The sacrament of Penance in the Catholic Church is also known as Reconciliation or Confession. A child experiences this sacrament for the first time (thus known as First Penance, First Reconciliation or First Confession) at the age of discretion. As such, First Penance takes place around the age of seven. During First Penance, an individual confesses their sins to a priest. In the Catholic church, during reconciliation, the priest is a minister of Christ's mercy.
What exactly is the process of First Penance? First and foremost, church leaders or teachers prepare children thoroughly for the sacrament. For example, children are introduced to the Examination of Conscience, a practice through which they are encouraged to reflect on their behaviors and choices. Leaders and teachers also help the child learn a prayer especially for contrition and the reconciliation process. Children can choose a face-to-face First Penance or one that occurs with a screen separating the priest and the child. The child says, “Bless me father, for I have sinned; this is my first confession…” The penitent then states his or her sins and the priest recites a statement of absolution. For the First Penance, it is not uncommon for the priest to chat a bit with the child in order to put him or her at ease; after all, this is a sacrament that Catholics receive over and over again. The child will also recite a prayer of contrition during their First Penance.
Many Catholic families, schools, and churches celebrate a child’s First Penance. While the process can be intimidating and uncomfortable at first, it is an important sacrament and another step towards a strong relationship with God. Many people impart gifts upon the penitent, such as personalized religious art or First Penance jewelry.
Many people wonder if seven-year-olds are prepared for such a sacrament. For much of the church’s history, First Penance happened during the teen years. But Pope Pius the X issued a decree in 1910 that stated First Penance could occur much earlier. Pope Pius X stated that relatively young children can understand right from wrong. Therefore, they can understand sin and the Commandments, so they can most certainly handle the responsibility of Penance.
It is also interesting to note that there is an important relationship between First Penance and First Communion. It is normative for Catholic children to receive their First Penance preceding their First Communion. First Penance signifies that a child is ready and willing to create a strong spiritual environment and relationship with the Lord – both of which are necessary in preparation for First Communion. Essentially, it is important to accept Communion with purity and grace and First Penance and subsequent confessions nurture that.
After the First Penance, Catholics are expected to confess at least once per year, but Pope Pius X and later Popes have all encouraged frequent confession. The First Penance is an important experience that can lead to the incorporation of this important process into one’s faith life.