Finding Freedom in the Sacrament of Reconciliation

Here’s an article I wrote for Celebrate!, the “Pastoral Magazine with a Liturgical Heart” published six times a year by Novalis. Hopefully, they will publish it in their next issue. Enjoy!

The Sacrament of Reconciliation.

For many teens, it’s an answer to the question “What about the Catholic faith do you appreciate?”

It’s also an answer for many teens to the question “What part of our faith do you not understand or practice?”

Therein lies the beauty and complexity of the Sacrament of Reconciliation; teens can easily name it as one of the seven, yet many of them don’t frequent it regularly for various reasons: i.e. they find it intimidating, they’re not sure what to confess, or they don’t understand why they need to go to a priest instead of directly to God for forgiveness.

In Vancouver, BC, the archdiocesan Youth Ministry Office (YMO) has been holding youth reconciliation events for the past ten years in order to make the sacrament more accessible and less intimidating for youth. The event, called FREEDOM, began in 1999 and has since grown into one of the YMO’s biggest and most powerful events. Since its infancy, FREEDOM has seen close to 5,000 youth and young adult participants gather to experience the healing power of Christ.

Msgr. Mark Hagemoen, Episcopal Vicar for Pastoral Services, created the vision for the inaugural FREEDOM event in 1999 as the then-Director of the YMO. “FREEDOM was inspired by the Year of Forgiveness for the universal Catholic Church as we were preparing for the Jubilee Year. And because it was held on the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend, it was a perfect opportunity for the young people of the archdiocese to gather together and give thanks to God for His love and forgiveness.” (The YMO has since moved FREEDOM to the spring so it falls within the season of Lent.)

At the event, teens are prepared for confession through a dynamic program including skits, music, prayer, testimonies, teachings, and examination of conscience. The Archbishop of Vancouver is almost always present, along with over two dozen priests.

FREEDOM encourages youth to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and not to be afraid of it. Raymond, a youth from St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Richmond, says: “FREEDOM is a really significant event for me. The leaders and program set the perfect mood to prepare me for reconciliation and make me comfortable to confess my sins.”

FREEDOM’s popularity has spread throughout North America, with a few dioceses modeling their reconciliation services after the event.

FREEDOM incorporates many elements into its seamless four-hour long program. Like any reconciliation event for youth, its aim is to create an environment where youth are encouraged to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Irrespective of the scope and size of the event (diocesan, school, parish, or retreat), here are seven principles in planning an effective reconciliation event for youth:

1. Make the Sacrament non-intimidating (without watering it down). Confession scares many teens (and adults too!). Thus, it’s vital to create a loving and affirming atmosphere and make it a place of trust. For some young people, it’s an issue of ignorance…they simply don’t understand the theology behind the sacrament. Ensure that there is some catechesis for them, and don’t be afraid to have some fun with it. This can be accomplished through light-hearted skits and presentations.

2. Create a prayerful environment. To provide a safe and comfortable atmosphere, you can do many things with the environment that will help set the proper tone. Simple decorations, plants, candles, and music (more on music below) will help foster a warm setting, one that will hopefully encourage the youth to receive the sacrament.

3. Pay attention to how the confession stations are set up. Explain to the participants that they will have the option of going to confession anonymously or sitting face-to-face with the priest. Each confession station could have three chairs: one for the priest, one facing the priest, and one at a right-angle to the priest (off one of his shoulders). While the priest will obviously remain stationary, teens will have the choice of two chairs to sit in, depending on their comfort level.

4. Music is key. Pick appropriate songs and pick a worship leader who understands the flow of what you are trying to accomplish. We begin FREEDOM with 30 minutes of worship music, and then have the worship team provide “background music” throughout the confession time. We have them lead another 20-30 minutes of music at the end of the event before the participants leave.

5. Give options for after confession. Plan a few things for teens to do once they’ve gone to confession and completed their penance. We’ve invited prayer teams to pray with participants throughout the evening. As well, we provide light refreshments in another part of the church for some quiet social time. These provide some nice alternatives to those who don’t choose to stay to pray with the music ministry. It’s important to recognize that some teens may not even receive the sacrament, so there needs to be activities for them.

6. End in celebration. The send-off is just as important as the gathering time. Once the majority of participants have gone to confession, consider having a youth or young adult share a testimony about the freedom they experienced from receiving the Sacrament. Then, have the music ministry end with a few songs of praise and celebration so the youth go home happy!

7. Invite plenty of priests. From a practical standpoint, the more priests that are present, the less time it will take for all participants to go to confession. It is a tremendous witness to the young people to see so many priests coming and supporting them by administering the Sacrament. Do your best to secure RSVPs from the priests, so you know how many confession stations to prepare, give or take a few.

FREEDOM’s impact is not limited to teens and young adults: it affects the participating priests as well. Father James Hughes of St. Ann’s Parish in Abbotsford is a FREEDOM mainstay, and cites the event’s importance and relevance as a main reason for being involved: “It is such an inspirational event. It truly brings joy and fulfillment in my priesthood to be part of such a gathering.”

The bottom line is that youth reconciliation events are an excellent way for youth to reconcile themselves with God, with themselves, and with each other.

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