I was so proud of my daughter, Sarah, on Saturday. She received the sacrament of reconciliation.
Before entering the church there was a workshop for the children and parents in the gym. Their teachers gave us a cutout of a little person to color and list on it the child's hobbies and personal characteristics. For Sarah that meant swimming and dancing as some of her hobbies, and caring and funny as some of her traits. We colored together a pink and black argyle dress onto the cutout together. Using crayons, Sarah colored in the hair yellow and gave herself pretty blue eyes and a red smile.
We then had to determine one thing that Sarah could improve on in her life lately, which we decided was to keep her room neater. We wrote this on a separate piece of paper that was then attached to the little Sarah doll. Little did we know then that the priest was going to detach that piece of paper when she went to confession and that was the one and only one of her sins that he would address with her.
Next, each parent was asked to speak into a microphone and share with the group something special about their child. What I heard the most from parents was how helpful their child was with their younger siblings. When it was my turn I said, "Sarah is very cool. She is an only child so she has had to spend a lot of time alone, but because of that she has developed a big imagination. Sarah has a tremendous faith in God." I hoped that what I said made Sarah feel special. I think it did. When I asked her if she liked it, she said I could have said that she is "fabulous". Out of everything that I said, though, the most important quality that I am grateful for in Sarah is her faith. I was the only parent in the room that day that spoke of my child's faith in God.
I thought it was a special opportunity for the parent to build up their child by sharing publicly what makes them so special. I was sad for one little boy and his dad because his dad said something to the effect of that he could say so many good things about his kid, but all he said was that his boy was a typical boy. He said he wonders what it would be like if he had daughters instead of sons. I am sure that his son is special and has many unique characteristics that he could have mentioned. I am sorry that the boy's dad was not able to give his son the gift of telling everyone why he is so special on that very special sacramental day.
Once inside the church Sarah was glowing with anticipation to make her first confession. She had been preparing for several months by learning the Act of Contrition by heart, by examining her conscience and by attending religion classes. She had a genuine understanding of what was about to occur, that God wants her to come to Him with her sins so that they can be forgiven. With a clean slate we can all be better workers in the world for God.
Sarah understands what the crucifix represents. Confession is so important that Jesus' life was sacrificed so that our sins can be forgiven. That is a reminder whenever we see a crucifix that we have a responsibility to God to give up our sins to Him and to not close ourselves off from Him by holding on to sin in the darkness of our conscience.
I have also taught Sarah something I discovered as an adult. There is an important gift we are responsible to give to ourselves, and that is to forgive ourselves of our wrong-doings in addition to asking God for his mercy. They are related, and neither are easy things to do. Forgiving ourselves, and receiving God's forgiveness make us feel good again, and that is grace.
Meanwhile the second graders recited the Act of Contrition together as a group. I could hear Sarah speak it confidently.
When it was her turn to receive the sacrament she brought with her the little person we decorated earlier, as the kids were instructed to do. She also brought along a pretty little notepad in which she had written down her sins that she wanted to confess earlier that day.
While she was in confession I thought about how profound her independence was at that moment. At only seven years old, she walked each step deliberately toward the priest, toward God, toward the light to receive a Holy Gift. It was bittersweet for me at that moment to be independent from my little girl, but she was not given to me by God as a possession, but as His Own, with me as a trusted guardian. I was overjoyed to put her into God's hands that day.
"I don't even feel like my sins are forgiven! I didn't even get to tell him my sins! He didn't even give me any penance!", Sarah said to my surprise when she came out of confession. It was immediately obvious to me that she was disappointed. Her arms were crossed and lips were pouting. Her head hanged down. She explained that the priest only talked to her about keeping her room clean and had not asked her to confess the rest of her sins.
We sat down in the empty pew and I thought for a moment. Should I try to defend the priest to her, explain how little time he had for each child because there are 76 students receiving their reconciliation that day? No. That would not make her feel special.
I then realized the church's intention of having the kids write down just one "pull-off sin" attached to their little persons. Should I tell Sarah that she got the "kid version" of confession? I could tell her, "Well, you still did it, Sarah. It is just not what you were expecting. It will be better next time." But why shouldn't I also expect her to have a full confession her first time? Why should first confession expectations be lower for kids now than they were for me or for my parents when we had ours? Seven year-olds have a developed conscience today, too.
Sarah had prepared for this sacrament with such a pure heart. She discussed often what she should be sorry about and even had something very specific that she wanted to be forgiven for. A month earlier when she observed me going to reconciliation services, she witnessed adults weeping while they were confessing their sins. She saw my tears as I told the priest my sins (confession in our church is often done in the corners of the church quietly by candlelight, not in a confessional). I think Sarah also wanted to feel so deeply sorry for her sins as to cry herself when she told God her wrongdoings. She even wanted to receive her own penance, as she wanted to be given her own "assignment".
As I contemplated how I should respond to Sarah in the church that day, I felt the Holy Spirit ask me to help her. I decided to approach a teacher to ask for permission for Sarah to go to confession a second time, and if she could go to Father Jerry, whom she preferred. Her teacher said, "Certainly, once everyone else has gone." Sarah was more than happy to wait for her second turn. I think she knew that God was also waiting patiently for her to come back to Him. God must have been very proud of her. I know I was.
When it was her turn I presented Sarah to Father Jerry in the candlelit corner. I explained that she had confession with a different priest already today but wanted another more "adult version" because she still had more things she wanted to confess. I turned my back and walked away, knowing she was about to be changed by God's mercy- by her own double willingness to walk toward Him. I could hardly wait to see the Holy Spirit radiating through her. Later on I told her that she still was required to do whatever penance the first priest gave her to make up for her sins, in addition to the penance Father Jerry had given her.
The gift I am most grateful for in my daughter is her gift of faith. On the way home in the car I asked Sarah to imagine what life would be like not having faith. I said I thought it would be very lonely. She said that would mean that you cannot even have life. She has to be right about that. We cannot truly experience being alive without having faith. We do not have life without God. He is the creator of life.
As parents we have tremendous opportunity to instill values into our impressionable kids. The most precious gift my parents gave me was to teach me about Jesus and our Church. I will do what is in my power as a parent to teach my daughter important values, but I know that I will also miss things. I also know that you can do everything "right" and that your child will still somehow turn out all "wrong". I don't know how Sarah will "turn out" (and it depends on by whose standards you are judging anyway). What I do know is that she has the foundation of faith, and to me that is the most important thing I can give her. She knows that she is never alone because God is always with her.
We are told in the bible that we are going to sin. I sin. Sarah sins. Father Jerry sins. Sarah knows now that if God can forgive her that she owes it to Him to forgive herself. I wonder, also, if one of the most important things we must all know is that God created each person on purpose. He loves no one person more than another. If He loves like this, then we must also love ourselves and others like this. We must forgive ourselves, ask God for forgiveness, and forgive others.
God is entrusting this child, Sarah, to me and I am also entrusting Sarah's life to Him. Sarah is in the middle of us and she loves and trusts us both. I have faith in that. I am also thankful that He has given us the special gift of The Catholic Church, a place where we can learn and love and be loved and be forgiven. Amen.