Katie had her first reconciliation tonight. Unfortunately, Rob teaches on Wednesday nights so we couldn't both be there and--not being insane (really!)--I didn't want to drag the boys to a quiet church service of unknown length during bedtime by myself. Thankfully Rob's mom was able to come watch the boys so I could be there with Katie.
The second graders have been preparing for this intensively for four weeks now with a primary focus on the scriptural and Catholic understanding of reconciliation and a minor focus on the actual logistics of the sacrament--prayers and order of operations type stuff. Katie was totally ready on all fronts.
Now, I know reconciliation is one of the more misunderstood parts of Catholicism, so let me attempt to give my part on that here. Yes, you can pray privately and hash out your regrets and failings on your own and God will forgive you. But by that same logic you can declare yourself a Christian by declaring it in your heart or you can declare yourself in a marriage blessed by God if you firmly believe it to be so. No need to do anything at the church with the help of a priest. But, just as a priest helps to represent and remind us of God's presence and words as a child is welcomed into the church or a couple commits to a lifelong marriage, the priest in reconciliation serves as a sounding board who hears us, prays with us, and then says "Hey, I spend a lot of time reading and studying about God and I'm telling you right now, you're forgiven." And that's actually pretty cool. Having someone take all that off your shoulders and look you in the eyes to say "Let it go. Stop stewing on this. It's turned over and done." But of course we don't get off that easy. I know the standard joke is that a Catholic can pretty much get away with murder if you seek confession and say a few Our Fathers, but any priest worth his collar (and every priest I've ever shared reconciliation with) does far more than listen and then hand over a "forgiven". They talk about what drives these behaviors, what steps we can take to make things right with any people we've harmed and avoid future behaviors, and generally reminding us that true repentance means that, given the chance, you'd not do the same thing again. It's like free therapy. He may suggest a few standard prayers which serve mostly as a meditative time to think on things, and more often than not the take-away message also includes a few suggestions for making things better. Talk to you spouse about the real issue. Work harder to find the good in that co-worker. When you want to rip the heads off of the children, take a breath, say a Hail Mary, and lower your voice instead of raising it. Good things.
All that said, I haven't been to a reconciliation myself for, um...Let's see, Katie is 7 and...carry the two... oof.
Really, it's a lovely, spiritual, enriching gift that the church builds into our lives and I just don't take advantage of it. It's like a free gym membership but for your soul/conscience.
Anyhow, so Katie had her first one tonight. Again, for those unfamiliar, reconciliation (or confession, penance, or whatever other name you've heard it called) is usually an open-door drop-in service that runs a few hours on a Saturday morning or whatever fits the church's routine. You come in and take a seat and spend some time with your own thoughts, wait until no one else is waiting, pull up a chair in the private conversation area and have your chat, go back and think on things for awhile as you do some prayers, and then go back out into the world, hopefully to do a little better. But for first timers, it's a little more ceremonial. We gathered in the church at 6:30 and sang some songs, the kids read the story of the prodigal son and the priest chatted with them about it, and then the kids read a series of petitions along the lines of "sometimes we're mean to our siblings or friends. We need to work on that." or "sometimes we don't listen to our parents or teachers or don't help people that we can help. Lord, help us work on that." That all took about 30 minutes, bringing us to 7PM. Then the priest grabbed a chair in a quiet corner and the teacher went around directing a new family to be next in line every 3-4 minutes. Each child could bring one parent up with them to wait in line together and then the parent stayed out of earshot but in sight for the actual confession to provide some moral support. Once finished, the parent went over to the prayer area with the kid while they did their prayer penance and then we were done.
This is where things got a little dicey. For a big night like this, normally there would be two or maybe even three stations with priests that the kids knew from various church events and felt comfortable with. Instead, our helper-priest was out sick and we had exactly one station. Thirty-two kids were making their first reconciliation and, on average, it takes 3-4 minutes for a private chat, so you can do the math.
Thankfully we were one of the later families to get there and were in the 4th row from the back. Turns out, since the priest set up shop in the back chapel area, they were sending kids in starting from the back. A few families had secured first-dibs because of tiny babies in tow or a sick kid at home but after that they started zig-zagging through the two columns of pews starting in the back, meaning Katie was in the first 10 kids or so. We were done by 7:20. In fact, they got to us by 7:10 and I declined, saying we were in no huge hurry and to let a few of the other families with toddlers in tow or exhausted looking parents--who had clearly gotten here very early to get seats in the front so that they could get home early, presumably--go first. Once they cleared out 3-4 of those families the teacher wanted to get back to the order, though, so Katie did her thing and we walked home.
On our way home she was skipping and talking a mile a minute and I commented that after reconciliation I always feel like a balloon and she concurred. "I feel like leaping! Lighter than air!"
A lovely gift, indeed.