First Confession points to the importance of the family
Ahead of the World Meeting of Families in Dublin next year, Fr Paul Byrne reflects on the importance of reconciliation in the family
AT this time of year parishes will be in the midst of welcoming children back to school after the summer holidays.
This heralds another academic year with children, parents and teachers settling in to begin the task of implementing the curriculum designed to advance the education of our young people.
In Catholic schools dates will also be put into diaries for sacramental preparation leading up to the big days in the parish community of First Confession, First Holy Communion and Confirmation.
These are highlights in the lives of many families, even those who may not frequent a church very much through the year.
For many priests and chaplains it is First Confession that comes to the fore first in the school year.
They talk to the children, work with the teacher and meet with the parents as the time for the sacrament approaches.
It can be a poignant time for many parents because it is the first sacrament their child will receive since they presented them in the church for Baptism.
There is an acknowledgement that their children are definitely no longer babies because there is recognition that they have reached an age where they have a developed a sense of right and wrong.
In the First Confession liturgy they are asked to remember times when they were good and kind and then to bring to mind time when they 'did not show love'.
What is central to this liturgy is each child's relationship with God and neighbour.
They are asked to take on board the dual commandment that Jesus gave to his disciples: "Love God and love your neighbour as yourself."
So, as each child comes forward to make their First Confession they will, in their own simple way, examine their lives and say sorry and ask for God's help.
We know that many children will be given suggestions by their teachers on what misdemeanours they may have carried out.
This could be looked on as a form of examination of conscience in the classroom and a way of ensuring the children do not 'freeze' when they come to the priest on the big day.
I, like many of my brother priests, try to be as kind and reassuring to the children as they come forward and most take it in their stride.
We can very soon hear a common theme come to the fore and this can be a result of that classroom examination of conscience.
Many of the children say: "I did not show love when I fought with my brother and/or sister." And: "I was cheeky to my mummy and daddy."
I sometimes ask: "Was it your big brother or your little sister?" I have to admit to experiencing some surprise last year when quite a number of the Primary 4 boys and girls in the parish schools were 'punching above their weight' when they admitted to taking on older siblings.
Once full disclosure is made, a few questions and words of advice are asked and given.
"Do you say your prayers?' The response is usually, 'Yes, Father'."
"Well, sometimes I forget."
The advice takes the form of encouraging the young person to ask God to help them to treat people properly, especially members of their own family.
If they are doing that in their own home then it is very likely they'll do it everywhere else, and the end result will be that they will have lots of friends which will include big brothers and sisters.
Although it may be quite some time before many of these children turn up for their second confession it occurred to me that one line in the simple Act of Sorrow they say, and now used by many adults, may help them stay in touch with that dual commandment given to them and us by the Lord: "I'm sorry for not loving others and not loving you."
The 'others' begins with their own family. Love of one's neighbour must start in the family home.
This may be stating the obvious, but when the challenge to live this aspect of Christian life is set before the young and they respond, the consequences could not be anything other than profound.
It is a call to love, forgive and be forgiven. It proclaims the message which states that to say you are sorry is a strength - not a weakness, as the world would lead us to believe.
When it is sincere, it becomes a gesture of love that heals and brings healing.
When this gentle challenge is given, we sow the seeds of love and those seeds grow best in a loving Christian family home.
All who are involved in ministry have heard the stories of people of all ages who have come before them to speak of their experiences of family life.
The dynamics within the family are enormously complex and although there will be many accounts of great joy and happiness, when there is division, disagreement and distance, the result can be some of the deepest and most painful wounds we will experience in our lives.
They are, very often, very long lasting. If healing and reconciliation cannot be found in the immediate family, it must come from the wider Christian family, which is the Church, and this is why the World Meeting of Families is of vital significance for our country and the world.
Families take many different forms in today's society, especially in the developed nations, and it is an indisputable fact that the family unit is essential for the well-being of society, so how the family unit is protected and promoted will influence the lives of future generations and countless children.
In families throughout the world and human history the head of the family has always been seen as a vital factor, whether the society is patriarchal or matriarchal.
In Christian teaching the head of the family is Jesus Christ. As each member of the Christian family is baptised into Christ, the direct consequence is that the family is baptised into Christ.
As each baptised individual is part of the Body of Christ so too is the family. The great majority of the baptised first experience the Body of Christ through the family, because it is through the family that they hear about their vocation to love and be holy.
Husbands and wives are called through the sacrament of marriage to be 'other Christs' to each other.
They are then called to be 'other Christs' to their children and teach their children to show Christ-like love to them and their older or younger brothers and sisters.
This reflects St Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 12 on the Body of Christ being made up of many parts.
Paul goes on to list many charisms and ministries, but one of the greatest ministries must be found within the family.
There we learn of the ministry to love, to heal, to help, to forgive and believe that we belong to Christ as his adopted baptised brothers and sisters and are sons and daughters of the heavenly Father.
From there we go into the world to further exercise that ministry and give witness to Jesus Christ.
The family of the Church will meet in Dublin in August 2018.
This gathering provides us with an opportunity as Christians and as a nation to acknowledge that we are part of a family of nations and a universal family of the Church.
Like many families it is good to have reunions simply to be together and nurture, teach and heal each other.
Also, to celebrate the fact that we have a heavenly Father who sent his Son, Jesus Christ to teach us to be brothers and sisters to one another and to invite others into that family to journey as one body to an eternal home.
:: Fr Paul Byrne is parish priest of Derriaghy in Down and Connor. This article was published in Intercom, a Catholic pastoral and liturgical resource.
:: More information about the World Meeting of Families in Dublin next August can be found at www.worldmeeting2018.ie