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Starting Point

Never too young for the gift of guilt


It was a bright afternoon in early fall. My youngest son and I had just come home from kindergarten -- where he was a student and I was a helper -- and I was fixing lunch when I heard it.

Overhead, he was pacing. Back and forth, up and down, across the floor of the bedroom above me. I listened for a moment, puzzled, but I knew it couldn’t be anyone else. We were the only two at home.

I hesitated, then knocked lightly on his door jamb. “Honey,” I said, “what’s wrong?”

He didn’t look up, just shook his head miserably and kept on walking.

“What is it?” I insisted. Again, no answer.

“Are you in trouble at school?” He shook his head.

“Please tell me what’s bothering you.” I entered the room, crossed to him and touched his shoulder.

“I can’t.”

“Of course you can. You can tell me anything.”

“No,” he said. “I don’t want you to know.”

“Have you done something wrong?”

He looked up. “Yes,” he said.

“Well, could you tell Daddy about it when he gets home?”

His whole body seemed to shake. “I don’t want him to know either.”

“Is this something that would make Jesus sad?” I was fishing now.

He gave a vigorous nod, and sat down on his bed, dejection causing his little shoulders to drop.

Feeling helpless, I looked at him, only 5 years old and so distraught. I needed to help him, but how?

Suddenly it came to me. “I know someone you could tell,” I said. “Someone who could help you make things right with Jesus, but who wouldn’t tell anyone else -- not even me and Daddy. Would that help?”

He looked surprised and brightened a bit. “Yes,” he said.

“OK, then,” I said. I sat down beside him.

“The church offers us a sacrament -- it’s called reconciliation, which means making things right with someone. That’s just what it does. It helps us to ask for forgiveness when we have done something that has made Jesus sad.”

“Usually when children are in second grade they seem to be ready for it. But I think maybe you need it today.”

I put my arm around him and went on. “Any priest has the privilege of hearing a confession. When he does it, he is with us in Jesus’ place. We can tell him what we have done wrong, and he can pass on Jesus’ forgiveness to us, and never tell anyone what we said. Although you might remember it and feel bad that it happened, no one else will ever know.”

He was thinking it over, I could see. I went on.

“It’s up to you,” I said, “but when I am feeling bad about something wrong I’ve done, it always makes me feel better to go to confession. Would you like to try it?”

“Yes,” he said.

“OK then. Let’s go down to church and see if we can find Father.”

I still remember the walk down to the parish church at the end of our block, his small trusting hand clasped in mine. We didn’t talk. I was praying as hard as I could that we would find a confessor for this little soul.

The church’s interior was dark as we came in from the bright sunlight, but as our eyes adjusted, I saw a figure kneeling in one of the pews -- a priest I knew well from the nearby Jesuit college.

“That’s Father Schmitt,” I told my little boy. “He is very nice, and very close to Jesus. Shall I ask him to help us?”

He nodded.

Fr. Schmitt’s eyes smiled as I explained our request. He squeezed my hand as I explained that my child was really too young for formal confession.

“One is never too young to feel sorry for wrongdoing,” he said. “Guilt is a gift.”

Guilt is a gift! I had time to wonder how many adults would agree with that as I knelt far back in the church and watched the drama of forgiveness take place before me.

Hair of iron-gray and blond curls pressed close together as the two sat on the marble step in front of Mary’s altar.

I could see that Father would ask a question, and the child would nod or shake his head, and sometimes give an answer. The interchange took several minutes as I knelt, watching and being grateful for the “accident” that had placed the confessor there.

Then it was done. Both figures rose, the tall and the small. Father gave my son a big hug, and down the center aisle the child came, skipping. Skipping! His face was lightened by his smile.

“Let’s go,” he said happily when he got to me. We went. We did not speak of it on the way home, or even after that. Since that day, I have had the pleasure of watching that little boy become a man.

He is a good man, a salesman -- with a strong sense of right and wrong that will not let him misrepresent his product, even when to do so just a little would help make the sale.

“I just can’t do it,” he will say. “It just wouldn’t feel right.”

I have pondered, too, Fr. Schmitt’s statement that “guilt is a gift,” when in the world today the Eleventh Commandment seems to be “Thou shalt not get caught” -- and if you do, deny or put the blame on someone else.

I have thought about how the world would be transformed if everyone in it, from the leaders on down, when they made a mistake, even a big one, would say, “I did it, it was wrong, and I am sorry.” I think there would be a lot more smiling, and maybe even some skipping.

Janelle Lazzo writes from Roeland Park, Kan.

National Catholic Reporter, October 23, 1998