QUAERITUR: strange things for a First Confession

first confessionFrom a reader:

My son recently made his first Confession as part of a Reconciliation service for his entire grade. While they did have individual confessions, there were parts that seemed illicit and possibly invalid.
1. No one was given penance.
2. The act of contrition was said as a group before confessions took place.
3. Everyone was forced to do a face-to-face confession (no option of anonymity/grille).
Does the lack of penance or a personal act of contrition during confession affect the validity? We want him to have a good confession before First Communion.

For sacramental absolution to be valid, from the penitent’s point of view, the penitent must have contrition or attrition concerning the sins, must confession all mortal sins and not purposely conceal any, have the sincere desire to amend one’s life, and do penance for the sins, usually and most easily the penance assigned by the confessor.

It sounds as if there was some expression of sorrow for sin.

I am disturbed that there was no penance given.  I hope the tykes knew enough to do something anyway.  Since the act of contrition was done ahead of time, I wonder of the penance was also assigned ahead of time.

I am disturbed that there was no option to use a fixed grate.  That also could violate the rights of parents to form their children in how to receive the sacraments.

If you have any concerns about the way this was handled and want to ask someone authoritative in your area about the validity of any sacraments, you might address a short note to your local bishop, explaining the simple facts, without editorializing, and respectfully request an explanation.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Legisperitus says:

    Why bishops don’t do away with the ‘face-to-face’ in the current climate, and in a very public manner, is beyond me. Have they forgotten the reason the screens were used in the first place?

  2. Legisperitus says:

    Clarification: I didn’t mean to refer to all ‘face-to-face’ confessions, only to the grateless confessionals.

  3. rakesvines says:

    St. Jude’s in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. does a bang up job unlike the one cited here. Months before the event, the parents are met by the priest and instructed to help prepare the child in all ways. I don’t think there is a face to face option. The priests here are much more prudent. There are individual penances but the parents were instructed to not ask. At the end, every child knells at a prie-dieu in front of the sanctuary then lights a candle.

    Frequent penance is one of the tools that St. John Bosco (1888) used to make saints. There are around 100 on the way to canonization/beatification. Here are some links about that:
    There’s a link to Salesian Spirituality at the bottom on the web for more.

  4. GJMama says:

    Last year, I recently went to confession in a parish I don’t normally attend. The priest gave me no penance. When I asked him for my penance, he told me there wasn’t any and to please go. After discussing this with my normal pastor, I was encouraged to reconfess everything because of the likely invalidity of the confession. Penance is, after all, part of the matter for confession.

  5. southern orders says:

    For JGMama, I wonder if “epikia” would kick in for her since it wasn’t her fault the “church would supply” what was lacking and she was forgiven.
    In terms of communal celebrations of the sacrament, especially with children, when multiple priests are hearing confessions in locations of the nave or sanctuary where confessions are not normally heard, that one has to go with the flow and set up.
    I do think that with children, who so rarely go to confession because their parents who go ever more rarely don’t bring them, that the children should say the act of contrition at the normal time of their confession and be given a normal penance at the normal time, so that they know this is the order of things if by God’s grace they are able to go to confession on a Saturday afternoon when it is not a communal celebration.
    I don’t think this happens as often as it once did, but children’s penance services especially for first confession often had them doing some cute sort of thing after they went to confession, like putting up a white lamb where a black lamb had be previously or lighting a candle or something else like that, maybe even singing a song as a group–thus making the focus of attention on something that has nothing to do with the actual sacrament.

  6. Catholicity says:

    “Anonymous confession” is the norm. Look at it from both poionts of view, that of the penitent and that of the priest. Keep in mind that this isn’t something that can be discussed beforehand. If you approach a priest to ask for anonymous confession, you’ve probably showed both of yourselves that you are stoopid. This is another problem with the “just make an appointment” non-solution. There is no anonymity. The penitent can request face to face confession, however, and be denied. The priest does not have to cede to the request. No priest can be forced to hear confessions face to face. Mind you, depending on the austerity of your environment, finding a grate can be impossible. Two chairs lined up back to back, one facing S and one facing N works, etc. I went to confession after Mass last night in a glass box with no grate. Surely someone somewhere knows that is a no-no. This is a new parish for me, and for the most part I like it. I’ll probably be going to confession elsewhere, tho…

  7. frjim4321 says:

    I have always felt strongly about providing screens of some sort even when the first form is used. I it easily done even for a temporary situation. With little hooks and dowels we hang sheer fabric between the confessor and the confess, with a light on the confessor’s side. It words great for the first form, even with eighteen priests. Some people won’t go unless there is a screen, so it should be provided. Also, for the first form the act of contrition is properly done by the assembly before individual confessions.

  8. momoften says:

    I would consider taking your child to another place for confession before first communion…and may I add they should go frequently before First Holy Communion, this should not be the ONLY time they go before First Holy Communion as most of the time First Holy Communion occurs in the spring after Easter. Unfortunately, it happens that parents lack teaching their children consistency in receiving the graces from frequent use of this sacrament.

  9. AnAmericanMother says:

    In our parish there’s an option, the confessional boxes are set up so that you can kneel at the grate or walk around the side. Penance service at our parish was last night — the lines for the two confessional boxes were MUCH longer than for the priests in folding chairs in every available hole and corner. I’d say that half the penitents used the grate and half used the chair around the side. Interestingly enough, after somebody used the grate the next 2-3 people would use it too.

    As a new convert I did the face to face because that seemed to be what most people were doing . . . but now I prefer the grate and have enough confidence to swim against the current a bit.

  10. JohnE says:

    This sounds very similar to what was done at my parish (perhaps it was the same one): the Act of Contrition was prayed together during the penance service before individual confession. For individual confession the parent was to accompany the child into the confessional, introduce him to the priest, and then leave. I think the point was to ease their anxiety since this was their first time. I had shown my son the confessional beforehand and told him that he could either go face-to-face or behind the screen, so there was no issue there since he wanted to go face-to-face.

    He did receive a penance though — to imagine himself in a very special place going fishing with Jesus and talking with him. Perhaps the questioner’s child received a similar penance and since it wasn’t the type of penance he expected to receive, thought he didn’t receive a penance at all.

    I asked my son a couple times beforehand if he was nervous and he said no, but before he got in line he said he was a little scared. I told him it will feel good when you’re done, and that going to confession is a big part of becoming a man. When we were all done and heading to the parking lot to go out for some hot chocolate he told me “You were right Dad. It felt great!” While I waited for my son I saw another boy come out of a confessional and put his fists in the air like he’d just scored a touchdown. It was a very good and memorable day.

  11. what seems strange was that no penance was assigned. I’ve gone to those penance services where act of contrition is said before, but during the individual confessions, penances are assigned. (I try to avoid these group things and hide behind a screen when possible, thank goodness the place I go to for confession, the screen is the only option0)

  12. gabesmom says:

    For my son’s First Communion Father wanted all of the kids to go face to face. It was only required for this first time. He is elderly and has a hard time understanding them if he can’t see them. After that first time they can go behind the screen.

    So my son was one of those who came out of the confessional, threw his hands up in the air and yelled “I’m clean!” :)

  13. Jerry says:

    @southern orders – “For JGMama, I wonder if “epikia” would kick in for her since it wasn’t her fault the “church would supply” what was lacking and she was forgiven.”

    Why wonder when all doubt can easily be removed by repeating the confession?

  14. Philangelus says:

    Our pastor made such a travesty of my daughter’s first Confession that not only did I take her to another parish the next week for a better (not invalid) one, but my whole family has gone to that place ever since.

    The priest cut them off after one sin. (Adults who go to him get to say three.) I don’t know what else was done there but my daughter felt very rushed and not sacramental at all. Yes, there were 60 children there and only two priests. If that’s going to be a problem, schedule more than one first confession service.

    I was disgusted and don’t look forward to having to go through the same thing with other children in coming years. :-( I know I need to pray for my parish priest.

  15. flyfree432 says:

    I am a DRE and understand the internal politics of why something like that would happen, but it is still no excuse. At our parish we do a short liturgy before penance begins. Our pastor then introduces each of the priests and where they will hear confessions. I take about 3 hours before hand to set up screens at every single confessional so every child and parent has the option. The goal of a first confession is it should be as close to what the 2nd and 3rd confession will be like as possible. Families are encouraged to go together, just to allow the child to go first.

    As an aside, I read this blog daily and love it. It is one of the few websites I feel safe including on our parish website, knowing what our parishioners will find here is truly faithful to our Lord.

  16. Henry Belton says:

    In our upstate NY locality, there are no local “parish communities” which allow first confessions with a grate – they’re all face to face.

    One of the reasons we now drive 45 minutes each way on Sunday mornings.

  17. Rich says:

    This arrangement seemed more to focus on making the kids feel warm and fuzzy about their First Confession rather that on preparing the kids for regularly receiving the sacrament in the future.

  18. GirlCanChant says:

    I think it is considered the norm for parish penance services now to have a collective Act of Contrition beforehand to save time in the confessional (or whatever nook or cranny of the church the priest is in). I’m not saying I agree with, but that has been my observation. I’ve never heard of not getting penance, though. That just makes no sense.

    Sometimes I have had to ask a priest to hear my confession, and had to confess face-to-face. I don’t prefer it, not by a long shot, but I would imagine that God appreciates our desire to confess even when we cannot do so anonymously. Also, for the big penance services, sometimes, if there is room, you can kneel behind the priest so he cannot see you. Still not a grate, but it gets the job done.

  19. albizzi says:

    The confessional box should be the norm.
    The face to face / eye into eye way of hearing confessions was introduced (like many other controversial novelties) after VATII council and is responsible in a good part of the confessions drop.

  20. CarpeNoctem says:

    For parish-wide penance services as is often the case for Advent, Lent, a communal form of the Act of Contrition is allowed, if not presumed, by the book. I will always ask penitents if they had said the communal Act of Contrition, and if not (for whatever reason… they were late?) to say it right there. In my place, if there is a common penance proposed (which for me tends to be a little meatier and well-thought-out than what would be given in a random encounter in the confessional), I always give it with the stipulation that the individual priest confessors may modify it according to the particular needs of a given penitent… in any case, I do ask each individual penitent if they can accept (and that they heard or remembered) the common penance which was given, so it is, technically, an individual penance assigned to each individual penitent.

    BUT, my thoughts are that the first confession of anyone… 2nd Grade, RCIA, others, should be as normative as possible with respect to what they should witness in any church across the country or world on a Saturday afternoon. Even if there is a group of people for first confessions, I make sure they go through the whole ritual of coming in and giving the greetings, confessing sins, receiving counsel and a penance, saying an Act of Contrition, and receiving Absolution.

    One has to wonder how much of the decline in confession is due to simple fear on part of penitents because… they forgot the Act of Contrition and are simply afraid to admit that… or that they feel awkward or conused… or… or … or. If a second grader does not have the integral and normative experience in their first few times to the sacrament, there is no way that they will be able to take those habits and confidence in the patterns of the ritual into their life as they grow up.

  21. Thomas S says:

    I’m convinced that face-to-face Confession has played a very large roll in the pathetic numbers going to the sacrament these days. Face-to-face is easy enough when you’re 10 years old and have some very minor venial sins to confess. But making it seem like the norm when a child is young will only intimidate and discourage him when he gets a bit older and has some more potentially embarassing things to say.

    Start kids behind a screen. I guarantee a larger percentage will continue going to Confession when they’re older.

  22. benedetta says:

    It is worth asking, has the innovation of face-to-face resulted in more people availing themselves of the sacrament or not? There is a generation now who has grown up with it and do not seem to avail themselves of the sacrament in great numbers. No one wants to be identified by another person with their sins, it is as simple as that and the dignity of the faithful is respected by anonymity. Even though priests are trained not to associate individuals with their sins it is human nature to be anxious about it and children certainly benefit from not having to worry that they will be remembered as the sum total of their worst faults. Besides it is just another way that the sacred has been removed from the sacrament. There are plenty of opportunities to seek advice from a social worker, therapist or life coach. But none of those are capable of forgiving sin in the eyes of our Lord.

  23. Fr. Basil says:

    \\ That also could violate the rights of parents to form their children in how to receive the sacraments.\\

    This is rather like what happens in some Orthodox and other Eastern churches where parents have tried to tell the priest they don’t want the child baptized by immersion when there is no good medical reason not to do so.

    With respect, Fr. Z, the PRIEST’S right to celebrate and administer a mystery within the rubrics trumps the parents’ rights to say how their children receive said mystery.

    I might add that face to face confession, even out before the Iconostas, is the NORMAL way confessions are heard in the Byzantine tradition.

  24. Fr. Basil: The Byzantine tradition is interesting! It is nice to learn about it or be reminded about it.

    Of course this was a case of a bunch of Latins talking about the Latin practice.

  25. Mark Pavlak says:

    A question for all:
    One of my students in class told me, “So a friend of mine went to confession. After he confessed his sins, the priest asked him ‘Is this (name)?’ Can the priest ask that?”
    What I said is that the priest shouldn’t ask that (hence the grill) and that he should talk to his bishop.
    Is something that NEEDS to be brought to the bishop? Or did the priest have a point in asking who it was, perhaps for some context if he knows the person then he could give certain counsel? Or is that reserved for private spiritual direction? Any answers would be nice. Thanks, all!

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