The Sacrament of Penance and Children

Author: Achille Triacca


Achille Triacca


General reflections

The inestimable gift of the Holy Spirit, for the remission of sins, reaffirmed by the Risen Lord on Easter evening, given generously to the ministry of the Church for the reconciliation and peace of all the faithful, finds its realization especially in the Sacraments of Baptism and Penance. Unfortunately in the common judgment of pastors of souls and of experts in the pastoral field, the latter sacrament is still going through a moment of particular difficulties. These are generally motivated among the faithful by an inadequate and incomplete, if not distorted, catechetical preparation, which in its turn is directly related to an unjustified alienation and disappointing lack of esteem on the part of many pastors. It is not our intention to go into the diagnosis of the reasons for this estrangement, even if we can assert with good grounds that generally the indifference and apathy that surround such an important event of salvation, are due to not knowing it well, to having misunderstood it, to the decline of faith, and to mistaken conceptions of sin.

What is even more distressing is to see that when it is a question of its celebration with subjects who are children or adolescents, things become worse. A real sea of partial information, deficient and distorted, restricts on all sides correct understanding and true celebration of this sacrament. Now there are some people who, judging by things heard or read, are moved to action along catechetical and pastoral lines calculated to increase the harm coming from such a state of affairs, more than to avoid it and to put it right. What is even more saddening is that not a few among the catechists themselves, who support the pastoral behaviour in question, move in the uncertain atmosphere constituted by loss of the true meaning of the sacrament. So the spiral of confusion is perpetuated and consolidated.

History of confession for children

Everyone knows that the "confession" of children has a particular history of its own. But let it be quite clear that this history moves in the sphere of the apostolate, not in that of dogmatic theology, since for all subjects of the sacrament, fundamentally, the reality that counts is the same. To have an idea of what we affirm here, it would be sufficient to glance through the best known and most widely circulated manuals on pastoral work, both classical and popular manuals. One may see in them the intertwining of problems—of moral theology, psychology and didactic pedagogy particularly, catechesis and even canonical legislation—which concern the problem of the "confession" of children. It is not our intention to discuss at length the myriad of objections (but it is a question only of objections!) which are put forward, at various levels, to the practice of "confession" for children. These objections could all be refuted one by one both from a theoretical point of view and from a practical, pastoral one. As regards the latter sphere, it would be enough—to go to the heart of the matter—to put forward the practice of yesterday and today, characteristic of holy pastors and educators. It is they who must lay down the law in the attainment and deepening of the holiness of the Church, which is realized eminently also with the event of the sacrament of Penance.

It is our intention just to offer ideas for reflection, almost in scattered order, in order to try to emerge from the "mare magnum" of sacramental confusion into which the discussion on the "confession" of children has fallen.

Significant principles

The constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC) contains some very significant principles for oursubject. The first is gradualness in initiation to liturgical celebrations. The principle is sanctified "ex professo" with regard to liturgical life and with reference to adults (SC 10); but it is obvious that if being introduced gradually into understanding of holy rites and deep participation in them, holds good for adult persons, already committed on the Christian plane, "a fortiori" it holds good for those who must be helped to grow and mature in faith and in its reality.

The second principle refers more directly to pastors of souls. The latter, aware of their obligations as regards the fulfilment of one of the main functions delegated to them, must endeavour with zeal and patience to teach the faithful intelligent and active participation, both internally and externally, in the liturgy, keeping in mind the fact that they must lead them to do so non verbo tantum, sed etiam exemplo (SC 19). In other words, the Christian educator must be a witness who lives the deep meaning of liturgical reality. The educator, or the one who forms the liturgical and sacramental climate in souls, must help the pupil sedulo ac patienter to take with living and increasing participation the path of sacramental life. He must nourish in him an originality which challenges the trend of the environment. He must make him aware that liturgical and sacramental life is highly stimulating in its requirements and extremely fruitful for the individual Christian as well as for the structure of the Church in which he is incorporated. Example must be rooted in deep convictions on the reality of the sacrament of Penance. In order to possess them and foster them, the educator and pastor must obtain the knowledge and prudence necessary for this purpose, especially with prayer, meditation, aggiornamento and assiduous study, under the guidance of the Magisterium of the Church (cf. Ordo Paenitentiae,10).

Relation to the liturgy

To these principle, it must be added that the liturgical celebration, while it calls for preparation and adequate initiation, introduces, in its turn, to understanding of the rites and to deep participation in them (cf. SC 18); a cyclic rhythm occurs, as a result of which the effort to educate to the liturgy is at at the same time a process of being educated to the liturgy. It will not be quite useless, however, to pay attention to the fact that the liturgy, as a wise educator, is not consciously concerned with educating. It is well aware that an educator concerned to assume the "tone of an educator", starts out wrongly from the outset. The liturgy does not climb into the chair arrayed in a gown and with a haughty expression. It comes naturally to it to be an educator. This simplicity and naturalness in educating is forgotten by those who scorn the celebration, postponing it "sine die" or in any case delaying it, even for futile reasons. The believer is thus deprived of an irreplaceable aid to instil, and cause to blossom in practice, confidence in the tender kindness of God, Creator and Father, who loves us, and who, in his Son, communicates to us his forgiveness by virtue of the Holy Spirit.

With the celebration of the sacrament of Penance the liturgy also prepares children: to receive with fruit the gift of love and forgiveness; to give due worship to God; to put charity into practice (cf. SC 59), causing the deeper sense of pietas to blossom in them and nourishing it (cf. SC 107); to cultive compactness and unity between the attitudes of the body and those of the Spirit (cf. SC 90). The time of our supernatural development lasts as long as life does, and throughout our life we need to receive the means to grow in the way that corresponds best to the gift and to the expectations of God.

Preparation and celebration

Let no one be under the illusion that the remedies to find again the real sense of sin and, more fundamentally, to acquire again the living sentiment of God's presence in the believer's life, can come from compliance with, and assimilation of, the predominant and permissive worldly mentality. It will rather be precisely preparation and celebration of the sacrament of Penance that will root, also in the person of the child and of the adolescent in formation, clear, awareness of Christian originality and progressive maturity in bearing witness to the faith with prophetic courage. The harmonious whole of the constant capacities of love and good expressed in the responsible behaviour of the person, is a result that comes from a slow and laborious work of unification and coordination of his own tendencies and aptitudes, carried out by the subject. He does this in view of a consistent answer to the Father, in the concreteness of his own life in Christ, amalgamated and given drive by the Spirit: and all this in the Church, with the Church and for the Church.

The earlier the child is helped, in order to start him on his way and assist him in the formation of his Christian moral personality, the easier it will be to reach the goal. It is by walking that the paths to be taken are found. Now the unification of one's own aptitudes and commitment, in view of a project of good, in order to live a consistent moral life, is not a fruit only, or primarily, of humaneffort, but it is a gift of the Lord. This is equivalent to recalling that the subject of the sacrament of Penance, the Christian, is a person in whose existence all the "laws of grace" have already entered and are active. Their evaluation escapes the control of every science and of every human yardstick, and their implications in the individual believer are such that priority must always be attributed to God's action.

It is impossible to understand, therefore, how easily it can be forgotten that God's action in history takes on concrete shape with those personal and ecclesial, human and divine, interventions which are the sacraments; endowed with visible and significant elements and bestowing invisible realities, fruitful on the operational plane. Nor is it possible to understand that widespread way of thinking and proposing that the only ideal subjects of the sacraments are adults, as if children are not the centre of the love, a concrete love, a love made visible, a historical and existential love, of the Father. He, overflowing with Love, in his Son loves all human persons, regardless of age and capacities, and, if anything, shows preference for the smallest ones. Before God in his plan of salvation, there are no disabled or handicapped persons.

The liturgy, the interpreter of this divine pedagogy, testifies to us that, in all rites and in all times, it considers, spiritually speaking, the subject of the liturgical celebration always as an adult. Or, if you prefer: spiritually speaking, for the liturgical celebration we are at the same time adults and "quasi modo geniti infantes" (cf. 1 Pet 2:2), just because we are always in a position of growth until we reach eschatological fullness. And here again it is necessary to recall the methodological principle of gradualness, of which we spoke above. Then, too, from the psychologico-charismatic point of view, what is commonly called an adult, could be presented as a "puer centum annorum...": an adult chronologically, socially, psychologically, intellectually, but spiritually an infant (incapable of "speaking"). Likewise, on the contrary, one who is commonly called a "non-adult", might present himself with such a spiritual capacity and (if I may use the term) "degree of grace" as to be very well prepared to understand and comprehend sacramental reality better and to live it even more deeply. It is a question in practice of a concrete application of the principle "quidquid recipitur, ad modum recipientis recipitur" in the life of the spirit. Augustine would express himself as follows: "Cape per quod sis capax" (Sermo 216, 15 and elsewhere "Et capias hoc non a me sed ab illo qui at me fecit et te" (InJoann. Ev. 18, 7).

Need of catechesis

It is not permissible for anyone, therefore, to prevent or delay for petty reasons, even if dressed up in "scientific" disguise, the growth towards the capacity of love and good to which the child, too, must open up. Everyone, in fact, must be concerned to offer each one, as soon as possible, the greatest possibility of changing for the better and of improving in the penitential dynamism which is started up by the baptized person on approaching the sacrament of Penance.

In so saying, we are very far, however, front instrumentalizing the celebration, as if it can be reduced merely to a methodological, didactic stage, as if it were a "teacher" who teaches how to live and were not, on the contrary, life itself. On the contrary, just because the celebration is life of the Christian's life, in addition to a thorough preparation about the value of the sacrament, an equally thorough catechesis is necessary on the importance of a commitment of life for a constructive response to the Father by means of dedication to others. Such a catechesis which will help the believer from the tender age of childhood to emerge from a deep-rooted minimal tradition which, concerned with observing some norms and with not sinning seriously, has gradually extinguished all impetus towards real growth in Christ.

Set in community

Mindful of the apostolic teaching: "Let the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy" (Rev 22:11), the Liturgy in fact aims at the individual set in a liturgical community, whether he be a child or an adult being "educated" (= led out of... towards...) until he reaches the fullness of Christ (cf. Eph 4:13). It is a question of forming new generations, beginning as soon as possible, and in a correct way, to make them feel and live Christian moral life, which is a life of love, and in love, in continual progression. In these realities what is important is not age measured chronologically, or evaluated psychically, or tested intellectually, but the elusive spiritual life: the life that obeys primarily the "laws of grace" and not so much the laws of biology or psychology. Since the action with which God reconciles man to himself, by means of Christ, in the Spirit, entails an interior rebirth which changes those who benefit from it into new creatures (cf. 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15), reconciliation transcends the mere commitment of his will aided by grace. It is a mystery of participation in divine life, of which the Holy Spirit is the author.

It would be a manifest sin to oppose his action, which is the supreme and total norm of life, with the barriers of methodological principles which, if restricted to the horizon of the so-called "positive" investigation, are naturally partial and debatable. And it would be to expose oneself to a responsibility the extent of which can be evaluated only in terms of loss of the life of grace. "Science" is a good thing: but only when it is harnessed to collaboration with Wisdom.



It is far easier to launch a new idea than to undermine a wrong one that is widespread. Thus anyone who wished to begin the discussion on the confession of children or adolescents, starting from inaccurate ideas as regards the celebration of the sacrament or from wrong ways of realizing it, would end up by being involved in casuistry...

There is no doubt that many negative factors of different origin threaten the authenticity of the celebration of the sacrament of Penance with regard to younger subjects: widespread disappointment with a style of celebration that is already usual, a diffused and mechanical routine, an inadequate catechesis that does not help to form a real sense of sin, a certain apathy of ministers indifferent to their ecclesial mission; and so on. Added to this is a type of pastoral methodology, which thinks it must start out from an alleged fact, to arrive subsequently at a supposed theoretical justification.

This is the method of those who, instead of starting from the Christian "qualis esse debet", start from man "qualis est". They therefore fall into a spiral of misunderstandings which conclude in a precarious and sterile horizontalism which cuts the apostolate off from its truest outlet.

It happens that such an apostolate, supported by catechetical methodologies that are unilaterally anthropocentric, does in fact admit, on the plane of abstract principle, the legitimacy of the so-called confession "of devotion", but then when it is a question of concrete application, it twists the meaning. Everyone agrees that in the sacramental practice of Penance care must be taken to give quality primacy over quantity, in the sense thatevery celebration of the sacrament must be, in the first place, a salvific religious event, a meeting, realized in the Church, with the love of the Father in the Son thanks to the Holy Spirit; a paschal event of reconciliation and conversion, of personal commitment and response to the gift of Trinity in the struggle against sin. It is a question of the primacy of the deep reality and operational dynamics of the sacrament of Penance. But this primacy cannot be considered contrary to the favour to be attributed to the spreading and practice of the sacrament among younger subjects. All the more so in that the primacy of quality will be reached only gradually, precisely through suitable catechesis and with the irreplaceable help of the frequency of celebration.

Child's natural right

It is not our task here to go into the question whether or not the child is capable of sinning. It can be solved (let us say incidentally) by keeping in mind the primacy of the "laws of Grace" without forgetting the laws of man's bio-psychological growth. It seems to us, however, that the mass of solutions that have been put forward ("quot capita, tot sententiae") cannot disregard the elementary fact that also the Christian child is constitutionally capable of celebrating fruitfully the ecclesial act of the reconciliation and love of a merciful God.

Just because of the fact that he is baptized, he has a natural right to celebrate this Sacrament. Certainly, it is up to the Pastor, in collaboration with the family, to help the child to enjoy this right, without postponing it for petty or mistaken reasons. It is up to catechesis to make the child become aware of this right. To put forward what we recall here, is already to instil into young minds not so much the standpoint of a duty, which has sometimes been misunderstood as a weight, as rather the consciousness that, owing to a merciful gift of the Trinity, an innate requirement of living in grace belongs to the Christian. It is to help formation of a Christian conscience that lives far from sin.

It is not always easy to judge whether it is a question in the child merely of a venial sin or of a sin of frailty (negative aspect). Now it is known, even over and above this fact, that in many concrete cases the practice of the confession of children always constitutes a marvellous ecclesial test (positive aspect) of the celebration of a sacrament which can through its efficacy help the subject to turn away from the negative situation, from the series of habits and inclinations (psychology, too, testifies to their presence in very young subjects) against which the Christian of any age or my capacity will always, have to struggle.

Let it be added that the child has a frail psychology. He is, in fact, afraid of many things; he suffers fears and anxieties that are sometimes groundless; he is overcome by uncertainties that are often tormenting; he may often be inthe grip of qualms, or think something is a sin which is not, etc. For all this, too, help to celebrate the sacrament of penance authentically, is a reality which is highly beneficial to the individual and therefore to the good of the Church.

It always remains true, on the other hand, that it is highly instructive to make people understand that the celebration of thissacrament is not at all necessarily bound up with cases of really mortal sin, because, as can be divined, that could foster an adverse judgment of principle against those who frequent it which would gradually lead to abandonment of the practice of the sacrament.

It is clear that all our reasoning presupposes both adequate catechesis of children and the pastoral preparation of the minister for the correct celebration of the sacrament for these specific subjects. It would not be just, however, to put forward the lack of these or other requisites, or wrong practice, to argue absolutely against the confession of children.

It is likewise clear that, once the instrumentalization of the sacrament as a mere catechetical phase has been avoided, if the articulation of the sacramental economy is presented correctly and precisely so that the specific and distinct aims of Penance and of Holy Eucharist are understood, there will result thereby an automatic adaptation also to that law of human psychology which proves the impossibility of simultaneous concentration on the various aspects and phases of the Mystery of Christ, which the Christian celebrates in distinct typical circumstances of his life.

Psychology speaks of the "dimension of attention" with various specifications regarding the range, the depth, the concentration both from theglobal and from the elementaristic point of view. Well, the celebration of the sacraments of Penance and of the Eucharist will leave room in order that the child's attention, so much more unstable and frail than that of the adult, will not stray continually and so easily. In other words, by obeying the law of the distribution of the exercise, the phenomenon of the satiety and fatigue of the attention will be prevented. The child will be helped more quickly in the personal growth of his personality as a member of the faithful. And also the well-observed frequency of this sacrament is in accordance with the psychological law of the cyclicity of learning, as a result of which, learning refers simultaneously to experiences through which the subject passes, to his interior or exterior activities, preceding or concomitant with the action. Hence the subject acts and reacts to the situation, creating in himself an experience of a unique type, whenever he celebrates the sacrament as it should be celebrated. The subject, in fact, learns; consequently the subject is led to change his behaviour in conformity with what he learns. This happens slowly. The sooner a start is made, the better. It is certain that the celebration of Penance nourishes, forms, and perfects the Christian, under the impetus of the Holy Spirit, up to the fullness of Christ.

Respect for child’s personality

Respect for the personality of the child, which is still in formation, will lead sacramental practice to consideration of his concrete possibilities, the originality of his stage of evolution, his real capacity for interiorization and integration, and the dynamism of his human and Christian development. What it is important to keep in mind is precisely the unquestionable fact that the local community is called upon with all its forces to create the concrete conditions for the celebration of the sacrament of Penance also for children. The ideal conditions are a goal at which to strive with might and main. If the effort to attain it is already going on, the community (among which the children's parents must have an outstanding role) shows that it is already on its way to that progressing development which makes up to a certain extent for the possible immaturity of the subject.

Here there would be indicated broad considerations of a pedagogical and pastoral type in which we must keep in mind the necessity of knowledge of the subjects, and of their psyche, with the different conditionings of environmental-family-scholastic type; etc. It will therefore be necessary to mobilize in the service of their Christian education all the educational factors available (family, school, catechesis, parish life, etc.) and integrate the sacraments as privileged moments in the span of the whole dynamic process of growth and development, so that there will be a real correspondence with the subject's personal capacity. We must be certain of one thing: real religious possibilities exist at every age and in every subject; and the celebration of the sacrament of Penance is a propitious and unrepeatable opportunity which we must not let slip but must (if I may rise the term) exploit from all points of view.

Personal opinions

Let us consider, finally, in actual fact the practice of preceding first communion with confession, a practice which has been instilled and warmly supported by the competent authority even recently.

It is impossible to understand how there are still some people who wish their own opinion to prevail over the always more objective one of the competent authority. The latter, in the broad framework of the methodological lines of the overall apostolate, instils a practice which has its basis both in psychology and in motivations of a pastoral and catechetical type as well as in the practice of the great Christian educators.

These are all convincing arguments which we do not wish to emphasize. We would like, on the contrary, to add merely a little reflection of the theologico-liturgical type which will serve to throw further light on the apostolate.

Starting from the testimony of the whole production of catechetical type and of pastoral and pedagogical type regarding the necessity of gradualness in the preparation and in the ritual style of ceremonies for first confession, we will recall that this practice will be excellent if it follows the lines of preparation for baptism, the reality and the salvific significance of which is given new life by the sacramentof Penance.

There is certainly no question of falling into the error of understanding Penance as one of the sacraments of what is commonly, but improperly called Christian initiation, which comprises exclusively the triad: Baptism-Confirmation-Eucharist.

But it would not be a bad thing if the celebration of the sacrament of Penance... assumed the tone of a baptismal memorial (let there be no misunderstanding). The classical course of the lines of force characteristic of Baptism and common to the sacrament of Penance, would be reconstituted. Stress would be laid on the fact that both sacraments are not only for the remission of sins and for the life of grace (descending dimension), but in the economy of salvation are ordained even more to worship (ascending dimension), living and celebrating from specific angles the one great event of the paschal mystery.

It is a question, therefore, of strengthening the relationship of every sacramental reality with the one and complete act of worship, from which the repetitions perpetuated in the course of the centuries by the will of Christ, take force and value. We should deal here with the one reality of worship present in Christ's paschal mystery as dispensed in the individual sacraments with special modalities, tonalities, points of view and stresses. By way of conclusion we will just mention that the sacrament of Penance also possesses something which is exclusively its own, that is, the religious renewal of sacraments previously celebrated. Thus the baptized person who celebrates the sacrament of Penance brings new life and the splendour of "newness" to the dynamism of Baptism and prepares more adequately for the celebration of the Eucharist; he renews, so to speak, the unitary relationship existing between Baptism (Confirmation) and Eucharist.

Real unitedness

It is well known that, historically, there was a slow process of transition from the ontological and ritual unity characteristic of the three above-mentioned sacraments in ancient times to their present distinct celebration.

From the ritual distinction of celebration with its historical and pastoral motives, there should be a decisive trend towards recovery of real unitedness. Such recovery, entrusted on the plane of ideas to catechesis and on the plane of operation to the apostolate, would find its practical test in the celebration of the sacrament of Penance proposed to, and lived by, the child as a meeting with the Risen Christ who, in the name of the Father, renews him in the life of the Spirit and causes him to relive Baptism sacramentally in order to lead him to complete communion with Christ-Church in the Eucharist.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
25 May 1978, page 9
1 June 1978, page 11

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