As the Family Goes

JP II Quote

"As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live." John Paul II

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Greatest Gift I Could Never Give

One thing I am not shy about doing is calling a priest to make an appointment for confession.  There is often discouragement of such things in favor of the appointed times for confession in parishes around the city, but but in our city the appointed times tend to be the same for the few parishes that offer them (and sadly, they are not many), and most often fall on Saturday.

As such, many people line up to take advantage of these times, and when I show up with my six little ones (only two of whom receive the sacrament) there is no telling how long I'll be standing in line with fidgety/fussy babies, toddlers and preschoolers. Nor is there any telling which poor soul may not be able to have their confession heard after my family gets in the line.  If it was the only option I would absolutely make time for it.  But I read the blog of a Mom in the same boat as me (large family, lots of littles) who suggested reaching out to priests and making a private appointment to receive the sacrament, and it has changed everything for us.  We are always so warmly received, and often have a nice quiet little space to wait with littles while each person takes turns going to see the priest.  I figure the priest is always free to say no if he's not able (which has been the case on occasion) but more often than not we are pleasantly surprised that the priests we've reached out to are generous with their time.

So the Friday before Lent, I decided to make us an appointment.  We were seeing a priest that we had never been to before (a visiting priest at a parish we regularly attend), and he was warm, hospitable, and very fatherly with the boys. A very dear soul.  On the way in we did an examination of conscience, and my oldest boy (9) was very concerned about having left things out of his last confession.  He began to ask questions like, "Well can I just say that I broke a particular commandment, without telling what I did?" And I said, "No, you should tell the priest specifically what you did to break a commandment, so that he can offer advice with how to lead a holy life and things that might help you stay away from a particular sin."  Then he asked what happened if you forgot about a sin, so I told him that if he really didn't remember that he was still forgiven, but that he should tell the priest if he remembers it the next time, and he should try his very best not to forget the sins he's committed (and that's why we do the examination of concience).  I told him that his confession was between him and the Lord, and that God already knew everything he had to say, and was waiting with open arms to forgive him, but that he needed to ask for it first.

He was nominated to go first, and he was really stand-offish with the priest.  He wouldn't look him in the eye and had to be coaxed to answer his questions (How are you today?  What is your name?) and I thought, Oh great, he's in a mood.  But when he came back, he was a brand new kid.  As my second son was in taking his turn, my oldest boy said to me, "I feel different than all the other times I've been to confession."  And it's true, I could see it.  There was a look on his face, he was just beaming, and I was excited for him.  I said, "that's great!" and he proceeded to tell me about a sin that he had left out the last time he went to confession on purpose, which has apparently been burdening him.  He confessed it this time, and he knew he was forgiven!  It was all over his face.

He spoke of this sin in the most general of terms, and in a way that made me think it was something more serious than it actually was.  He said he told the priest he had an impure heart, and that the priest asked him what he meant by that, and that he just said he couldn't say anything more than that - just that he had an impure heart.  Alarm bells were going off everywhere, and at that point I felt I really needed to know what he meant by those words, in case it was something I needed to look into a little more.  I tried gently and he was reluctant, and reminded me that it was between him and Jesus (so true, darn it!)  And before I could finish the conversation, boy #2 was out and the priest was calling me for my turn.  I walked into my own confession with mixed emotions of joy for my boy's repentance, and fear for what sins he may have walked into.  I never said anything to the priest about it (not that I ever would anyway, I would never challenge the seal of confession) but I did wonder what my boy had just told him, and what he thought of it all.  I prayed the whole time that I would recognize Jesus as the One who forgives, the One who guides, and the One who saves.  Even if this was the worst I could imagine, it wasn't the worst because he's been forgiven.  He's been made new.  I needed to remember that - no matter what.  I could not fear what the Lord had taken control of, and I could not deny the repentance in my boy's eyes.  He had a real encounter with the Lord in the confessional for the first time!  Whatever sin this was, in part, had given him the opportunity to reach out to God in need, to bare his soul and know he is completely forgiven.  I must keep that always before me.

Still I could not get out of there fast enough.  My boy is still so young, and I wanted to know once and for all just what he was dealing with.  I am convinced the grace of the sacrament I had just received was with me as I gently assured my boy that I needed to know.  I told him that his confession was between him and the Lord, but that as his parent I just wanted to know that one specific thing in case it was something that I needed to help him with.  I can't remember the exact words I used, but I managed to persuade him.  His eyes never left the ground as he gave me the specifics of the deed, which as it turns out was far, far less serious than I thought (phew!) He was reluctant because it involved an issue of trust, specifically that he had broken my trust and not come clean about it.  In our family in order to regulate our older children going off the property, they have to demonstrate first that they are trustworthy at home (specifically by not breaking any rules they know should not be broken).  They earn a checkmark for each day they have not broken any rules, and once they have ten checkmarks they are allowed to go off the property with our permission (as long as we know where they are going).  But when a rule is broken, all checkmarks get erased and they start at zero.  For example, one time the boys had gone to their friend's with my permission, but then walked over to the church without permission (which they are not allowed to do - we tell them very clearly every time they leave that we must know exactly where they are when they leave here, and that if they want to go somewhere else they must call and ask us first).  So that time they lost their checkmarks.

So as it turns out, this boy had witheld a breach of trust, and was sitting with ten checkmarks.  Envelopped in gratitude for his repentant heart and for his honesty, I asked him to look at me.  I thanked him for being honest with me, and I told him that since Jesus had just completely forgiven him for that sin, I was not going to take away his checkmarks.  I felt in light of the way it had all come about, there was no need for me to discipline him - Jesus had already met him in that.  His little face just beamed and he threw his arms around me in a hug, and I was so excited to see what God was doing in my boy.

As a Catholic family, we raise our kids the best way we know how.  We talk to them, we read to them, we teach them about God, hoping and praying that they will know Him as we do.  But no amount of book knowledge can ever do what for our kids what the sacraments can do.  I can read as much as I like, but if I never give them opportunities to meet Jesus personally - in the Eucharist and Confession - none of it will ever move out of those books.  He's been going to confession for three years, but this is the first time he's ever really gotten it.  I remember what that's like.  I remember my first confession after my conversion. I was in my late teens, terrified at confessing all of the things I had done in the many years since my last confession, all of the things I hadn't known were wrong, and the many things I did know were wrong but chose to do anyway.  I trembled in the pew awaiting my turn and when it came, I was greeted by the softest, kindest, gentlest, and most saintly man I have ever had the grace to meet.  I remember him joyfully exclaiming, "Praise the Lord!" after the words of absolution, and I felt like - indeed I was - a brand new person!  Of course I don't feel this way every time, but everything changed in that moment for me, that one moment of laying myself bare and knowing I was forgiven.  That's what my boy was living right before my eyes.  That's something I could never do for him.

My kids are getting older, and even though it wasn't the case this time, I know the things they struggle with will become bigger and bigger.  I won't always be able to pry it out of them (nor should I), and I can't shield them from everything.  They are going to make mistakes, big ones, and all I can do is pray that no matter how they struggle, they always find the waiting arms of the Lord.  After all, isn't that the story of all of us?  We've all sinned - big, and we've all been forgiven.  Then sin isn't the whole story, love is.  I would keep him from all of that if I could, from ever getting hurt or burdened, from ever feeling enslaved or like he doesn't have a choice, from ever feeling the struggle between right and wrong, but I can't.  And maybe that's a good thing.  Faith doesn't come about because we know all the right answers and do the right thing.  Faith is a result of a struggle that forces us to make a choice.  I can only do my best to guide my children toward the right choices, and pray that the Lord will meet them wherever they are on their journey.

May I never take the sacraments for granted, or ignore the grace that flows through them to transform the lives of my children and of me.  For my words will all be tested and fall short, but but the life-giving love personally present in the sacraments will change their hearts.

“Forgiveness is not a result of our efforts, but is a gift. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit who showers us with mercy and grace that pours forth unceasingly from the open heart of Christ crucified and risen.” (Pope Francis)

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