One of the "rites of passage" of a Catholic child is making his or her first confession. For those unfamiliar with confession in the Catholic tradition, the practice is that the penitent confesses his or her sins to a priest, who offers some counsel as well as a penance which the penitent must accomplish (usually a prayer or an act of devotion or charity of some kind). It is generally held that it is unlikely that a child has sufficient moral awareness before the age of 6 or 7 to commit a real sin (and even then, it is unlikely to be very grave). Still, we all know that kids have at least started, by that point, to have some sense of moral action, and so it is normal that young Catholics start to be educated about this sacrament of forgiveness of sins.
I remember when I was first being taught about sin and reconciliation. Like lots of kids, I wasn't too sure how to know when something was a sin and when it wasn't. My father gave me the following advice: "For something to be a sin, you have to know it is wrong, you have to have chosen to do it, and you have to have done it."
We then talked about those criteria. The following conversation isn't an actual verbatim account, but it generally summarizes the conversation we had that day.
"So if I didn't know it was wrong, and I did it, it isn't a sin?" I asked.
"Yes," he answered. "But that doesn't change the fact that it was wrong, and so probably hurt somebody. We have a responsibility to learn what is right and what is wrong, so as to be good people."
"And if I did it by accident, and not by choice, it isn't a sin?" I continued.
"Correct," to replied. "But that is only true for true accidents, and not something that happens because of negligence. Also, even if we do something bad by accident, we are responsible to help set things right."
"And what do you mean by 'You have to have done it'?" I asked further.
My father replied, "I mean that sometimes we feel a temptation to do sins, and we can feel bad that we have those temptations. Still, a temptation is not a sin. When you go to confession to the priest, you can talk about your temptations with him if you want, and maybe he can help you deal with them. But you should not feel guilty about them like you would for actual sins you've done."
With this information, I felt I was getting pretty ready for my first confession. I had been taught that God loved me and wanted for forgive me for any bad things I had done, and that now I had a much better sense of what "sin" actually was (and so I knew what things I was supposed to say). Still, I have to admit that I was a bit nervous. I trusted the priests I knew — they had always been very kind to me — but did I really need to tell them about my bad acts? Couldn't we just forget them, pretending like they had never happened?
As it turned out, something occurred during that time of preparation that changed my perspective on this sacrament forever.
At a certain point in that period of preparation — I don't remember exactly when — an adult I looked up to hurt my feelings. I don't remember what it was about, all I remember was the deep sadness I was feeling. Even worse than the hurt, mind you, was the alienation: when someone we look up to and love hurts us, it can make us feel terribly alone. That lonesomeness can even be worse than the original pain.
A few hours after the hurtful incident in question, the same adult came to see me. I had no idea what to expect. In gentle tones, he told me he had thought about the incident, and that he felt badly. He then came right out and apologized. He had done wrong, he admitted it, he promised not to do it again, and he wanted to make amends.
I was in awe.
I was partly in awe of this adult, who was making this offer to a little kid. As a child I had often felt others' love and care, but this was the first time I had ever felt so respected.
But I was also in awe of the moment itself. I knew something extraordinarily special was happening. I remember thinking to myself, "God must be like this somehow."
And so, we were reconciled. Truly reconciled. Again, I don't even remember what the actual hurtful incident was, but I do remember the sadness and pain of alienation being replaced by the joy of genuine reconciliation.
I should add that I was now completely sold on the actual sacrament of reconciliation itself. That adult had examined his conscience, seen he had done wrong, admitted it to another, promised not to repeat it, and offered to make amends. I figured that if an adult had been willing to respect a little kid enough to ask for forgiveness, I as a little kid should be willing to do the same with God. If confession was the means — and the steps the adult had lived sounded a lot like what I had been taught about going to confession — then so be it.
It went beyond this, though. It wasn't just that I was now comfortable with another element of my Catholic duty. No, I wanted to go to confession. We had heard the story of the Prodigal Son as part of our preparation for this sacrament during our catechism classes. I remember being struck by the joy of the father when his errant son came home. I had no trouble believing that part of the story at all. I could imagine the pain of separation each one must have felt when the son left, but I could also understand very well the joy of their reconciliation.
That's what confession was about, I reasoned. It wasn't about rehashing our sins, it was about bringing joy to God and letting him bring an end to our own spiritual isolation.
I don't remember who the priest was for my first experience of the sacrament. I have no idea what I said in my first confession, and given I was only a kid I doubt it was anything all that terrible. But I do remember knowing how holy a moment it was that I was living.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that this sacrament can be called by different names, but my favourite title, even to this day, is the "sacrament of reconciliation".