Contents Team Support for Family Faith Programmes
Where do we Start? Family Faith Programmes are a response to the well documented fact that
are the most influencial people in the lives of young children.
It is not inspiring leaders or teachers who have the most lasting effect. (I speak as a teacher!) A partnership with the Team is set up in the Parentsâ€™ Sessions which helps parents try out new ideas easily. This allows them to be self-reliant in every Family Session that they share with their child - so handing on that confidence naturally. Starting from these facts, a variety of short papers have been collected here to support Family Faith Teams both as groups and as individuals. 1. The first few papers offer background to the methods used in Family Faith Support programmes for parents (& Grandparents etc!) and their children. 2. They also offer suggestions about Team roles and methods. 3. Finally there are papers about each Sacramental Programme.
Contents Family Faith Programmes Gospel Method of Communicating Paulo Freireâ€™s ideas on Education Areas of Team Responsibility Workshop for a New Team Papers on the Four Sacraments in the Series
Family Faith Sacramental Programmes for Parishes The aim of these parish programmes is to encourage families to grow as Practising Catholics at home, in the parish, in society.
The programmes have been developed over a number of years by bringing together:
the Church’s Teaching; International Research on Parent/Child Interaction; practical parish sessions.
Each session is designed to support the growth of positive responses to faith, through day-to-day conversation and example. They are lighthearted and non-threatening - while using serious, world-wide research on how adults learn best.
The programmes are based on
a Gospel method of communication. Jesus often caused people to do something slightly unusual; filling waterpots at a wedding - or fishing, successfully, at the wrong time of day
and made that action the channel of his message. Taking the Lord’s example, these sessions communicate through small easy activities which cause parents to ‘launch out into the deep’ and consider new possibilities.
Like Peter’s fishing, it works! 1
How do the sessions move forward?
The presenter uses words that come from the parents’ responses given at that moment. This immediate appeal to the participants’ personal experience is coupled with an activity that is based on signs used in the sacraments: water, oil, light etc. Parents do not feel obliged to produce ‘right answers’ or give stereotyped responses. They may find that a deeper understanding of their own faith emerges through the shared action at each meeting. The sessions offer a space in which the individuals can move ahead at their own pace without causing them to reveal personal problems in public. That can seem quite challenging for the Team, but the sessions are shaped to keep the discussion on-course. The style enables parents to draw on their everyday knowledge and take a fresh look at how the Lord touches us all through the sacramental signs. The method is consistent with Article 1145 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
‘A Sacramental Celebration is woven from signs and symbols... Their meaning is rooted in the work of creation and human culture.’
Baptism sessions, for example, begin with the parents’ human experience of a new child
and relate that reality to the signs and symbols used in the Sacrament.
Reconciliation is based on learning about right & wrong at home - & ‘making up’. Confirmation is an opportunity for the child to take on the Promises made at Baptism. First Communion prep brings a family experience of the Passover and Last Supper
& an active sharing in the action of the Mass. That point links to a short but quite traumatic - personal incident which sharpened awareness of a problem. Here it is:
I said to some parents that I felt I knew well: You call this coming event ‘First Communion’. But I hear priests who say, ‘Maybe we should call it Last Communion - some children won’t be back!’ Will you be bringing your children to Mass regularly? Talk about that for a few moments. After the usual ‘small group’ chat, I asked if anyone wanted to respond. A woman stood up and in a very assured and ‘final’ sort of voice said: ‘You can’t expect them to go to Mass. It is far too boring!’ The 2nd session is for such bored parents. The Liturgy of the Word, in particular, needs unpacking. Currently it is for many people, sadly, a long meaningless ramble in out-of-date language. The Liturgy of the Eucharist is not understood well either. I have seen a mother - during the Consecration - prepare food for the baby & feed him, so that he would be quiet for the only part of the Mass that meant anything to her - Communion!
Gospel Method of Communication These workshops for parents follow an action-based style of communication used by Jesus. They are not a series of illustrated talks or lectures, so participants will not be deluged by words. Jesus rarely relied solely on words when he wanted to bring about an important change/growth in people. Instead, he caused people to do something the Apostles feeding the five thousand, Peter walking on the water etc. -
and made their action the channel for his message. Shared activity allowed deep truths to emerge without Jesus having to say anything.
Example: The catch of fish
Take the miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5:7-77) which awakened Peter to the tremendous mission Jesus wanted him to take on. How did it work? Jesus asked Peter to go out fishing with him. Peter, who was aware that he knew more about fishing, pointed out that such activity was useless at that time. Jesus did not explain what he was about, he just went on expecting the boat to be rowed out. So Peter did as he was asked - with some sharp words that he did this under protest; ‘If you say so... Then it all changed. There was tremendous excitement - and a lot of hard work - as unexpected results were achieved. We might have expected Peter to see the point later, when he thought about it. But it did not happen later. Understanding came with the action! As the effort to haul in all the fish began to ease, Peter found that he already knew what this was about. Before the fish were landed, he was exclaiming that he saw something deeper in this result - and expressing fears that he might not be good enough to do what Jesus was leading to. (Choose someone else for what you have in mind, Lord, I am a sinful man!) Jesus said nothing - until Peter had come to this point & opened his heart and mind to a new possibility. Then he only had to reassure Peter that he would do even better at leading people than at fishing! The heading for this story in the Jerusalem Bible is: The first disciples are called. That calling was in the privacy of their own hearts and it was done through an activity - fishing - which belonged to the world they understood. But the fishing was carried out at the wrong time, so it seemed strange. This new angle troubled them. Yet, because they could not apply stereotyped responses, it also made them alert to the possibility of an unforeseen result. The workshop sessions follow this method which Jesus used.
Participants are asked to do things that are almost ordinary - but not quite. So, like the fishing in Galilee, it doesn’t seem quite right. In the Reconciliation programme participants are asked to use Paper People to talk about Confession. Using such nonsense characters to discuss a Sacrament often starts the kind of protest that came from Peter. People may think they are too wise or sensible to take part in these activities! There is, however, serious research into adult learning which comes down on the side of the Gospel method.
It suggests that, when we are faced with realities which do not quite match, the resulting uneasiness makes us open to learning because we want to reconcile the differences. So, taking the Lord’s example, these workshops remain committed to communication through actions which cause parents to ‘launch out into the deep’ and consider new possibilities. Like Peter’s Fishing - it works!
Paulo Freire Education as dialogue
Paulo Freire was resident professor of education at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil and visiting professor at USA Harvard’s Center for Studies in Education and Development. In the 1960s he created a new Educational Method of Dialogue among the poor farmers of northern Brazil. They were trapped, he said, in a ‘culture of silence’ - submerged in an economic & social situation where critical awareness and response were practically impossible. Freire’s educational revolution profoundly affected not only those farmers, but the lives of millions of people in all the Americas. An English translation of his works in 1972 extended that influence to Britain and so to the book, Learning Relations. Looking back from the 1980s, Freire summed up his method in the following terms: ‘Through dialogue, reflecting together on what we know and don’t know, we can act critically to transform reality.’
‘Reality’,Freire insists, ‘is really a process, undergoing constant transformation.’ Human knowledge, therefore, is always incomplete.
Teaching, in this view cannot be a matter of ‘Banking’. Whether working with children or adults, the teacher should never be: a ‘well-intentioned bank clerk’ storing nuggets of finished information in the pupil’s mind. Instead, the work of both teacher and taught is a search for an ever clearer expression of truth. ‘Searching,’ Freire says,’is indispensable to the act of knowing.’
Education is dynamically developed when parents and professionals carry out this search in partnership.
‘Knowledge emerges,’ according to Freire, ‘through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry people pursue.’ Such interaction also has a positive effect on those taking part. Through dialogue. Freire believes, People achieve significance as people.
Freirian dialogue is centred on ‘generative themes’ and ‘codes’.
Introducing a ‘Generative Theme’ A generative theme is an issue which spontaneously generates a reaction in the whole person, mind and heart.
Distress and anxiety are as likely to arise in such dialogue as enthusiasm and joy. Since good does not automatically come out of bad, the dialogue has to be carefully structured to channel attention towards a positve goal.
The process begins with listening to what people say, to what makes them withdraw into silence and to what releases that trust which allows them to communicate again. As Freire puts it:
‘It becomes the duty of the educator to search for appropriate paths for the learner to unravel.’
Presenting information is not the main task in such dialogue. The learners, not the subject matter, are the focus. Information only has impact, Freire maintains, when a question has already been raised, at least implicitly. In areas such as schooling - or religion - where people only have experience as recipients, not as providers, many questions are submerged and surface merely as muffled reactions. The 1st task is to identify the main concepts in those responses starting to emerge. Once the themes have been identified, the group leader’s task is to find ‘codes’ which will epitomize the themes and so re-present them for focused dialogue.
Using a ‘Code’ eg Paper People
A Freirian code is an arrangement of the theme in some evocative form - recording, picture, activity or role-playing. This detached form of presentation frees the participants to speak their hidden and often unconsidered thoughts, instead of automatically regurgitating some learned or expected response. Parents need to work through hidden fears and feelings which block successful involvement in their children’s education. Positive feelings have to be strengthened in two areas; pride in their role as educators of their own children, and interest in widening their own knowledge base and personal scope.
The parents are, therefore, the central participants in this learning dialogue; talking and discerning with their own children, with each other and with professionals. Explanatory notes from ‘Learning Relations’
( from Chapter 10) 1 Freire, Pedogogy of the Oppressed, 1972. Freire uses the idea of ‘code’ in two ways. First he suggests that the surface reality we all see, as we watch people going about their daily lives, is hiding a deeper and richer reality. What we see is like a code to be carefully and co-operatively deciphered, if we are to understand anything about people (p. 83). He next proposes that if people (whether parents or practitioners) are oppressed or burdened by their own reality they will not take seriously the possibility of changing it, without help. It is not sufficient for the helper to have deciphered the problem and then propose appropriate action. The people themselves must become involved in this process of analysis - and come to their own conclusions. The helper’s task is to find ways of stimulating interest in examining the unconsidered reality. This is best done, Freire says, by presenting it in some novel way which will turn each small section into a ‘code’ to be unravelled (p. 85).
(from Chapter 12) 1 Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, ch. 3. This whole chapter repays careful study for those interested in the puzzle of adults who seem unresponsive to clearly useful ideas about their situation. Freire writes of the amount of work that has to be done even before people discover that they are ‘in a situation’. Then he says: ‘Only as this situation ceases to present itself as a dense, enveloping reality or a tormenting blind alley, and people can come to perceive it as an objective problematic situation - only then can commitment exist.’ (p 81).
Areas of Responsibility Each Sacramental Programme requires a team of parishioners & friends willing to give the time to support the sessions & help them run smoothly.
The Team’s General Task
(The Baptism Team has different tasks from those noted here.) In every session, participants sit in small groups round a table. This is to enable them to find their voice easily. When they talk about each idea, they can begin to make it their own.
During the session,Team members circulate among the groups to:
Encourage the parents (and children) to focus on the task and take part in the action; Help them to stay in touch with one another; Prompt them to respond to questions - not answer for them! Make sure every parent who wants to talk is heard; Offer a brief personal farewell comment to each at the end of the session.
There are also some particular tasks:
Presenting the Workshops
1. All Sacraments are based on human experiences, such as meals and making up quarrels. The workshops begin from these ordinary activities and encourage parents’ use of them to prepare their child for receiving the Sacraments. 2. The aim is to help parents appreciate that they have a great deal of influence for good and that they could make maximum use of it to help their children.
The Presenter has to have a clear grasp of the central point of the session and lead everyone towards it. Yet giving information is not his/her main task. The Presenter is first of all an animator, encouraging the parents to explore their personal thoughts and feelings through the activities and discussions.
The smooth running of each session depends on the relevant materials being in place.
A Resource Person takes responsibility for materials being carefully prepared, laid out, cleared up and stored. He/she also sees that the room is ready in good time - sharing any moving of furniture with the whole Team. This needs to be done well before any participants arrive. Tables are placed in a semicircle with about five/seven chairs at each table. No chair is placed at the tableend nearest to the presenter. The room is arranged so that everyone can easily see the presenter, the charts and displays, as well as conveniently discuss with the table-group, without having to turn chairs round.
Charts are useful on some occasions to help participants gather their thoughts and focus attention on the central point of the session. They can also be used to give parents a few clear statements which summarise what has been presented during the evening.
The chart writer needs to know what the presenter is trying to do in each session. Then, if a response contains words that connect well with the session’s aim, these words should be used on the chart. But all answers are acceptable. The writer should not try to change them to fit the session’s goal! It is important to know what people are thinking, so no one’s contribution can be wrong - though it may well be off the point!
Workshop for a new Team - and for others who are just thinking about helping!
The Sacrament of Reconciliation This workshop pattern could also be used in preparation for Confirmation and Eucharist.
A brief introduction to the ideas and methods used in
the Family Faith Programmes A display of the Family Faith material should be available for participants to consider at the workshop. They could previously have received a copy of the Reconciliation Programme magazine for parents, â€˜Yours Trulyâ€™.
Team preparation 1
Parishioners Helping Parents Welcome
Participants are welcomed individually as they arrive.
Tonight’s workshop might help us ‘tune-in’to parents who may have reservations about coming to their first Family Faith session. Think about how you feel just now. Do you feel relaxed, or not, at this moment? Don’t say your thoughts aloud, yet. Just let yourself become aware of sitting in this room with a group of people, preparing to start working with parents in your parish. Store up those feelings and see if they change as the night goes on. I hope you will take time this evening to say ‘Hello’ to any people in the room that you don’t know at present. Perhaps you could begin by introducing yourself to everyone at your own table. (Give time for people to talk)
Now let’s begin. We need to be aware that many of the ideas parents hand on to their children come, in different ways, from their own experience of childhood. Personal childhood experience, then, is our starting point.
Remembering First Confession
Look back at your own First Confession and try to remember what you felt at that time. Talk to your neighbour about it. Group discussion
Take answers (Chart)
Fear Anxiety Uncertainty Guilt Awe
The Box Dark Waiting Guessing Forgetting
Routine Learning words Regimentation Sin (grades)
Look at all the different feelings you have talked about, both good and bad. Other words on the chart show the importance of the place and the effort of remembering what to do. These practical points often cause children great anxiety. There is not a great deal about God on the chart. What idea did you have about God, at that stage?
Nothing! God as judge Talking to God (priest - representative) Feeling good
Could we sum up what this Sacrament was about for you, as a young child? Routine Awe From bad to good
Reconciliation Today So far you have been talking about your own experience as a child. Are things different today? (Take some answers)
Both the past and the present appear to have good and bad in them.
One thing that is different now-a-days is the emphasis placed on this sacrament. Then it seemed to be all about breaking rules and commandments. What is important now is‘making-up’ - getting relationships right. Parents today often think along the same lines for the family and try to build up good relationships in the home. This is a very positive move though, if they want the best for their children, they still need to teach them right from wrong. The magazine, Yours Truly, offers discussion points on this moral training in the home. Talk at table about how these family situations relate to the sacrament of Reconciliation as it is presented now. Take answers (Chart)
Reconciliation Owning up Being forgiven Adults can be wrong!
Depending on local circumstances, there may be time to discuss the magazine in some detail. Whether this is possible or not, the final twenty minutes of the workshop should be spent on the Reflection.
Reflection There used to be a television programme which showed some impossible-looking event and asked, ‘How did they do that?’ In a way, that is what this final twenty minutes will be about. Tonight’s event was not difficult, in fact the discussion moved along easily. But that did not just happen. We are going to look back at the the last hour and see the simple things we were doing to keep the session flowing smoothly. As we do this, you might reflect on points you could apply to your leadership in the Family Faith sessions that are soon to start in your parish.
1. Helping new people relax
To begin with, how do you feel at this moment? Are you quite relaxed? Compare that feeling with the way you felt at the beginning of this evening. Is there a difference? Take some answers
There are probably many reasons for that change. But let’s just look at two of them: a). There was a sense of welcome in the room. - We showed that we were glad you had come. - You spoke to all the people near you. At the first parents’ meeting in your parish, you may be sitting at a table acting as host to the newcomers. Talk at table now about how you might help them relax.
Give a few minutes for talk.
b). Every idea is welcome. Remember the thoughts you offered tonight. Were they accepted? Look at them on the charts. All of those ideas together made up the whole point of the session. It is important that people speak - and that they know there are no wrong answers. We are not looking for brilliant ideas, just what people feel at that moment. They can’t get that wrong! All the answers together bring about the result. So encourage people to talk. Don’t worry if it sounds a bit vague - or even off the point!
2. Moving forward to new ideas
We have spent some time tonight looking back at what we used to think about Confession and what new ideas we want the children to have. How are people helped to let their old ideas go and take on new ones? Lots of people have studied this. Here is one Do and one Don’t from their findings:
Do - make the session enjoyable!
The Magazine, the children’s drawings, and the Paper People are all meant to be enjoyed. You could almost say that, at these sessions, if people don’t laugh - they don’t learn!
Don’t - argue with people or challenge them.
People need time to change; it will not happen right there at the table! Let them disagree, without comment. Stay in charge and move the discussion on gently to the next point.
3. Using Makebelief
Many parents don’t realise what a great influence they have on their children. They can usually think and talk more easily about this idea if it is not made too personal.. That is why we use the Magazine and Paper People. Participants feel free to talk about these ‘made up’ families without feeling ‘got at’. All the activities are designed to let people explore their thoughts and feelings without any pressure or commitment. In the time that is left, you might like to: a) Look at the Family Faith material and consider the possibility of forming a Team to use it with families. b) Set up a timetable of planning sessions in conjunction with the parish programme for parents.
Programme on Baptism: Overview Because Baptism is a family affair, these four sessions are designed for small groups. Parents, godparents and those members of the family who care to come along, are invited to share in this preparation experience.
Session One: New Life!
This recalls the birth of the child with all the emotions and experiences of giving New Life. Beginning from this natural birth, we explore how the pouring of Baptismal Water over the child brings New life in Christ.
Session Two: Constant Care
We note the loving concern of parents for their baby and the support others give in this constant care. We explore the connection between the anointing with oil and the nurturing of the child’s faith by the parents and the community of the church.
Session Three: Child of the Light
This session looks ahead to the ongoing development of the child both in personality and in faith. We look at the meaning of the Baptismal Candle and its connection with Easter and the Resurrection. ‘Sharing faith is like sharing light’
Session Four: A Walk Through the Baptismal Ceremony This session takes place in the church. It is an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of Baptism and at the same time to rehearse the ceremony.
A Parish Team? Baptism is not only a matter for the family but for the whole parish. In some parishes the parents enjoy the support of the worshipping community through the presence of a small group of parishioners who might be called Faith Friends. Faith Friends make a Team with the parish priest. They may personally deliver a leaflet outlining the programme to parents who have requested baptism, so introducing themselves and their supportive role. They then join the parents at the four preparation sessions and help to present this programme.
Each family might also have an individual session with a Faith Friend to discuss the role of godparents etc. as well as practical details’
1 Parents’ session
Background ‘Confirmation’ - what does it mean? For the word ‘confirm’ the dictionary offers: Prove to be valid; Make more definite; Strengthen. An every-day use of the word might come if we place an order for goods by telephone. We may then be requested to ‘confirm that order in writing’.
What does this Sacrament Confirm? The answer is: Baptism!
A person who wishes to receive Holy Communion must first of all be Baptised. From the first century until the twentieth century that Baptism had to be confirmed before the person could receive the Eucharist. Then something occurred which set aside that order. Early in the twentieth century, Pope Pius X (1903 - 1914) encouraged people to receive the Blessed Sacrament frequently. (Before his time people were only allowed to receive Holy Communion a few times in a year.) One of his decisions was to allow young children, aged seven or eight, to receive the Sacrament. Until that time Confirmation and Eucharist were an important part of a young person introduction to adulthood. In all this work to change the attitude of the whole church towards the reception of Communion, the Sacrament of Confirmation was left behind. That situation has now been corrected and Confirmation can now be put back into its traditional place - in preparation for First Communion. But Confirmation in preparation for adulthood has also significance. It gives a young person an opportunity to take on Baptism, personally, and discover ways of living out the Baptismal Promises through Christ-like service. This programme offers preparation material for children of different ages: 7-8 year olds; 11-12 year olds; older teenagers. (There are only a few suggestions for this last group. The material could also be used for Retreat days for teenagers who are already Confirmed.) In all centuries, the Sacrament of Confirmation not only confirmed that a Baptism had taken place, the person receiving it also confirmed that he/she was living an active Christian life in accordance with their Baptismal Promises.
Confirmation links Baptism and Holy Communion
1 Parents’ session
Demonstration of central action in Baptism – pouring of water
Water as a symbol of God & also of God’s action in Baptism Display of Pictures to awaken a range of personal responses in parents:
water refreshes; water is powerful/uncontrollable; water is necessary for life.
Reminder of Baptism Water poured on each person’s hands while special prayer is said.
This is even more true of God Water is a symbol of God!
The arrangement of the Water section shows the method
that is followed, in different ways, throughout this progamme: 1. A brief introduction highlights the central point; 2. Clear, focussed material (eg. pictures) is discussed in small groups & responses are recorded on central flipchart.
2 (Possible accompanying music:
‘O Living Water, refresh my soul’)
3.Actions speak louder than words A short, memorable experience is offered to stimulate personal commitment.
Confirmation: Overview Light as a symbol of God A Sense of Darkness. In small groups, stories are exchanged about a power cut or being lost in the country at night etc. A story from each group is then shared aloud with everyone. Quietly, everyone is asked to consider the possibility of complete darkness in our planet – if we were cut off from the sun. Responses are collected on flipchart Another quiet moment while we consider Death. What is your belief? Total darkness? Or the light of Eternal Life? If you believe in eternal life then you have no fear of eternal darkness - God is Light
The Paschal Candle is introduced by the priest Then the hall is put in darkness and that piece of the Holy Saturday liturgy is re-enacted ‘The light of Christ!’
Light as a symbol of the Baptised
‘Thanks be to God!’
‘You are the light of the world’
Symbolism of individual Baptismal candles explained - acceptance of role of the Baptised.
Activity Rehearsal in church for handing over Baptismal candles to the children in Session 2
Note The third and final session is focussed on Chrism and the Confirmation Ceremony.
2. Family session
The Relationship between Baptism & Confirmation
1. Watching a Baptism (DVD) The use of Water, light and Chrism in the Baptismal Ceremony
Accepting some responsibility for living & behaving as Baptised Christians.
3. Family session
Seeing some of the oils that might be added to olive oil to make chrism.
Parent blessing her daughter with â€˜home-made chrismâ€™ they have made together.
Overview Family Faith 1st Communion Programme Plan
Family preparation for the Sacrament of the Eucharist:
How the Mass began
This introductory session begins with a short practical experience of a Passover meal for all the family. Then the children come out to the front as the Disciples at the Last Supper and learn how the Passover was changed by Christ into the Mass.
Reading the Signs
This Parents’ Session is designed to give adults the time and the ‘tools’ to explore the shape of the Mass and the details in each section of it. That should help them to be confident in guiding their children’s responses in Session Three.
Practising the Signs
The actions of the Priest become the means by which the families focus their attention on each step of the Lituurgy of the Eucharist. The actions are practised in the hall and then followed reverently round the altar in the church.
Session Four To Live Like Christ After 1st Communion
To demonstrate that the Eucharist leads to ongoing Christian living, First Communicants and their families are invited back to a Celebration Session at which they will be presented with the Gospel for that year.
Families are also introduced to ongoing possibilities such as: Acting out Gospel Scenes;
Becoming part of regular services related to the Mass;
Considering how they might share services to others, at home and abroad.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation
The forgiveness of sin through the ministry of the church has a long and checkered history.
St Peter told his audience at Pentecost, ‘You must repent and be baptised for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’. For more than a century after that, the sacrament of Baptism held a singular place in the remission of sins. Then, around the year 150 when infant Baptism was common, writers began to speak of the church allowing a separate Rite of Reconciliation. This was seen as a second and final chance to begin again, and so could only be received once in a lifetime. Gradually both a lengthy period of preparation and severe penance were demanded of those who asked for this sacrament. This first version of Canonical Reconciliation was concerned with sins against the community. The greatest of these were murder, adultery and apostasy. (Awareness of social sin is gradually coming back as we begin to see that structural injustice across the world concerns us as Christians and requires our repentance.) Public penance for public sin gradually fell into disuse. On the one hand, it was too severe for most people, on the other, it did not address the common awareness of failing to live up to the grace of Baptism. It was the Celtic Monks in the West who tackled that problem. There was a pagan custom of having ‘a friend who reads your heart’ and could be consulted about faults and their correction. This idea was taken over particularly in Ireland where Christianity was centred on a monastic way of life. Monks and nuns would confide in a ‘soul-friend’ - not necessarily a priest. There are many beautiful examples of this custom. Across the whole of Europe, lay people who were concerned about their relationship with God and with those closest to them, adopted this practice. It evolved into a one-to-one Rite of Reconciliation as people confided in their parish priest. The emphasis here was not reconciliation with the communiy but personal ‘wholeness’. This was an important development and is the aspect that is most commonly understood today. Sadly, the system became rigid. The personal interview, which had included advice and spiritual direction, began to rely on stereotyped ‘penances’. A ‘tally’ system was introduced in which sins were to be named in precise categories and matched by specific penances. Once again, penances were severe, such as pilgrimages or long fasts, but these became so impossible to fulfil that they were replaced by the recitation of certain prayers. Confessing sins and doing penances seemed so important that these words became names for the sacrament.
A requirement to list our sins and keep a score
is far removed from God’s free gift of forgiveness. That became clear with the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Those two phrases do not represent the meaning of the sacrament that returns us to a right relationship with God, the world and ourselves.
Today this second sacrament of forgiveness - Baptism for adults is the first is called, ‘Reconciliation’.
We are very aware of the forgiveness poured out on us by Christ. But the Old Testament too has examples of God’s desire to forgive us – if we would only ask! Hosea quotes God as saying to the wrongdoer;
Provide yourself with words and come!
(Hosea Cht. 14 )
Reading the Sacramental Signs A sacrament is: ‘an outward sign of inward grace.’ A sign gives a message that is generally understood without having to be explained. We all know that clean running water is necessary for life.We know that bread sustains life. So the signs of water in Baptism and bread in Eucharist ‘speak’ their message naturally. What are the signs in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and how do they ‘speak’ to us? The name used for the sacrament today, Reconciliation, is itself a sign. The word reconcile comes from the Latin, to call together again.
This sacrament is, centrally, about coming closer to God - not about sin and guilt. If people were not brought up to see it like this they might need a lot of convincing. The everyday processes of ‘making-up’ within a family offers a first step towards understanding. What do we do at home? There is no set formula for reconciliation in the family. There is rarely even a clear statement of fault and forgiveness. So what is the basic requirement? We try, in some way, to re-establish a friendly relationship. We do this by communication, often in action rather than words, though words may be included. Each family has its own pattern in which particular words and gestures signify acknowledgement of fault and forgiveness. A common example is the cup of tea offered in appeasement! Communication has to be two-way. Both the person seeking forgiveness and the one giving it have to approach the other; they have to signify that they wish to re-establish their relationship. That is, the offered tea must be accepted if reconciliation is to be achieved. Not everything can be put right so simply. Some situations need a great deal of talking out. A partner who has been unfaithful in marriage cannot put things right by a friendly cup of tea! A real desire not to offend again has to be shown. This is all very like the sacrament. The signs in the Sacrament of Reconciliation are made up of words and gestures. The first sign is made with our feet - we come! This gesture is in itself a request for forgiveness. Then we find whatever words we can to express our sorrow and desire to change for the better.
(We have, in the past, often tied ourselves in knots with words, instead of focusing on the relationship with God that we are asking to have re-established.)
The priest, representing God, offers signs in response: First, the priest listens and raises his hand in a gesture of forgiveness. Then, speaking formally in the name of the church, he says that the person is absolved from sin and has returned to a right relationship with God. Books and learned papers can clarify the theology of Reconciliation for us. The experience of the sacrament is something else! These sessions are aimed at people’s hearts and imaginations, as well as their minds. Some preparation and work are involved in bringing the session alive. 2
The goal is liberating personal experience of the free & loving forgiveness of God. That is worth the effort - even for one adult or child!