Sunday, December 1, 2013

Talking to children about reconciliation

Reconciliation is a recurring theme in the Gospel readings, culminating in the story of the Prodigal Son you get in Year C.  Other than at Sunday readings, you will also be called upon to talk to the children about reconciliation if you are preparing them for First Communion/Reconciliation.

Which ever setting it is, the only way to talk to the children about such a grown-up concept as reconciliation (and such a big word at that), is to parallel it with the children's daily lives. Here is how I would share the idea with the children.

Something to think about before you start
The idea of reconciliation is sometimes seen as a difficult concept to get across.  Sometimes, we think of the sacrament and all the fear we associated with it when we were young.  Often, it is because we, as adults, find it harder to reconcile with one another and we project on the children our own anxieties about how our egos get bruised and how we will be received when we seek reconciliation.

Children, on the whole, reconcile much more easily than adults and reconciliation is frequent and, often, part of daily lives, even if unknowingly.  Again as always, the trick here is to bring ourselves into the children’s daily lives and draw examples from there.
Reconciliation at home
As with most things I talk to the children about, I start off with a familiar scenario at home.

Being upset with someone you fight with

Ask the children if anyone has been in a fight at home before.  With whom?  Be ready for a long list of grievances against siblings (alternative for the only child: cousins) and about why they fought!!  Just cut the greviance short - one child starting is a signal for the others to join in.

Probe to see who gets upset and whether the protagonists stay angry forever.  The point here is that eventually they make up.  Explain that the word reconciliation means to bring two persons or two things together.  So, when our adversary and we are brought together to make up after a fight, we are said to have been reconciled.  You can then discuss how people make up after such a fight.

Someone else gets upset
Ask the children whether anyone gets upset when they fight with their sibling/cousins.  Well, their parents do.  You will need to make clear that the parents get upset because they are the head of the family at home and no head of the family likes to see family members fight.  Discuss with the children how they make up with their parents - use the phrase, reconciliation, as often as you can.

Reconciliation with God
Sometimes at this point when drawing parallelisms, I would ask the children whether we also belong to another family other than the one at home:  'yes, God's family!' the children should be yelling.

God being upset

Explain that so it is with God's family.  When we fight among ourselves and when we get upset with one another, we also make God unhappy.  Do they think God would be happy when people go to war against each other?  That is why every sin against someone else is also a sin against God.

When you introduce the idea of sin, do not dwell on it - children do not have hang-ups on that word that we do.  Either gently explain that sin is another word for doing wrong, as you would with any other word, or just use the word inter-changably, echo the word sin with the word doing wrong after it.

Explain that the fact we made God upset is why we need to reconcile with God.  We need to be brought together with God.  Because before we were reconciled with God, we are far away from him.   We will be miserable if we do not reconcile ourselves with God.
Take care that the children do not get the idea that God gets angry with us and keep us far away from him.  When we do wrong, we are far away from God, not because God threw us out but by our own actions.

Reconciling with God
Coming back to our parents, ask wether they stay angry with their children forever when they get angry with them.  Do the parents lock the children into the bedroom and throw away the key?  Well, maybe they send the children to the room but I don't think they throw away the key (even if they do, it is not much of a punishment in my eyes if the laptop, smartphone, and PSP are still in there).  Discuss the ways they can help their parents get over their anger.

Emphasise that the key element of any reconciliation with parents must involve an apology, whether spoken or by actions (a hug, etc).  And an apology must be sincere, which means that it must be accompanied with a promise not to do it again - and we must mean it.  Discuss what would happen if Mom/Dad finds out that we didn't mean it and we did the sin/wrong-doing again the very next day.  I think she/he would be even more upset and the scolding or the punishment would be even more severe the second time round.

Likewise with God, He does not stay angry with us for long.   Explain that just as there are special ways of reconciling with our parents, we have special ways of reconciling with God - a genuine remorse and apology expressed in confession.  Again, link the words confession and reconciliation.

  What happens at confession
Yes, I will use the word confession.  For some reason, it hold less terror for me than for some others, because of the open confessions that are more prevalent today.  Whatever you do, do not transmit any your own fears and anxiety about confessions to the children.  Such transmissions normally start with the words, "You kids are lucky because in my days .....".  Some of the younger children are unable to differentiate between practices of long ago past and present.  You can tell them such stories after they have been regular penitents and are comfortable with the sacrament.

When explaining confessions, start with the substance of what happens rather than the form.  The children must be led to understand that if we have done anything wrong, we tell God about it and apologise to him.  And since the priest is his representative in the parish, we tell God by telling the priest.  The priest, as God's representative, will give us a sign of God's forgiveness.   If the priest sees that we are miserable over the sin we committed, he may even help us with some advice to clear up the problem.

You will also need to emphasise that whatever is told during confession is confidential.  Since the earliest days, the Church has been very strict in enforcing this confidentiality, called the Seal of Confession.  Under Church Laws, any priest who breaks this seal is automatically excommunicated (that means you don't need the bishop to decide on the excommunication) and the excommunication is of the highest level that can only be reversed by the Pope.  So, there is no chance of the parents and the teachers hearing about what is told to the priest.

Once the essence of confession is clearly understood, only then should you move on to talking about the words and actions for the confession.  To start with the latter would leave the child anxious about remembering the right thing to do and, that is the start of reducing the sacrament to a mere ritual: the outward sign without the inward grace because the children were too distracted to focus on their own remorse needed for a genuine confession.

Conducting a children's Rite of Reconciliation
Today, the rite of reconciliation for children is a more informal affair than 'in our days'.  The central factor, however, remains the priest.  Most priests are quite happy to conduct children's Rite of Reconciliation in a more open setting, but if he insist on a confessional, I am afraid you are stuck with it.  Otherwise, a hall would be very useful.  

Look out for the logistics - where the children are seated, where the priest(s) are, the route to the priest and the return.  There should also be a detour on their return to a spot where the children can pray with kneelers and crucifix/icon/etc.  The entire route should be visible and so should the priest, where possible.  Having this visibility will lessen the sense of anxiety as well as simplify your logistics as you don't need to station someone to guide the route.

While the children are at their individual confession/prayer, you can maintain a prayerful atmosphere by reading stories from the Bible or Life of Saints at a low volume.  This normally reduces the whispering (children are always eager to compare notes after their confession) and remind everyone that the Rite is still on - no, you can't leave as it is not yet over.  Get someone experienced, who can adjust the pace and tone to the response from the children and progress of the confessions.

I have tried candles - children light a candle after the post-confession prayers and place it in the middle.  It works for smaller groups but not for bigger groups.  Too many things can go wrong withmany children but if done well in a small group, the atmosphere is very soothing.

Role of parents
If it is possible, I prefer to have the parents with the children for the Rite.  Children should be seated with the parents and bring them over to the priest for the confession.  There should be a chair for the parent to be seated at a discreet distance away.  The parent(s) should also be given the option to do their own confession at the same Rite.  This helps to set an example to the children as well makes the children more comfortable for their own confession.

Many parents however are not comfortable with confessions due to history (their own personal experience) or disuse (haven't been for years).  Some may not even be a regular church attendee, being there only to ensure the child's enrolment in a Catholic school (sorry, I am so blunt!).  I find this an opportunity to catechise the parents by having the final one or two sessions to be attended by both parents and children.  Explainations, ostensibly given to the children, should be worded with the parents in mind, especially considering the reluctance of parents to ask questions in such a setting.  If necessary, be sensitive and welcome any parents who have been away from the Church for a long time, to the sacraments in one-on-one meetings as it is their reconciliation as well.

There are many resources online that you can use.  There is a very simple Rite of Reconciliation used by St Patrick's Church in Hutto, Texas.  More complete material is available at That Resource Site but you have to pay for it.  A free but still quite comprehensive pdf file is downloadable at the John Paul II Center.  You can also find a lot of activities at the Catholic Toolbox.

It is best that in designing a children's Rite of Reconciliation, you should familiarise yourself with the general principles of the Rite.  You can get a copy at the very-well resourced UK Liturgy Office website.  It will be good to read all 10 pages, otherwise Sections B and C (only 2 pages) will be very useful.

The reading is normally the story of the Prodigal Son, which you can run through with the children beforehand (the week before?) as part of their preparation.  The reading relates itself very well to children as it is the story of two sons.  Tell it well and it will stay with the children for the rest of their lives.

The examination of conscience is really pivotal in the Rite as it is the transit point from the group prayers to personal confession.  Most of the examinations you get are rather elaborate and long, especially those based on the Ten Commandments.  I find it too intimidating for children.  After all, how many of the children can roll off all 10 commandments without stopping to think about it - can you?  There is a very simple one for children at the US Conference of Bishops website.  If you want something that the children can remember by themselves, try the one based on Our Father at John Paul II Center.

I hope it all helps.  God bless.

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