Winter Coats

Catherine Fournier

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(This story was written in the Winter of 1993-94. Matthew is now nearly 13 years old. He was Confirmed this Fall.)

At about the same time that we were able to put away the winter coats last spring, Matthew made his First Confession. Wait! There is a connection.

All last winter, while the days were short and cold, Matthew and his classmates learned about the sacrament of Confession and Reconciliation at school. In the long and colder evenings, Peter and I sat with Matthew at the kitchen table after dinner to pray and talk with him about what he was learning. Such moments hold some of the greatest joys in parenting. We love preparing our children for the sacraments, sharing our faith with them and watching the development of their faith.

It was obvious that Matthew was growing, physically and spiritually. He outgrew his winter clothes and needed a new coat and snow pants in the middle of the season. He was also taking his small disobedience more seriously, either apologizing earnestly or denying all responsibility. We could tell that he was approaching a threshold of maturity, that just saying 'Sorry' to us wasn't enough any more. He was ready for a more spiritually significant expression of repentance: the sacrament of Confession.

Just as with our older three children, Peter and I found Matthew's preparation for this sacrament taught us as much as it taught him. Struggling to put Confession's mysterious saving grace into words that a young child will comprehend challenged us to explore our own understanding first. We had to figure out what confession is, and what it accomplishes, before we could share it with our children.

My understanding of Confession began when I, like Matthew, was about seven years old. As an adult convert, my first impressions of Confession might be somewhat different from "cradle Catholics". When I was a little girl, my best friend lived next door. Elizabeth was Catholic. I don't remember how I learned about confession from her, or even what she said, but I do recall thinking that it was massively unfair that only Catholics could go to confession.

My Presbyterian Sunday school teachers had told me that God knew and remembered all our sins, that in effect, He had a large black book in which He wrote all them all down (I pictured a stern old man with a quill pen and an ink pot.) If He was merciful enough, He wouldn't hold those sins against us when we presented ourselves at the gates to Heaven, and we had to pray and trust to that mercy throughout our lives.

It seemed an awful way to spend my life, in fear of God's wrath, with a weight of guilt and sorrow for my sins that I would have to wait until my death to resolve. It was worse than contemplating the possibility that my mother would never forgive me for picking the scrollwork off the china cabinet doors. I really worried about it. It made me scared.

On the other hand, for the Catholics, God had a big black book in which He wrote down their sins, but for them He used a pencil. Every time they went to Confession, He took out an eraser and rubbed away all their sins! They could say "Sorry" to God and get their sins forgiven.

Now that I am older I know that my soul is the paper and I write the sins on it myself. Every word written darkens and hardens my soul and closes it off from Jesus' light and His loving voice. Only God has the right kind of eraser to wipe them all away.

This is to me what confession is; God's eraser for my soul. Through the sacrament of Confession, I don't have to wait until the moment of my death for God's forgiveness and mercy; it is available to me every time I ask. I can apologize for my sins. God forgives me, and wipes them all away.

All I have to do is remember as a child how lost, frightened, and helpless the idea of not being forgiven made me, to understand what the sacrament of confession accomplishes. We are all little children in God's eyes, and we are all lost and helpless without Him. With His wiping away of my sins and my tears, fear and doubt are replaced with interior peace and freedom. The graces of Confession strengthen me (again and again) to "Go and sin no more."

Being closed off from God's graces and Jesus' loving voice is not only bleak and frightening, it hurts. I know that the worst part of a disagreement between Peter and I is the loss of harmony and understanding between us. It hurts, and it makes me feel injured, only half of myself. The wound will only begin to heal when we forgive each other and start over. It's the same way between myself and God. Only God's forgiveness can heal my self-inflicted wounds of sin, but with His perfect love and mercy, the healing reconciliation is instantaneous.

We've learned more about Confession from each of our children's preparation. Tina (who is now 15) had trouble with the idea that though God knew all that she had done, she still had to tell it to a priest in confession. I think confession struck her as inefficient. "I don't need to talk to God, He can hear me when I'm thinking! That's what you said!" "Well, yes, Tina, but..."

Her objections to confession, that you have to talk to a priest, helped us realise the power and necessity of the spoken word. The sacrament of confession is about repentance and reconciliation, which are impossible without a complete and honest acceptance of responsibility. Words are real, tangible, definite. We can feel our words in our mouths, and hear them in our ears. Even if we are alone in a room, spoken words by their impression on our physical senses, become more real that thoughts. Once we've said "I did it" or "I love you" or "I'm sorry", we can't ever really take it back.

If there's something we find difficult to say, it's because we don't want to admit or accept responsibility for it. Here is the power of the spoken word in confession, by saying it (even if we don't want to), we accept responsibility for it (even if we don't want to). But we can then turn to God with repentance and acceptance of responsibility in full confidence of reconciliation. "So, you see Tina, you just can't make a good confession unless you tell it to the priest."

Andrew (who is now 13) approached the sacrament in a very different way. He had a well-deserved reputation for impulsiveness and mayhem, for acting before thinking. Andrew was so matter of fact about the whole event that I wondered at first if perhaps he didn't understand or, worse; he didn't care. But after talking to him and watching him at Sunday Mass in the weeks before his First Confession, I realised that his faith was already so deeply and firmly established that he was calmly ready for his First Confession long before we were.

All we needed to do to prepare him for the sacrament was remind him of what his childish heart knew. Jesus was already dwelling in his heart, waiting for Andrew to speak. We learned that each person's relationship with Jesus and spiritual development is unique. It develops at its own pace.

Sarah (now 10 years old) wanted to provide a list of 'reasons' for her behaviour along with her confession. She understood that God already knew what she had done, she understood that she still had to confess it to a priest, but she couldn't really understand why she couldn't also explain herself to God. "But, he made me get angry. That's why I hit him." "No, Sarah, you let yourself get angry. Confession doesn't have anything to do with what the other person did." "Now you're making me angry!"

Teaching our Sarah about Confession reminded us how important it is to remember that the major effect of sin, and the major sin in sin, is its offense to God. Our sins do hurt those around us - though sometimes this can be very hard to establish and therefore easy to deny - but they also affect our relationship with Christ, our soul's receptivity to God.

Some people claim that all sin is "social sin"; that the impact of our wrong actions on the community is the only sin. (Unfortunately many of these people are in our children's classrooms.) If this was the case, then the Sacrament of Confession would obviously be frivolous and unnecessary. We should only need to confess and apologize to the other members of our society and perhaps offer compensation to the injured party.

Fortunately, we have proof that sin is not just social sin. We have evidence to prove that our sins are an offense to God, and that our confessions are essential.

The death of our Saviour Jesus Christ on the Cross was in sacrifice for our sins. Jesus loves us all so much that He took that debt load on Himself, and continuously offers Himself through the Mass in sacrifice for our sins. This is something that we all, not just Sarah, need to relearn and remember every day.

Last winter, it was our turn to learn from Matthew (who is now eight). Matthew was a speech-delayed child. He didn't speak complete words until well after his third birthday. As a result, he is self-conscious about expressing himself. He listens and thinks before he speaks. He also tends to worry over things, quietly, to himself.

Matthew's attitude towards the sacrament of Confession reflected this. He was more concerned about memorizing his Act of Contrition than about understanding the sacrament. Because of his early speech problems, being able to express himself to a receptive audience will always be very important to Matthew. I think the sacrament of Confession will, in time, be a relief to him. It will be for him, a way to discover the complete acceptance and love of Jesus Christ. Seeing our son gain this confidence through Confession, has reminded us that this love is there for all of us, that confession is a sacrament of love and confidence.

We have only two more boys to go now. Jonathon is six and Robert, nearly four. They are growing fast and developing their own relationship with Christ. There is a thrill in watching their bodies grow, but it pales in comparison to the joy and awe we feel as we see how their faith is growing.

Preparing our children for the sacraments is a twofold joy. Not only do we gain a deeper understanding of our own faith, we learn to see our children as they truly are: God's children.

Preparing our children for the sacraments can be a twofold challenge as well. Part of the challenge lies in each child's own personality and approach to the sacrament. Unfortunately another challenge sometimes exists, that of screening the instruction and preparation your child receives from others. I've already mentioned one example of that type of faulty instruction, the idea that sin is only social sin. Another common problem is the practice in some parishes of administering First Confession after First Communion.

The justification for this practice is that children in Grade 2 or 3 are too young to understand the concept of sin and confession. Our children (even at age seven) find this profoundly insulting. I have never received a clear answer why, if this is the case, they think the children are ready for Communion at that age.

Reversing the order of First Confession and First Communion damages the proper understanding of both. First Communion before First Confession gives the impression that Christ's presence in the Eucharist is not completely real or at least not important enough to require preparation of our soul. First Confession after First Communion gives the impression that our sins are not really important, that they have no serious effect on our soul's receptiveness to Jesus.

If Christ truly did die on the Cross for our sins, is truly present in the Eucharist, is truly offered at every Mass for our sins, and brings new life and sanctifying grace to us in Holy Communion, then our response to Him should be complete openness and receptivity to His presence. We must prepare ourselves as well as we can to receive Him. This does not mean a new formal outfit and new shoes, this means good formation and regular examination of our conscience. In other words, preparation for and reception of First Confession before First Communion.

When it has been necessary, we've prepared our children for their First Confession at home, while they were learning about First Communion with their classmates at school. Of course, at the same time we supplement the school's instruction on First Communion. A priest and friend of the family then hears their First Confession a week or so before our child and their classmates receive their First Communion in our parish church.

The most important lesson I've learned while preparing our children for the sacraments is how much they understand. This is what Jesus meant when He spoke of "the simple faith of a child". Children may not have the right words, or the insistence for logical explanations so precious to adults, but like thirsty plants soaking up water, they take it all in and use it because it is exactly what they need. Each time, my children show me how important it is that their religious instruction present the complete teachings of the Church rather than "picking and choosing" the easy or simple parts.

Picking and choosing inevitably leaves things out. Since each individual's relationship with Jesus is unique, and each persons' spiritual development is equally unique, it is a risky business to decide what they do or don't need to hear at this time.

It's not at all the same thing as buying a winter coat. No parent in their right mind would buy an adult sized coat for their child and expect them to stay warm while 'growing into it'. Instead, you find a coat big enough to last a winter or two, and when the coat is outgrown, you get another one. The old outgrown coat is then passed down, donated or otherwise discarded.

I have no idea what size Matthew's soul is, nor does anyone except God. If I pick and choose what I think he is ready to understand now, I may be confining him to a "coat" that he will outgrow and discard.

I'd rather let God choose the size.

(Jonathon is now ten and our Robert is eight. His First Confession is March 5, 1998. Please pray for him, and for our family that the sacrament of Confession and this season of Lent brings us all closer to God and His Gospel.)

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