Facilitating a positive experience of confession for young people
SR. BRITTANY HARRISON, FMA
As a convert, my only exposure to the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation pre-conversion was what I had seen in the movies. I’d watch an oily haired hit man pass through velvet maroon curtains and go into a dark, mysterious little box to talk to a face behind a strange screen. The face turned out to be a priest, who often had a thick accent that added to the intrigue. The hit man would list the horrible things he had done, asking for forgiveness. The priest would mumble something in a language I had never heard before, and the next scene would cut to the hit man doing the same thing he had just confessed only hours earlier.
Those films didn’t really leave me with a great feeling about the power of this sacrament, and as a teenager, it certainly didn’t convince me that it was approachable. I hadn’t killed anyone or arranged a “hit,” so why did I need this sacrament? With study and time, I’ve come to appreciate confession, as we often call this sacrament, for the blessing it is meant to be.
My first confession was traumatic. After converting to Catholicism when I was in the eighth grade, my sole preparation was being told that I’d go to confession with the rest of my class and “do what they do.” I had no idea what that meant, so I reviewed all of the confession scenes I had seen in the movies. It wasn’t exactly the best catechetical preparation — and it left me unsure of what to confess.
To add to my anxiety, at the school Penance service, I was sent to the priest who was sitting in front of the altar, face-to-face, in full view of all of my classmates. I longed for the shadowy confessionals of the movies as I felt the intensity of 20 pairs of eyes watching my every move, or so I thought. As I sat in front of the priest, I focused only on his eyes, trying to forget the 40 others watching me, and reassured myself that he had done this thousands of times and surely would guide me.
“You’ve never gone to confession before?” he gasped in a stage whisper that echoed around the sanctuary. I am sure that even the statues inclined their heads. Beet-red, I whisper-cried in desperation, “I am becoming Catholic. They just told me to do this. You have to help me!” — trying to indicate with a tilt of the head that my entire class was watching us. Recovering, my confessor cleared his throat and assumed a calmer, more serious demeanor. “Oh, well, right. I’ll help you. So, what do you want to confess?” I tried not to run out in frustration. “Father, I have no idea. All I know about how to go to confession is what I saw in The Godfather.” His eyes widened, “Dear Lord! OK, let me ask you some questions …”
When I finished, I felt like I was floating, probably from the adrenaline rush of it all … and from surviving. It took me a few months to work up the courage to go to confession again after that encounter, and I admit, I was scared to death.
Reflecting upon this, I realize that God may have allowed my traumatic encounter so I’d be more sensitive to the needs of young people when it comes to this sacrament. I had no idea, at that time, that I would later guide young people in making their first confessions, or help teenagers in returning to this sacrament since their First Communion days.
Over time, I’ve learned some very valuable lessons about preparing and guiding confession experiences that I hope will help you. Here are my top five tips:
1. Make sure they know what they are doing and give them a “cheat sheet.”
Nothing is scarier for a young person (or adult!) than waiting in line to do something you have no idea how to do. I always make sure I have a paper examination of conscience available that includes an outline of how to go to confession. These can easily be found online. It also helps to include the Act of Contrition.
Whether or not they want it, I ask the young person to take a copy, just in case they forget what to do. I also make sure that I have a brief outline of how to go to confession, with the Act of Contrition, posted in the confessional for the penitent to see. Preventing the opportunity for the young person to panic and forget what to do can go a long way in helping them to feel comfortable with this sacrament.
2. Know the priests and prepare and support them.
Although it is not always possible, try to get to know the priests who will serve as confessors. I like to go to confession to them at least once to get a sense for their “style” so I can explain to my nervous young people what the priest is like. When they hear that, it helps them to feel more peaceful. If the teacher, whom they trust, has already gone to confession to this priest, it gives them confidence in the priest.
Some priests are very comfortable with teenagers; others are not. It’s best to ask the priest about his experience and comfort level when hearing the confessions of teenagers. Although the grace of God is always active in the sacrament, it is a blessing to have a priest who is good with young people. A little reassurance can go a long way.
Be willing to give the priests a brief overview of the culture and needs of the young people they will be serving. Remember that priests are human beings, and hearing confessions is tiring. I try to schedule breaks and leave them with a water bottle and my cell number so they can text me if they need a break or have a question.
3. Allow for privacy.
Give young people the option to go to confession anonymously or face-to-face. I cannot count the number of times people have told me that “screens” are old-fashioned, but canon law guarantees that we have a right to privacy and anonymity when we make our confessions. In situations where I don’t have access to confessionals with a built-in screen, I’ve found folding screens to use. Even giving a young person the option of sitting in a chair behind the priest’s back where he can hear them but not see them works just as well.
In addition to this, allow young people to go to confession without everyone staring at them (remember my experience?). Whether its orienting the confessionals to be behind the people in the seats or giving them options of more-or-less private spaces, it makes the sacrament less stressful for those young people who are most shy. Some will be perfectly fine going to confession face-to-face with a priest sitting in an open-air pew, but others need more privacy. As educators, we have to be sensitive to this.
Finally, make sure you create confessionals that respect safe-environment standards that allow for privacy, but also full visibility of the priest to protect his reputation and the young person. A confessional should never be in an isolated place or behind a completely solid door without a window.
4. Make sure young people know that confession is a sacrament of healing, not a place to beat themselves up.
To go to confession is an act of courage and trust in God’s love and mercy.
Who wants to talk about the things they are ashamed of doing? It’s totally normal to feel nervous or anxious about going to confession. We often approach this sacrament like it’s the most miserable experience on earth instead of the joyful celebration of God’s forgiveness (reconciliation) it is meant to be. To go to confession is an act of courage and trust in God’s love and mercy. Jesus isn’t sitting there waiting to embarrass, condemn, and reject us. We’ve already judged our actions as sinful by being willing to confess them; the experience of the sacrament is a time of mercy. In confession, we can let go of the burden of sin and ask for advice and God’s healing. Sin is a sickness for which Jesus’ love and mercy are the medicine. Only by asking for the medicine of God’s grace in confession can we be healed of our habits of sin.
If we are dealing with a particular sin, regular confession can give us the self-awareness and grace to overcome it. We don’t have to struggle on our own. If we are positive about the power of this sacrament in our lives, our young people can learn from us to embrace it with joy.
5. Celebrate the grace of the sacrament.
One of St. John Bosco’s best suggestions for helping young people come to love the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is to pair it with a celebration. A special treat, gift, or some kind of fun activity can follow confession to emphasize that the sacrament is a wonderful, happy gift. Often, we give children a memento of their first confession.
I like to encourage parents to go to confession as a family and to follow it by either a visit to a playground, ice-cream parlor, or Grandma’s house. Whatever the “celebration” is, try to pair a fun activity with confession so that it becomes an experience that is anticipated for the healing and happiness it brings.
Reflect upon your experiences with this sacrament — what lessons can you draw from them? There are many books available from Catholic publishers to further your study and theological understanding, but the pastoral considerations, which my tips and your personal experience address, help create an environment for grace to be embraced with happiness and joy, something we all desire for our students. Happy confessing!
SR. BRITTANY HARRISON, FMA, is a Salesian Sister of St. John Bosco, youth minister, and social media maven. A high school theology teacher for almost 10 years and a catechist for 20, she’s known for her way of making the faith accessible without stripping it of its depth and beauty. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter @SisterB24.
PHOTO: Asier Romero/Shutterstock
This article was originally published in Catechist, January 2020.