Tonight, December 12, our parish celebrated an Advent Penance Service as well as the First Penance for some 80 of our children. With the help of Fr. Chuck Griffith and Fr. Mike Sullivan, we had a nice, peaceful celebration of God's mercy for our children, their parents, and for all of our parishioners.
I was thinking about my own first time of celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation. I was not with my parents, but with my second-grade classmates and our teacher, a Sister of Mercy named Sister Marcella. It was a Friday morning, and the church building was dark and deserted. We were under strict orders not to make any noise, lest we be yanked by the ear and led painfully to the office of the principal.....where untold horrors awaited us!
I remember feeling very afraid that I would forget parts of the "Act of Contrition", which the sisters had told us was the most important part of the whole transaction. They told us that we HAD to memorize the entire prayer, and that if we made a mistake, it was another mortal sin that would keep us forever from the joys of heaven. I have to tell you, that's a lot of pressure for a second grader.
There were two priests hearing those first confessions that day, the Administrator of the Parish, an old, strict Monsignor, and the nice, cool young associate, who used to hang out at my family's home and play with us kids. He had baptized my brother and two youngest sisters, and even used to bring his collection of pet snakes over to our house....to the horror of my mother, but to our delight.
I lucked out that day, and got the cool, young priest. I dutifully began, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.....This is my first confession." All of a sudden, the priest, from behind the screen says, "OK, Geno, what are you sorry for?" At first, I thought, "Oh man, I'm busted! He knows who I am! " Then, I thought, "Oh well, might as well lay it all out." Then I recited my list of my transgressions, and at the end of my recitation, I remember the priest said: "OK....those are all good things to work on. Try to be nicer to your brother and sisters, and try to be good for your parents...you know they love you very much. Say one Our Father for your parents tonight before you go to sleep, and pray for them every night before you go to sleep. That's your penance, Gene. Try to be a good boy!" Then he said the prayer of absolution, and out I strode, shriven of my sins and feeling like a hundred bucks, ready to take on the world free of sins and ready to do good to others and for God.
Some of my other classmates were not so lucky. They got the old monsignor, who thought that the sins of second-graders were the most terrible and serious of any persons, and who gave penances like 3 Rosaries, 6 weeks of Fasting, or 100 Hail Mary's. I remember my friend Jimmy coming out of the confessional looking alabaster white and literally shaking, responding to my question "What'd ya get?" He told us, "Man, I got 10 whole Rosaries!" We all thought, "Wow, what did he confess? Did he do a murder or something?"
Anyway, I much prefer the way we celebrate First Penance today.....with kids surrounded by their families, with no big lists of "mortal" or "venial" sins, in a brightly lit church and with a whole community to pray with them and support them. I truly believe we've changed for the better on this issue. Let's keep it up!