The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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August 24, 2001 Issue
Bishop Banks' Corner

Bishop Robert J. Banks
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 First Confession.

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 change?

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 later age.

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 approach.

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.

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