Bishop Banks' Corner|
|Bishop Robert J. Banks
Confession before Communion
Seven-year-olds are able to appreciate difference between right, wrong
By Bishop Robert Banks
All the ads in the newspapers and on TV are reminding us that it
is back-to-school time. That brings to my mind that parents in
some of our parishes might see a change in the timing of their
child's preparation for First Penance, or what we used to call
For years in many of our parishes, children have been prepared
for First Penance in the fourth or fifth grade. I have recently
asked pastors to begin to re-schedule preparation for First
Penance so that it takes place before First Eucharist, or what we
used to call First Communion.
Naturally, that cannot take place in every parish right away; it
takes time to change long and well established programs. However,
some parishes have already begun to change, and more will make
the change in the coming years.
Why make such a change when most of the priests, people and
religious educators in our Diocese are quite satisfied with the
way it has been done for years?
It is not because I like to change our liturgical practices. I
think the average Catholic, priest and lay, figures we have had
enough changes in our lifetimes.
It is also not because I think great harm is done to our children
by scheduling First Penance in the fourth or fifth grade. Our
pastors and religious education programs take preparation for
First Penance very seriously.
My main reason for encouraging the change is simply to
synchronize what we do in Green Bay with what is being called for
by directives issued for the universal Church. I also happen to
think it is a good idea.
The change is probably on my mind more than that of the average
bishop because I happen to be on the bishops' committee that is
entrusted with the implementation of The Catechism of the
Catholic Church. Our committee is asking publishers of religious
education materials to place preparation for First Penance before
that for First Eucharist in their texts.
Catholics of my generation are used to the idea of preparing
children for First Penance in second grade. That is what we went
through. But after the Second Vatican Council, many pastors and
religious educators felt First Penance should be delayed to a
First of all, they felt, there certainly was no need for
second-graders to go to Confession; it was most unlikely that the
youngsters would have committed a mortal sin that required
absolution in the sacrament of penance. Secondly, as the children
grew older they would be better able to grasp the issues of right
and wrong and the need for God's forgiveness. Thirdly, and I am
not sure this was a reason, it would be important to counteract
the impression commonly held back then that a person had to go to
Confession before receiving Communion.
While neither Rome nor our American bishops ever issued any
directives that transferred First Penance to a time after First
Eucharist, the practice spread quite widely throughout the United
States. Gradually, however, various Church authorities began to
call for a return to the earlier practice. This became official
for the universal Church when the new Code of Canon Law was
issued in 1983.
A special reverence
The reasons for requiring that children be prepared for and make
their sacramental confession before receiving First Communion
were not officially spelled out. The basic reason probably is the
desire to communicate the importance of approaching the reception
of Holy Communion with special reverence.
Back in the '50s, the danger was that people would interpret
"special reverence" to mean that you had to go to Confession
every time you receive Communion. That danger is long gone.
Today, just about everyone goes to Communion at every Mass; but
few adults or young people go to Confession even once a year.
Hopefully, as Church, we can achieve a more balanced approach
that appreciates the value of sacramental confession without
making it a necessary condition for every reception of Communion.
I am very confident that today we can prepare our children for
both First Penance and First Eucharist with that kind of balanced
Some people wonder whether a seven-year-old child has enough
appreciation of right and wrong to be able to receive the
Sacrament of Penance. Without getting into a theological
argument, I think they do, or at least I have heard enough
parents say they do.
The scary box is gone
There are others who recall from their childhood the scary
experience of going into a dark box to confess to a voice from
the shadows. While I do not have that memory, I do have the
modern experience of sitting in a lighted confessional with a
child who knows me and whose main nervousness is that of doing
something new. It should now be much more possible for a priest
to convey the forgiveness of a loving God.
In any case, parents are usually the best ones to judge whether
their children are ready for a First Communion that is preceded
by a sacramental confession. The pastor can help in making that
judgment and is also entrusted with the responsibility of being
vigilant that the children are properly prepared and disposed.
While individual parishes are deciding in what year to schedule
the preparation for First Penance, it would be important for all
of us to remember that we are not talking about one of the Ten
Commandments or a Gospel teaching of the Lord.
There are good reasons for a person to favor First Penance in the
fifth grade, and good reasons to favor it in the second grade. We
are moving toward the earlier grade because that is more in line
with the practice and requirement of the universal Church. We
adults, whichever we favor, have to be patient or we shall be the
ones who have to go to Confession.