The Word Among Us

June 2008 Issue

Confessions from the Minivan

A mother reflects on reconciliation.

By: Hallie Riedel

Yet another morning running late for school, and my four children are sitting in the van scowling at each other. Whose fault was it today?

The one who didn't get up when Mom called the first time or the one who was goofing off in the hallway or maybe the one who forgot to pack up his backpack the night before?

On the way to school, we make a point of praying together, after reviewing the course of the morning and resolving to work together better tomorrow. Starting the day mad at your siblings isn't an option.

And so it goes. In our family, reconciliation is a theme we cannot escape. Family life exposes our weaknesses and what seems to be the worst in our personalities on a regular basis. It provides ample opportunities to seek out, receive, and give forgiveness. In so many ways, it prepares us for—and leads us to—the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Reconciliation Begins at Home. The other day, my husband and I were discussing family finances. Let's just say that my words were not completely kind and understanding.

Should I wait to go to Confession before making peace with John? I'd better not! Relationships don't thrive when apologies and repentance are delayed. Reconciliation has to happen in the home, not just in the confessional. The two work together. I find that if I cooperate with God's gift of forgiveness in my daily life, going to Confession is not unfamiliar territory. The periods when I've been more aware of my struggles are the times I feel more ready for the sacrament.

For the children, too, there are daily opportunities for reconciliation. Beginning with that drive to school, they can learn about true sorrow for sin, asking and granting forgiveness, and repairing wrongs. Even young children can get the message.

Let's say we're at the playground, and my youngest grabs for another child's toy. Shouts of "mine!" and "let go!" end up in a broken toy. If I'm alert to the opportunity, this can be a teaching moment. I can ask my child whether he was considering his playmate's feelings; I can help him to say "sorry" or to forgive and make an effort to be kind; I can point out the need to replace the toy, if necessary.

I Confess . . . To be honest, I sometimes find it hard to move from "home-based reconciliation" to the confessional. I know the sacrament is important for me and my family, but sometimes my feelings or fears override my best intentions.

Simply finding the time can be daunting. With our busy schedules, we often have trouble mobilizing the entire family to make it to Mass on time, much less getting there early for Confession. This is why I can find myself mentally objecting: Wouldn't it be easier to wait until next week . . . next month . . . the next communal penance service?

And then there's concern about what the priest might think. What if it's been a while since I've been to Confession? What if he notices that I keep repeating the same sins? What if the kids (or, heaven forbid, I) forget the Act of Contrition?

Sometimes I hesitate because I'm embarrassed. It's painful to be honest and admit my faults to another person; I'd rather downplay them so as to look better than I really am. At times like that, I can forget the truth that it's not the priest I'm confessing to, but Jesus.

Slow and Steady Growth. The more I experience the Sacrament of Reconciliation, however, the more I love it. Just when I'm feeling trapped by my failures, I have a way out. When I confess my sins, their power over me is taken away, and I receive the strength to get back on track.

Just recently, one of my children and I experienced this saving dynamic once again. It had been a rough week, and we were suffering the effects of each other's temper flare-ups. I suggested going to Confession, and my child agreed. Our parish priest made himself available for an unscheduled confession—his willingness spoke volumes about God's readiness to welcome us whenever we return to him. And so my child and I received the grace to start anew.

We might be back, I know: Some areas of sin don't disappear all at once! That's why confession isn't a one-time, all-or-nothing deal. In fact, the more we go, the better!

Frequent Confession helps us to be accountable and consistent in our struggle against sin. And each time we return to the sacrament in repentance and receive absolution, we move ahead in the process of becoming free.

I try to get this across to my children by helping them to notice their advances in virtue, as well as their challenges. When I know one of them is trying to be more generous and they choose, for example, to make a sibling's bed, I make a point of commenting on their action and on any upward trend I see.

I do that for myself, too. At the end of the day, I review how things went, especially in areas of particular difficulty. Did I do any better? Do I need to ask the Lord's forgiveness or reconcile with anyone? How can I prepare for similar situations that might come up tomorrow?

Truth Versus Feelings. Discouragement over our seeming lack of progress should never deter us from returning to reconciliation again and again. Neither should disappointment about the seeming effects of any particular Confession.

Sometimes, the Sacrament of Reconciliation leaves us feeling as if a weight has been lifted. And it's true! We've gone from being blocked from God's life to being reunited with him. I recall one confession where it took most of my willpower not to gloss over a particularly awkward area. Afterward, I really felt forgiven and eager to do better.

But there have been at least as many times when I don't feel particularly different following Confession. Then I have to trust that God has forgiven me and that his power is at work in me to make me more like him.

It's important—but not always easy—to get this across to children. I can remember one "disappointing" First Reconciliation: I think my child was expecting to feel completely different and to be glowing like a beacon. I explained that feelings can be deceiving and pointed out the truth: "You're glowing on the inside, filled with God's grace and ready to start again."

In fact, God's kingdom is just a little more present in our world each time we practice reconciliation. This reality is often veiled. But I catch a glimpse of it sometimes—especially when the children are taking responsibility for what they've done wrong, apologizing, and making an effort to love one another. It's the kingdom of God coming into our midst!

Not There Yet. So is my family the perfect model of reconciliation? No! Do we always take responsibility for our actions? No, again. But we are progressing.

Just this morning, two of the children had a rather loud discussion about whose responsibility it was to refill the empty soap dispenser. I might have rolled my eyes and wondered if any of my motherly admonitions had ever sunk in. But grace was at work, and it led us instead into a discussion of how to speak to one another respectfully and how to compromise and ask for help when you feel overloaded. The reconciliation that resulted offers hope for skirmishes to come.

If you were to look in my minivan, some days you'd see four peaceful, smiling children, ready to support and help their siblings. Other days you'd see bickering children accusing one another of causing all discord in the family.

Thanks to God's gift of reconciliation, the ups and downs of family life can tap into the rhythm of heaven. What you see in the minivan is more than what appears on the surface. Assisted by the sacrament, we're experiencing a little taste of heaven right here on earth!

Hallie Riedel and her husband, John, practice reconciliation with their four children, ages five through ten.

Here are a few simple ideas that can help children to have a less stressful, more fruitful experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

—Have the child write a private note listing the sins they want to confess. Sometimes children get so anxious about Confession that they forget what they wanted to say. Armed with a list, they can approach the sacrament with confidence. Afterward, they can shred their list as a concrete symbol of the forgiveness they have received.

—Similarly, have the child take a written Act of Contrition into the confessional. Using a memory aid doesn’t make a child’s (or an adult’s) contrition any less sincere!

—If it has been a while since the child has gone to Confession, practice ahead of time. Walk through the steps of the sacrament together, reminding them of when the priest speaks and when they speak.