Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Over the last number of years I have heard children’s first confessions (First Reconciliation) in a number of parishes. It seems that it has now been customary that certificates of First Reconciliation are given. There have been a number of times that I have had a child who would not admit to any sin, despite my prompting and suggestions of possible sin, so I could not give absolution but just gave the child a blessing. Yet that child receives a certificate stating that she/he received the sacrament for the first time. Also, I am concerned about the seal of confession. I was always taught that it is never permissible for me to say whether or not a particular individual has made a confession. I am now bothered in conscience about these things. If I am in any way rightfully concerned, perhaps religious educators should be alerted to this. — L.W., Chicago (USA)
A: There are several issues involved. Certificates of first reconciliation are not mentioned in any official document and are not required by canon law. They might be useful in some countries where catechetical preparation for first reconciliation and first Communion take place in different venues, or there is a significant time lapse between first reconciliation and first Communion.
It would not be appropriate for the confessor to issue the certificate, since effectively, insofar as his role as confessor is concerned, the penitent is not known to him and he can reveal nothing whatsoever regarding the confession itself.
If it is issued by those in charge of catechetical formation, all they can certify is that the child has entered the place of reconciliation and presumably received the sacrament. They cannot know what has transpired within the time of reconciliation and if absolution is granted or not.
This is perhaps a limitation that has to be accepted out of respect for the nature of the sacrament of reconciliation, and given that in reality the certificate has no legal status.
Perhaps we can receive some light from Pope St. Pius X’s 1910 decree “Quam Singulari,” which still forms the basis for current Latin-rite practice regarding first reconciliation and Communion:
“After careful deliberation on all these points, this Sacred Congregation of the Discipline of the Sacraments, in a general meeting held on July 15, 1910, in order to remove the above-mentioned abuses and to bring about that children even from their tender years may be united to Jesus Christ, may live His life, and obtain protection from all danger of corruption, has deemed it needful to prescribe the following rules which are to be observed everywhere for the First Communion of children.
“1. The age of discretion, both for Confession and for Holy Communion, is the time when a child begins to reason, that is about the seventh year, more or less. From that time on begins the obligation of fulfilling the precept of both Confession and Communion.
“2. A full and perfect knowledge of Christian doctrine is not necessary either for First Confession or for First Communion. Afterwards, however, the child will be obliged to learn gradually the entire Catechism according to his ability.
“3. The knowledge of religion which is required in a child in order to be properly prepared to receive First Communion is such that he will understand according to his capacity those Mysteries of faith which are necessary as a means of salvation (necessitate medii) and that he can distinguish between the Bread of the Eucharist and ordinary, material bread, and thus he may receive Holy Communion with a devotion becoming his years.
“4. The obligation of the precept of Confession and Communion which binds the child particularly affects those who have him in charge, namely, parents, confessor, teachers and the pastor. It belongs to the father, or the person taking his place, and to the confessor, according to the Roman Catechism, to admit a child to his First Communion.
“5. The pastor should announce and hold a General Communion of the children once a year or more often, and he should on these occasions admit not only the First Communicants but also others who have already approached the Holy Table with the above-mentioned consent of their parents or confessor. Some days of instruction and preparation should be previously given to both classes of children.
“6. Those who have charge of the children should zealously see to it that after their First Communion these children frequently approach the Holy Table, even daily if possible, as Jesus Christ and Mother Church desire, and let this be done with a devotion becoming their age. They must also bear in mind that very grave duty which obliged them to have the children attend the public Catechism classes; if this is not done, then they must supply religious instruction in some other way ….”
No. 4 above places the onus of presenting and admitting the child to first confession and Communion primarily on the parents, as principal instructors in the faith, and the confessor. The Roman Catechism cited in the text says:
“As the law of confession was no doubt enacted and established by our Lord Himself, it is our duty to ascertain, on whom, at what age, and at what period of the year, it becomes obligatory. According to the canon of the Council of Lateran, which begins: Omnis utriusque sexus, no person is bound by the law of Confession until he has arrived at the use of reason — a time determinable by no fixed number of years. It may, however, be laid down as a general principle, that children are bound to go to confession as soon as they are able to discern good from evil, and are capable of malice; for, when a person has arrived at an age when he must begin to attend to the work of his salvation, he is bound to confess his sins to a priest, since there is no other salvation for one whose conscience is burdened with sin.”
“With regard to the age at which children should be given the holy mysteries, this the parents and confessor can best determine. To them it belongs to inquire and to ascertain from the children themselves whether they have some knowledge of this admirable Sacrament and whether they desire to receive it.”
The same essential doctrine I found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“1457. According to the Church’s command, ‘after having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year.’ Anyone who is aware of having committed a mortal sin must not receive Holy Communion, even if he experiences deep contrition, without having first received sacramental absolution, unless he has a grave reason for receiving Communion and there is no possibility of going to confession. Children must go to the sacrament of Penance before receiving Holy Communion for the first time.”
The person of the confessor requires some clarification. The law in 1910 would presume that this confessor admitting the child to Communion would usually be the pastor who knows the family. Once more from the Roman Catechism:
“We now come to treat of the minister of this Sacrament. That the minister of the Sacrament of Penance must be a priest possessing ordinary or delegated jurisdiction the laws of the Church sufficiently declare. Whoever discharges this sacred function must be invested not only with the power of orders, but also with that of jurisdiction. Of this ministry we have an illustrious proof in these words of our Lord, recorded by St. John: Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained, words addressed not to all, but to the Apostles only, to whom, in this function of the ministry, priests succeed.
“This is also most fitting, for as all the grace imparted by this Sacrament is communicated from Christ the Head to His members, they who alone have power to consecrate His true body should alone have power to administer this Sacrament to His mystical body, the faithful, particularly as these are qualified and disposed by means of the Sacrament of Penance to receive the Holy Eucharist.
“The scrupulous care which in the primitive ages of the Church guarded the right of the ordinary priest is easily seen from the ancient decrees of the Fathers, which provided that no Bishop or priest, except in case of great necessity, presume to exercise any function in the parish of another without the authority of him who governed there. This law derives its sanction from the Apostle when he commanded Titus to ordain priests in every city, to administer to the faithful the heavenly food of doctrine and of the Sacraments.”
This is no longer a strict law, and it is common to invite another priest to help in administrating first reconciliation. He would therefore not be the person deciding to admit the child to Communion.
Given the relatively easy conditions to fulfill, it is probably quite rare for a child not to receive absolution because he or she confesses no sin. Confession of at least one venial sin is necessary for the sacrament to be validly given, and so our reader is correct in abstaining from absolution as he cannot give a sacrament he knows to be invalid.
Insofar as possible, parents and catechists should help avoid such situations. It must be ascertained that the child effectively can distinguish right from wrong. Asking them for examples of things they consider to be wrong could help them undertake a simple examination of their own behavior before going to first reconciliation. It would be a rare little angel who could not at least confess to disobeying his or her parents and teachers, and this is sufficient for absolution.
It is also quite possible that mutism in the confessional might be provoked by nerves or fear rather than lack of knowledge and preparation. Instructors should strive to allay this by presenting confession as seeking pardon from someone we love and who also loves us very deeply. We can only ask forgiveness if love is present.
Confessors should also do their best to set the children at ease and help them to confess as far as possible.
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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.