation? 

When does a catechumen first receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation?  When and how is the preparation and catechesis for this to be done?

When does an adult Candidate for Full Communion first receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation? When and how is the preparation and catechesis for this to be done?

When does a child baptized Catholic in infancy first receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation? When and how is the preparation and catechesis for this to be done?

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Bibliography

Baars, Conrad. "The Psychology of Childhood Confessions," St. Anthony Messenger, March 1965.

Brusselmans, Christiane. "Children and the Sacrament of Reconciliation." Worship 49 (1975), pp 149-157. [She argues for the need of a children's rite of reconciliation much as we now have a rite for infant baptism. She argues for a communal rite with general absolution for first confession. She would have children introduced to individual confession at much later age.]

Gaupin, Linda. "Let Those Who Have Faith Not Be Hasty: Penance and Children," in Robert Kennedy, (editor), Reconciliation: The Continuing Agenda, Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1987, pp 219-237.

Guzie, Tad. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults: A Rite Only for Grownups? Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions.

Huels, John M. "First Confession" in Disputed Questions in the Liturgy Today, Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1988, pp 67-74.

Kennedy, Robert J. "Baptism, Eucharist, and Penance: Theological and Liturgical Connections" in Kennedy, pp 43-52.

Orsy, Ladislas. "The Sins of Those Little Ones," America, December 8, 1973.

Catechetical Materials for First Penance:  Many publishers provide materials for sacramental preparation for First Reconciliation. Rather than list these materials here I suggest that you contact the Office of Catholic Education of your local (arch)diocese. For example, the Office of Catholic Education for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis has published Religious Education Material for Preschool and Elementary Levels, January 1992.

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Initiation: The Door to Understanding Reconciliation

1. Sometimes when we come to a new city, some approaches give a better photo opportunity than other approaches, [For example, approaching Jerusalem from the East, even when driving from the airport which is west of the city.]  Sometimes entering a room through one door gives you a different perspective of the room than entering through another door. [For example, when I enter a church or cathedral for the first time, I like to come in through the principal entrance so that the principal door shapes my first impression of the space.]   Through which "door" have you entered the "theological room" Reconciliation? [Recall the catechetical metaphor:  "moving the furniture"]

2. Post-Tridentine sacramental theology entered by way of "general sacramental theology" and then each of the seven sacraments was viewed individually and distinctly.  Post-Vatican II sacramental theology enters through (1) Jesus, the principal sacrament which is experienced in (2) the Body of Christ continuing the Sacramentality of Jesus in the Church  (3) as expressed most fully in the Eucharist (4) which in its first celebration is baptism / confirmation / Eucharist (5) and the other sacraments reflecting that sacrament. 

3.  Try and enter the "room" (area of understanding) "Reconciliation" through the door "Initiation" and see what perspective it gives.

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Catechumens

Order of the Sacraments: Baptism Confirmation Eucharist

Effects of Baptism -- forgives all sins.

Devotional celebration of Reconciliation during Lent of the second year Mystagogia.

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Candidates for Full Communion

Respect for individual conscience: Are non-Catholics bound by Church law? Necessary for Catholics only in case of grave mortal sin. Celebration of devotion? Useful?

Catechesis before Lent preceding Easter of their Full Communion

Celebration during Lent preceding Easter of their Full Communion

The Rite of Reception of Baptized Christians into Full Communion of the Catholic Church, #482: "If the profession of faith and reception take place within Mass, the candidate, according to his or her own conscience, should make a confession of sins beforehand, first informing the confessor that he or she is about to be received into full communion. Any confessor who is lawfully approved may hear the candidate's confession." According to his or her own conscience, Should, not "must"

The National Statutes for the Catechumenate approved by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops on 11 November 1986, no. 36, states: "The celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation with candidates for reception into full communion is to be carried out at a time prior to and distinct from the celebration of the rite of reception." No.27 states basically the same thing about the sacrament of reconciliation with candidates for confirmation and eucharist.

The Eucharist itself is the primary and fundamental sacrament of reconciliation. " Reconciled in the eucharist, the members of the body of Christ are called to be servants of reconciliation among men and women and witnesses of the joy of resurrection. As Jesus went out to publicans and sinners and had table-fellowship with them during his earthly ministry, so Christians are called in the eucharist to be in solidarity with the outcast and to become signs of the love of Christ who lived and sacrificed himself for all and now gives himself in the eucharist." (Baptism-Confirmation-Eucharist, the Lima Statement, E24)

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Candidates for Easter Confirmation

Those persons who were baptized Roman Catholic as infants but for some reason did not receive Confirmation: Perhaps they were never catechized; perhaps their family was moving when Confirmation was celebrated for adolescents in the parish; or perhaps they were inactive Catholics and are now returning to the practice of the faith. [Note: inactive Roman Catholics taken together would form the second-largest religion in the United States!]

RE-MEMBERING CHURCH INSTITUTE is a four-day institute designed for pastoral ministers who want to deepen their understanding of reconciling alienated Catholics. The topics include kinds of alienation, reaching out to the alienated and the different journeys of return. Contact: the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, 5510 Columbia Bike, Suite 310, Arlington VA 22204. Phone (703)671-0330.

The National Statutes for the Catechumenate approved by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops on 11 November 1986, no. 36, states: "The celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation with candidates for reception into full communion is to be carried out at a time prior to and distinct from the celebration of the rite of reception." No.27 states basically the same thing about the sacrament of reconciliation with candidates for confirmation and eucharist.

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Order of the Initiation Sacrament

Apostolic Constitutions: Roman bathing = washing off and oiling up [one act]

Growth in the 4th century

Presbyters preside at beginning of initiation

Oil gets separated from bathing

Eventually -- Baptism penance confirmation eucharist

The invention of adolescence [14 was adult]

Eucharist -- Pope St. Pius X (1835-1914) in 1905 encourages frequent Communion and in 1910 lowers the age for First Communion.  The Liturgical Movement.  Pius XII, Mediator Dei.  See:  Richstatter, Liturgical Law Today, page xx.

Confirmation moved to 8th grade penance is in 8th grade

Communion moved to first grade. Penance moved to first grade. Confirmation left hanging.

The Age for Confirmation:

The theology of a rite should not be dependent upon the age at which it is celebrated. "The true test of our theology of Confirmation would seem to be whether it is applicable at any age. The great temptation is to let this theology be determined too narrowly by the a priori issue of age." (See: Smits. Op cit. p 23.), Catechetical development (Rome - not in favor of diversity, New Code of Canon Law), Movement in USA for Confirmation by pastor (delegated by Bishop) to confirm at the Mass of First Eucharist (Keeps the order: Baptism Confirmation Eucharist, The Bishop's visit to the parish becomes just that)

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History of Reconciliation with Children

33-300 A.D.  No record of children going to confession. No record of anyone going to confession. Baptism forgave all sins; eucharist was the ordinary sacrament of forgiveness for post-baptismal sin.

300-600 A.D. Canonical penance was for adults only. We have no record of children participating in canonical penance.

600-900 A.D. Celtic penance: Celtic penance was for adults. We have no record in the Penitentiaries of remedies for children's sins.

1300 A.D. Scholastic Confession:  Christians baptized as infants receive First Communion at the onset of adulthood (at about the age of 14 to 21).   First Confession precedes First Eucharist.

1905 December 22. (Pius X)  Sacred Congregation of the Council, decree "Sacra Tridentina Synodus" on the frequent reception of the Most Holy Eucharist.   As Holy Communion becomes more frequent, confession (which had always preceded Eucharist when one received Eucharist once a year) also becomes more frequent.  Weekly Eucharist implies weekly confession.

1910 August 08. (Pius X) Sacred Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments, decree Quam singulari (on the age at which one is to be admitted to first Eucharistic Communion).  Quam singulari assumes that Confession is a preparation for Communion but there is no norm or requirement that First Confession must precede First Communion. 

"The breakdown of the holistic patristic vision [of Christian Initiation] into its component parts in the medieval church--leading to a list of seven discrete sacraments--ultimately dissolved in the West the ancient order and unity of the triple mystery of initiation in baptism--Chrismation (Confirmation)-Eucharist.  --  The denouement of this collapse came, ironically, as a result of one of the most successful liturgical reforms in history: St. Pius X's decree Sacra Tridentina Synodus (1905) on the frequency of Communion, and his lowering of the age or reason in Quam Singulari (1910).  Pius X's stunningly successful reform had the deleterious side effect of shifting the time of first Communion to before confirmation -- an unheard-of novelty totally contrary to the universal ancient tradition of East and West -- and displacing first confession so that it proceeded first Communion . This destroyed the age-old sequence of the rites of Christian initiation.  And it turned the sacrament of penance, originally intended to reconcile grave sinners, into one of the rites of Christian initiation in the Catholic West." (Robert F Taft, S.J.,  America, May 26-June 2, 2008, p12.)

1917 Code of Canon Law:   The 1917 Code of Canon Law does not impose any obligation of First Confession prior to First Communion.

1955-1970 Catechetical and Psychological developments:   During these years the findings of psychology regarding the development of a child's moral sense during early childhood were incorporated into the catechetical preparation for the celebration of First Penance.  This was particularly prominent at Lumen Vitae in Belgium and the Catechetical Institute in Paris.  Graduates from these schools returned to the United States and began to implement what they had learned about the developmental stages of moral growth.  As a result, preparation for first penance begins be delayed and takes place in 3rd or 4th grade rather than in first grade. These developments achieve special prominence in the archdiocese of Detroit under Cardinal Dearden, who was an eminent liturgist and a member of the Sacred Congregation of Rites and the first president of what was to become the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy after the Second Vatican Council [now:  The USCCB Committee on Divine Worship]

For example:  Jeanne Hunt, Raising a Moral Child: How Faith Shapes Behavior (Paulist Press).  In the Catholic Update entitled Bringing up a Moral Child she states: Before the age of eight or nine, its difficult for them [children] to see what makes something right.  [TR: Does this not imply that first confession at the age of eight or nine is not in harmony with the psychological and moral development of young children. By fourth grade they are at least 10 years old and began to develop a moral sense.] 

1963 Dec 04, Vatican II, Constitution on the Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) #72  "The rite and formularies for the sacrament of penance are to be revised so that they more clearly express both the nature and effect of the sacrament."

1966 Feb 17.  Paul VI. PoeniteminiApostolic Constitution on Fast and Abstinence (i.e. on Penance and Conversion).

1970.   By 1970 fifty-one percent (51%) of the dioceses in the United States had implemented policies which called for the distinct and separate catechesis of penance and eucharist as well as a delay in the reception of penance until after first eucharist. (See:  Linda Gaupin, "Let Those Who Have Faith Not Be Hasty: Penance and Children," in Robert Kennedy, (editor), Reconciliation: The Continuing Agenda, Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1987, pp 219-237.)  

A survey of the bishops in these dioceses showed that eighty-five percent (85%) of the ordinaries agreed that the new practices made for a better reception of first communion especially since the reception of the eucharist did not require the higher intellectual, moral, and psychological demands that were required by penance.  The bishops also affirmed three other major points:

1.  That the delay of first penance until the ages of eight or ten years of age had shown positive effects;
2.  That the right to receive first penance before first communion be maintained;
3.  That it was desirable to continue the practice [of preparing for first Penance at the age of eight or ten]  in the United States after first communicating with the Holy See.  (See Linda Gaupin, "Let Those Who Have Faith Not Be Hasty: Penance and Children," in Robert Kennedy, (editor),
Reconciliation: The Continuing Agenda, Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1987, pp 219-237.)

One Dutch catechist admirably summarized our catechesis for penance in the following words: "Let those who have faith not be hasty lest the spiritual impulses of the child be satiated before they are unlocked. Our education suffers from 'too early and too much.'  We anticipate constantly. We drag the children towards God instead of letting them come...and not hindering them, as the Gospel teaches us. We say 'learn it now and do it now even if you do not desire it.' Meanwhile we think that we risk nothing because we have done everything." (See Linda Gaupin, "Let Those Who Have Faith Not Be Hasty: Penance and Children," in Robert Kennedy, (editor), Reconciliation: The Continuing Agenda, Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1987, pp 219-237.)

1971  We begin to see a movement in the other direction.  E.g. Cardinal Wright of Chicago caught the ear of the powers that be in Rome.   Note:  The Church sometimes "hesitates" to incorporate the findings of science into its theological reasoning.    Kirsten Gilbert wrote her MTS paper on "Issues Surrounding the Preparation of Children for the Sacrament of Reconciliation" in which she described the findings of "the human sciences" regarding the development of "right and wrong" in children and how these findings impact the catechesis for the celebration of First Reconciliation.

1971 Apr 11.  General Catechetical Directory returns things to pre-1955 and states:  ". . . the Holy See judges it fitting that the practice now in force in the Church of putting Confession ahead of first Communion should be retained"  (addendum, #5).

1973 May 24.  Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments and the Congregation for the Clergy issue a joint declaration concerning the first reception of the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist by children, bringing an end to the practice of preparation for Penance being given after first Communion.  (Note:  private individual confession of children before First Eucharist gives the pastor a way to check to see if the DRE has sufficiently explained Transubstantiation.)

Response of the French Bishops to the Pope's letter Sanctus Pontifex.  "We agree that it is a terrible thing to deny the sacrament of penance to little Children who are in the state of moral sin, but here in France children aged six or seven do not have the psychological capacity of committing such acts ..."

1973. Division of Religious Education -- CCD; United States Catholic Conference published: A Study Paper for First Confession. 1973. Washington: Publications Office USCC.  Publication no. 45 pp. Publications Office USCC.   Many catechists are fired. 

1979. Sharing the light of faith; National Catechetical Directory for Catholics of the United States. 1979. Washington: Publications Office USCC. Publication no. NCD-1.

1979 April 2 Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy proposes Rite for the Penance for Children.  [Action item from the Minutes of the Bishop's Committee on the Liturgy, April 2, 1979:  The judgment of the group was that the proposed "Rite for the Penance for Children" does not adequately meet existing needs. The priests, Bishop Speltz noted, question the form of the absolution.  Sr. Jocelyn felt that it was still too adult; Fr. McManus believed that it did not take us any place. Whereas both Frs. Notebaart and Last indicated that guidelines would be adequate, Fr. Krouse observed that not all confessors are able to work with only guidelines.  Among the options offered, the suggestion that "BCL provide two or more national adaptations including the prayer of absolution for submission to the NCCB and the Holy See" emerged as most acceptable. Archbishop Weakland did, however, indicate that it would take a strong position paper to effect a change in the form of absolution that would be acceptable to the Holy See.  At that point, Bishop Gracida called for the vote.]

Motion:  "That the BCL provide two or more national adaptations of the Rite of Penance for use with children, including the form of absolution, for submission to the NCCB and Holy See."  Vote Advisors: 9 yes; 0 no; Members: 6 yes; 0 no

This motion by the BCL went nowhere and was lost and forgotten.  Clearly, the Committee both advisors (liturgists) and members (bishops) felt that the current Rite of Penance was not adequate for children but their proposals to fix the situation died. 

1983. Code of Canon Law. Canons 914, 988, and 989. See also the commentary on Canon 914 by John M. Huels OSM in CLSA Commentary, p 653.  First time children must go before eucharist.

Canon 913 -- §1. For the administration of the Most Holy Eucharist to children, it is required that they have sufficient knowledge and careful preparation so as to understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity, and can receive the Body of the Lord with faith and devotion.

§2. The Most Holy Eucharist may be given to children who are in danger of death, however, if they are able to distinguish the Body of Christ from ordinary food into receive Communion reverently.

Canon 914 -- It is the responsibility, in the first place, of parents and those who take the place of parents as well as of the pastor to see that children who have reached the use of reason are correctly preparing and are nourished by the divine food as early as possible, preceded by sacramental confession [emphasis added];   it is also for the pastor to be vigilant lest any children come to the Holy Banquet who have not reached the use of reason or whom he judges are not sufficiently disposed.

Regarding Canon 914, John M. Huels, O.S.M. in the CLSA Commentary on the Code (p 653) states:  "In the years following Vatican II there was rather widespread experimentation with the practice of delaying first penance until after first Communion, but the Apostolic See repeatedly ordered that these experiments be halted.  Nevertheless, canons 988 and 989, based on the discipline of the Council of Trent, require only those conscious of serious sin to confess before receiving Communion, and this also applies to children receiving first Communion. It does not seem that the intention of this Canon is to subrogate this long-standing discipline but rather to suggest that the right of children to the sacrament of penance can be served best when pastors and catechists offer formation for penance appropriate to the level of the child making first Communion and provide the opportunity for penance before first Communion for those children who need or desire the sacrament. Hence, children who do not approach the sacrament of penance should not be deprived of their right to make first Holy Communion.

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First Celebration of Reconciliation with Catholic Children Who Were Baptized in Infancy

Criteria for evaluating liturgical celebrations of First Reconciliation with Children who have been baptized Roman Catholic as Infants

1. The liturgy should be that of the current Roman Ritual Rite of Penance.

2. The liturgy is typical of the way they will celebrate the sacrament in the future, that is Rite II or Rite III. There is no reason why a child should ever experience Rite I. There is no reason why a child should ever enter a “confessional” or a Reconciliation chapel.

3. The overall experience should be one of joy and celebration. The paradigm for the celebration is Eucharist (e.g. celebrated standing, at the altar, etc. as is Eucharist and Holy Communion).

4. The liturgy should involve the parish -- or at lest the parents and families of the children celebrating the sacrament for the first time.

5. The liturgy respects the current norms for the safety and protection of children -- e.g. the priest and the child are in full view of the congregation at all times.

6. As with any liturgical celebration, there should be active participation, music, flowers, candles, vestments, Scripture readings, homily, general intercessions, etc. in accord with the liturgical season. Liturgy is not “just words” but a symbolic action.


Criteria for judging catechetical programs preparing Children who have been baptized Roman Catholic as Infants for the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

1. The catechesis respects the stages of faith development of the children and the stages of moral development of the children corresponding to their chronological age.

2. The emphasis is placed on God's love rather than on human sinfulness. The “most important thing” is “what Jesus does” -- not the confession of sins. [Reference is to the story by Fr. Bernard Härring.]

3. The concept of sin corresponds to the faith experience of the children. The presumption of the catechist is that the children are all in the “state of grace” and “mortal sin” is rare for young children, and perhaps, even impossible for young children. There is no moral “need” for First Reconciliation before First Eucharist.

4. The catechesis should involve the parents at every stage.

5. Reconciliation is not a Sacrament of Initiation. The sacraments of initiation are Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist and should be celebrated in that order: Baptism, Confirmation, and then Eucharist. (The bishops are aware of the burden this places on the catechist to prepare children of 7 or 8 years of age for the celebration of the sacraments Reconciliation, and Confirmation, and Eucharist at the same time.)

6. The catechesis is directed to life long learning and faith development. It does not simply present a “model confession” and list of sins that can be repeated for the rest of one's life.

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To Think About

How would the following teach their catechists to prepare children for their first celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation?

St. Bede, Abbot of St. Paul in Jarrow (672-735)
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)
St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584) using
The Catechism of Trent
St. John Vianney the Curé d' Ares (1786-1859)
St. Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941).
Fr. Phillip Johnson, Pastor of St. Anthony's, Wichita, KS (1942-1950)
Pope John Paul III (2020).

Pope Benedict XVI and the Sacrament of Reconciliation for children.   The online news agency Zenit reported that on October 16, 2005, in anticipation of the end of the Year of the Eucharist, Pope Benedict XVI invited children who were receiving their first Communion to a meeting in St. Peter's square. Some 100,000 children came. Some of the children were selected to have a conversation with the pope. They talked about the Eucharist, of course, but one little girl ask him “why she should go to confession before going to Communion when she always commits the same sins. The Pope laughed when he heard the question. ‘It's true, in general our sins are always the same, but we clean our house, our room, at least every week, although the dirt is always the same,' the pope said. Confession is necessary only in the case of grave sin; ‘but it is very useful to go to confession regularly to cultivate cleanliness and beauty of soul, and to mature little by little in life,' he explained.”

Metanoia, "conversion" comes from the Greek verb meaning "turn around, come back."   Why do you say to a child who is not in the process of coming toward you (Christian initiation) “Turn around! Come back!”  Initiation = coming into. Penance = turn around (metanoia). If a child is coming toward you, do you call to the child “turn around!”

Does God condemn children to hell?  What country has capital punishment for children? 

Parents are biggest example. What if parents don't go themselves?  Are we introducing children into something that their parents no longer do?

Directory for Masses with Children stresses that we are not just a going through the motions but that we need skills for this active celebration: thanksgiving, words of forgiveness, way to sign, talk, listening, etc.  What if there were a Directory for Masses with Adolescents?  or a Directory for Reconciliation with Adolescents? 

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Copyright: Tom Richstatter, Franciscan Province of St. John the Baptist, Cincinnati Ohio, Order of Friars Minor. All Rights Reserved.  This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.  Every effort has been, and is being made, to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own.  Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it.  This site was updated on 08/23/15 .  Your comments on this site are welcome at trichstatter@franciscan.org