Jonathan Schott warmly remembers assisting with first reconciliation services a few years back at Church of the Transfiguration in Pittsford. Several priests would be stationed around the church, and an adult or two would initially go to confession so as to allay the young penitents’ apprehension.
"The kids would see the handshakes and the hugs. Then they would start to go (toward the priests) and they’d be nervous, but then they’d get the hugs and handshakes too. The kids would come back and say, ‘That was great,’" said Schott, who formerly served as Transfiguration’s associate director of Christian formation and is now diocesan coordinator of adult, family and catechetical formation.
Penance/reconciliation services have long been highlights of diocesan retreats, the Diocesan Youth Conference and National Catholic Youth Conference, drawing long lines of penitents, he noted.
"It is an atmosphere of hope and healing and excitement," Schott remarked.
Such scenes reflect the Diocese of Rochester’s focus on the sacrament of reconciliation as what Schott described as "a wonderful, beautiful opportunity" for young people — rather than the long-held image of penitents disappearing into dark boxes to detail their sinfulness and incur the wrath of God.
Mary Dundas, diocesan coordinator of evangelization and sacramental catechesis, acknowledged that the catechetical approach to reconciliation in past generations conveyed a sense that "you went to confession because you were a sinful person." However, she said the current emphasis is that penitents are intrinsically good people who happen to sin.
While the sacrament’s positive aspects have never changed, she said the church now emphasizes them with greater regularity to Catholics young and old. For instance, she pointed out that the parable of the prodigal son "says it all for us" regarding the joy that can be realized from having one’s sins absolved.
Linda Mehlenbacher, diocesan coordinator of youth ministry, said her department presents the sacrament of reconciliation as "a celebration of forgiveness" as opposed to "a guilt-ridden obligation," adding that "we typically don’t call it confession or use the word ‘penance’ with teens. We talk about their relationship with Christ."
Mehlenbacher added that this approach was highly successful at a diocesan retreat held Jan. 26-27 at Camp Stella Maris in Livonia. She said participants prepared for the sacrament by visiting a "prayer arena" consisting of seven forms of Catholic prayer, then had the option of attending individual confession.
"At least three-quarters of the teens sought absolution. Those that did not, spent the time in quiet prayer," Mehlenbacher said. "It was beautiful."
In this diocese, Dundas noted, boys and girls are expected to make first reconciliation shortly before first Eucharist and no earlier than age 7. She directs parents and their children — whether for first or subsequent confessions — toward a section of Forgiven, the diocesan website devoted to reconciliation (http://forgiven.dor.org/about-this-site/examination-of-conscience/children-examination-of-conscience/) which describes the sacrament of penance as a supreme example of Jesus’ love for young people. Dundas stressed that this presentation is not meant to minimize the seriousness of sins or the need to confess them; indeed, Forgiven guides children through an examination of conscience based on the Ten Commandments.
"You are expected to try and make amends with whoever you stole from, lied to, gossiped about," she said, adding that quite naturally, children will "express discomfort having to reveal something about their life to someone" and hold the fear that they "might just say that one thing that isn’t going to be forgiven."
However, she said, "We are assured by our tradition, our teachings, that we will be forgiven no matter what." While acknowledging that the process of confessing one’s sins is "intensely personal," Schott noted that through the sacrament "you receive a healing and it affects your mind, heart, body and soul. And if you look at it that way, it’s not scary at all."
He and Dundas said they hope many children — along with their parents — will take part in the diocesanwide Day of Penance on March 26, when all diocesan parishes will offer the sacrament of reconciliation throughout the day. Schott suggested participating in the day could even become a family ritual.
"When (as a parent) you make that time a part of your family and faith life, you’re doing the modeling, the education," he said. "Make it part of your family experience, and then go for a doughnut. What’s the harm in that?"