Monday, October 16, 2023

A 1971 Proposal for a New Form of First Confession for Children

Bishop Pieter Jan Antoon Moors of Roermond, who in 1964 became one of the first bishops to revise how the Sacrament of Penance was administered to children.

[Oct. 15, 2023] Franz Heggen (b. 1930) is a Dutch theologian who was a peritus for Bishop Pieter Jan Antoon Moors of the Diocese of Roermond, Netherlands. Before the Second Vatican Council had even ended, Bishop Moors (1964) issued directives in his diocese for a reevaluation of how penance was administered, asking priests to consider preparing children for confession in stages through prayer and song rather than traditional catechesis (1). Franz Heggen was a part of these discussions and an advocate for a restructuring of the sacrament in such a way that absolution was conferred collectively in order to stress the communal character of the sacrament.

In the years after the Council Heggen devoted considerable energy to promoting a revision of the Sacrament of Penance, particularly regarding to children. The year after the Council closed, he was tasked with revising the administration of the sacrament for the Diocese of Roermond and published the German language instruction Age-Appropriate Children's Confession: Guidelines and Paths to Child-Appropriate Confession Practice in the Diocese of Roermond (Altersgemäße Kinderbeicht: Richtlinien und Wege zur kindgemäßen Beichtpraxis in der Diözese Roermond). The text would appear in a collection of religious education texts printed by Herder and Herder in 1967. 

In 1971, Heggen authored an essay for Concilium proposing the adoption of new models of penance, chiefly for the purpose of giving a more "communal form" to the sacrament (2). Like many progressives, Heggen found the Church's traditional practice too individualistic, but also eschewed returning to patristic disciplines because they were too harsh. He therefore advocated for the "creation of rites of penance whichare adapted to contemporary needs"; i.e., freely invented. (3) Heggen was particularly interested in linking children's First Confession with the Easter Triduum, believing the Good Friday itself was an ideal occasion for First Confession (though he does not stipulate the service below must occur on Good Friday). In his Concilium essay entitled "The Service of Penance: A Description and Appreciation of Some Models," Heggen proposes a model penance service for First Confession. I present Franz Heggen's ideal penance service in its totality, as it appeared in the pages of Concilium, No. 61 (1971), pp. 141-145, and drawn from his work in the Diocese of Roermond:

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The service itself should take place in a quiet room or building, such as a church. In the sanctuary (if the church is used), a decorated cross is placed on the left and a lighted paschal candle on the right. Between them, there must be room for the priest and six children, who have been specially instructed beforehand, so that they know what to do during the service. The children who are not in the sanctuary sit down in the front pews of the church. Each child is given a candle. These small candles could have been decorated by the children before the service and could afterwards be given, for example, to the sick as an Easter gift. In any case, fruit or other gifts are brought forward by the children towards the end of the service, to be later given to the sick or other people.

The priests conducting the service comes with the six children from the sacristy. The six children light their candles from the paschal candle and form a semicircle with the priest in the center. 

1. The Priest’s Opening Address

“We have come together today and are gathered around the cross and the candle because we belong to Jesus. It is his cross and it is his candle—his light. During Lent and especially on Good Friday, we think about how much Jesus suffered. Let us sing then—"

2. Song

3. A Teacher Now Reads, preferably from a children's Bible, such as that by J. Klink, Bible for Children, New Testament, Volume II, the story of the death of Jesus (Matt. 27:45-46; Mark 15:33-39; Luke 23:44-56), stressing the darkness which covered the earth when Jesus died. After this story, the paschal candle is extinguished and there is a short period of silence for personal prayer.

4. Priest: “It was dark. Not because of an eclipse of the sun, but because Jesus had been put to death—Jesus who was such a good man to everyone. This was very bad for his murderers and very bad for everyone. Every time a good man is murdered, the night comes—it becomes dark. Think of America. It was a terrible pity about the murder of Martin Luther King. It was a terrible pity about the man who shot Robert Kennedy—very bad, a pity for him and very bad, a sin for the whole of America, the whole of the world. Every time men do something very wrong there is less light in the world. It becomes darker. It is a great pity, very bad, for the people who do wrong, and very bad, a sin for others. Listen to some stories about things that people do which are very bad for themselves and very bad, a sin, for others."

5. The Six Children standing with their burning candles in a semicircle around the priest now say, in turn, one of the following texts in a quiet but clear voice and emphatically.

Child 1: “Two nations live side by side. They ought to live together in peace, but they wage war. It is a terrible pity, very bad for those people. It is very bad, a sin for the world. There is less light now in the world.” (The child blows his or her candle out.)

All: "Forgive us, Lord. We make the world dark around us."

Child 6: (The child standing on the outside of the semicircle on the opposite of child one): “There are so many vegetables grown in our country, but the growers often say: “We can't get the prices we want,” and throw the food away on dumps—while so many people are starving in the world. It is a terrible pity for the people who dump the food and it is very bad for the poor starving people, a sin. There is less light now. (The child blows his or her candle out.)

All: "Forgive us, Lord. We make the world dark around us."

Child 2: "An old man has been saving money all his life. Thieves break into his home and steal all his savings. It is very bad for the thieves and a sin, and very bad, for the old man. There is less light." (The child blows his or her candle out.)

All: "Forgive us, Lord. We make the world dark around us."

Child 5: "Two families quarrel. They can't stand each other. They are always upsetting each other and thinking the worst of each other. What a sin for those two families and what a pity for their friends. There is even less light. (The child blows his or her candle out.)

All: "Forgive us, Lord. We make the world dark around us."

Child 3: "A man makes his wife very unhappy. He has the chance to put it right again but he doesn't do anything. What a pity. It is so bad for the husband and so bad for his wife. Even less light." (the child blows his or her candle out.)

All: "Forgive us, Lord. We make the world dark around us."

Child 4
: "People often work terribly hard to make other people happy, but no one thinks of thanking them. How wrong of those other people and what a sin it is for all of us. Less light..." (The child blows his or her candle out.)

6. Priest: "Boys and girls, all the candles are out now. There is much less light. It is darker all around us. When this happens, people feel miserable. They feel especially miserable when they know that it is their own fault—when they know that they have made the world dark around them and others. They are sorry about it. But it is never completely dark in the world around us, because Jesus's message to every person in the world is always there—whatever has happened, it is always possible to be forgiven.

7. Song

8. “Let us now honestly confess our faults, our sins. Let us all tell God that we are sorry for the wrong things that we have done.”

Confession of guilt: “I confess to almighty God...etc.”

9. Teacher: “Who will save us? Who will take away the darkness? Who will be the light of the world? Who will help us to be light in the world? Listen to this Bible story about Jesus." (The teacher here reads, again preferably from a children's Bible, such as the Bible for Children by J. Clink, Volume II, the story of the meeting with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, Luke 24: 9-32, stressing the Christians' despondency after Jesus's death, then their hope and finally their certainty that he is with them. This story can also be enacted in mime by several of the children, again stressing the same elements. Finally the paschal candle is lit again.)

10. Priest: “The paschal candle is a light again—Jesus 's death was not the end. He has risen again. He is alive! He brings light to all people. But He also says—Do as I did, do good to everyone and forgive other people who have done wrong things to you. Then God will forgive you as well. That is why I can, in the name of Jesus, say to you: may almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you your sins, and bring you to everlasting life.

All: “Amen.”

Priest: “May the almighty and merciful Lord grant you pardon, absolution, and remission of your sins."

All: “Amen.”

11. The six children now say, in turn, one of the following texts and then light their candles again:

Child 1: “Jesus is alive. He is the light of the world. Luckily there are people who hear His message and make the world light around them. (The child lights his or her candle again from the paschal candle and goes back to his or her place.)

All: “Help us, Lord, to make the world light around us.”

(During the following readings, a few children can enact what is said in simple mime—carrying a heavy load, helping mother, perhaps by washing up, in the family, reading to a blind person, doing first aid.) 

Child 6: “There are people who notice at once if someone else needs help—they run forward at once to help him carry a heavy load. They make the world light for others. (The child lights his or her candle again from the paschal candle and goes back to his or her place.)

All: “Help us, Lord, to make the world light around us.”

Child 2: “there are people who like helping mother in a busy family. They get down to work straight away. They are a light for others. (The child lights his or her candle.)

All: “Help us, Lord, to make the world light around us.”

Child 5: “there are people who visit a blind person every week and read the newspaper aloud to him, so that he can have company and keep in touch with things. They bring light too. (The child lights his or her candle.)

All: “Help us, Lord, to make the world light around us.”

Child 3: “there are people who give other people first aid, bandage their wounds, try to lessen their pain and to comfort them if they are depressed. They are a light for others in the world. (The child lights his or her candle.)

All: “Help us, Lord, to make the world light around us.”

Child 4: “We have brought something here for sick people.” (Children from the class bring a basket of fruit or other gifts or some decorations that they have made themselves.) 

Child 4 (After having lit his or her candle): “We want to make these people happy and bring a little light into their lives.”

“Boys and girls, Jesus wants his light to be spread further over the world. We can help to do that and we can show each other that we are going to help to spread Jesus light over the world. Bring your candles forward now and receive the light of the Paschal candle—Jesus's light."

(The class now comes forward from the pews. They form a large semi-circle, or several smaller semi-circles, opposite the semicircle formed by the priest and the six children. The six children go with their lighted candles to the others and let them light their candles. They may for example say: “May your light shine everywhere.” When all the candles are alight, the priest resumes.)

Priest: “Children, Jesus will help us to be a light for others in the world around us, just as he was. He wants to give us something of his light. But he hopes that we will go out with that light, along the street, to school and home, to bring a little light whatever we can. Then Easter will be a really happy feast for us and for other people."

12. Song: (The children may perhaps be able to sing verses that they have composed themselves on the theme of light).

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Was this liturgical monstrosity ever actually used? Sadly, this seems to be the case. After introducing the text, Franz Heggen comments:
This is, in my opinion, one of the best services of penance that I know which is especially composed for children and is available at present. The text is particularly well-adapted for the needs of childrenthe point of departure is the child's concrete experience and the word of Scripture is placed within this context. The children are encouraged to take an active part in what is happening. (4)
Some observations:

The reader will notice that Heggen has the recitation of the Act of Contrition has replaced any individualized confession; six representatives of the class recite generalized accounts of social evils, say the Act of Contrition, and then receive absolution without any particular confession of sins. This is in keeping with the progressives' hatred of private confession (which will be explored in future articles). This is also specifically goes against the teaching of the Council of Trent, which said:

For it is manifest, that priests could not have exercised this judgment [of administering absolution] without knowledge of the cause; neither indeed could they have observed equity in enjoining punishments, if the said faithful should have declared their sins in general only, and not rather specifically, and one by one. Whence it is gathered that all the mortal sins, of which, after a diligent examination of themselves, they are conscious, must needs be by penitents enumerated in confession (5)

Furthermore, the traditional enumeration of personal sins for which penitents are personally culpable has been replaced by the idea of "collective sin" or "societal sin"; i.e., instead of confessing individual sins, penitents are invited to reflect on the collective moral faults of society. Rather than repent (indeed, there is no mention or even inference of repentance), children are encouraged to make the world a better place by resolving to right social ills through good deeds. There is no mention of the atoning power of Jesus's death; in fact, it is Christ's death is only mentioned as a moral evil, not as a source of salvation. Forgiveness is promised based on the children's resolution to imitate Jesus's good deeds by actively counteracting the societal evils. It is a view of redemption that is profoundly naturalistic and Pelagian.

Finally, we cannot help but notice the banal, pandering tone of the text. Fr. Zuhlsdorf used to joke that if the reformers had their way, liturgical prayer would be reduced to, "God, you are big. Real big. Help us to be big like you." Yet Heggen's texts approximate to this level of vapidity:
"Every time men do something very wrong there is less light in the world. It becomes darker. It is a great pity, very bad, for the people who do wrong, and very bad, a sin for others. Listen to some stories about things that people do which are very bad for themselves and very bad, a sin, for others."

Heggen would dethrone the Church's traditional rite of penance for this. The analogy of exchanging one's birthright for pottage has never been more applicable.


(1) Heggen Franz. "The Service of Penance: A Decsription and Appreciation of Some Models." Concilium 61 (1971), 137
(2) Ibid., 135
(3) Ibid., 145
(4) Ibid
(5) Council of Trent, Session XIV, Chap. 5



Sue Sims said...

When I was undergoing RCIA (25 years ago now), my 9-year-old son decided he wanted to become Catholic as well. He attended First Communion classes (which, because the other children were younger than him, he didn't enjoy) and therefore the 'Children's Mass' that followed those classes each month. He absolutely loathed those Masses, where they used one of the 'Eucharistic prayers for children', which he thought were patronising, continually talking down to the little ones. This children's rite of penance, quite apart from the theological abominations you've commented on, suffers from the same problem to an almost excruciating degree.

Anonymous said...

They wanted to light the Paschal candle twice on Good Friday?!?

Also lol at mentioning both King and R. Kennedy, men not exactly known for their exemplary moral lives. Their deaths were just like Jesus'!

Boniface said...


That was incredibly weird to me too. I reread it multiple times to see if I was misunderstanding him situating this on Good Friday because of the references to the Paschal candle. But then I thought it wouldn't make sense to do it *after* Easter either because the symbolism of penance, darkness, confession, etc. would be profoundly out of place with the rejoicing of the Easter season. The whole thing basically makes no sense.