Children Speak: Catholic Second Graders’ Agency and Experiences in the Sacrament of Reconciliation

Reviewed By: Brian Starks

I just read Jennifer Beste’s article in Sociology of Religion on Catholic second graders’ experience of the sacrament of reconciliation.  It is a delightful article that helps us to view the sacrament of reconciliation through the eyes of the Catholic second graders engaging in it for the very first time. Beste took inspiration from Susan Ridgely Bales’  When I Was a Child:  Children’s Interpretations of First Communion.  As a result, her approach is child-centered, and she describes it as rooted in a childhood studies approach that sees children as co-constructors of meaning.

My own academic preparation predisposed me to think of the work of Bill Corsaro in this area, although his work is not referenced in her article at all.   This is perhaps due to Beste’s disciplinary home in religious studies and the fact that Corsaro tends not to focus on religion in his work.  Regardless, the insight that children, like adults, are not just socialized into but are also co-creators of culture is an important one within and for sociology (and the sociology of religion).  This approach also guides Beste in her key conclusions.  She argues that children’s perceived sense of agency (or lack thereof) is strongly associated with their affective and attitudinal responses to Reconciliation, whether the sacrament is personally meaningful to them, and its impact on their relationship with God and others.

Beste interviewed 73 second graders culled from 5 different classes at 3 Catholic elementary schools.  Prior to her interviews, she observed each of the classes once per week for 6 or 7 weeks and attended the first reconciliation services at each school.  In the week after the services, she conducted her interviews with the children, which she described as lasting from 15-25 minutes.

While the data for her article come almost exclusively from her in-depth interviews, her article illustrates the power of multiple methods (in mostly positive though in a few critical ways).  On the positive side, she was able to recognize the surprising/personal aspects of these children’s understanding of the sacrament because she had information from her own ethnographic observations about what was taught (and NOT taught) during the preparation classes.  Consequently, what I will take away most from this article is the following:  For the children most impacted by the sacrament of reconciliation, it was a dramatic experience of purification which made them feel closer to God;  Beste contrasted this understanding with the relational (horizontal) focus she observed in the textbooks and among teachers on experiencing God’s forgiveness and inspiring them to forgive others and be active peacemakers in the world.  Purification and closeness to God were something that the children themselves appeared to construct in developing their own understanding of the Sacrament!  And this meaning appeared rooted in the children’s intense emotional experiences of the sacrament.

Beste also notes how children argued that the sacrament helped them to feel they were becoming better persons.  That is they were treating others better, committing fewer sins, etc.  In exploring this, she used the rubric of fostering moral development and argued that this arose spontaneously out of the students’ emphasis rather than from her original questionairre. Perhaps I was missing something in her argument, but I could not help but think that the textbooks and teacher’s focus on the horizontal/relational actually fit this part of student’s discussion well because it emphasized the way in which the sacrament changed their actions and orientations towards others (though they did not appear to use the term “peacemakers”).

Another positive aspect arising from Beste’s ethnographic observations was her ability to movingly describe the reconciliation ceremonies at the different schools–which I felt added something to this article.  For instance,

“At School C, families and their second graders sang songs as the children went one by one to receive Reconciliation near the altar.  When the priest made the sign of absolution, the congregation ceased singing.  After each child received the Sacrament and left the altar, the congregation celebrated by singing “Allelulia.”  After receiving the Sacrament, the children stood in a circle at the altar with their parents and received a white garment, symbolizing their Baptism and purity.  The priest called each child by name and gave each a candle lit from the Paschal Candle.  The light symbolized the light of Christ present within them.”

If we look at the description above of the reconciliation ceremony (and if we consider the linkages between Reconciliation and Baptism in terms of the forgiveness of sin), we can see that children had plenty of symbolic resources provided to them to utilize in constructing their meaning of the sacrament of reconciliation as an experience of purification drawing them closer to God–but it is also important to recognize (as Beste does) that these meanings were not dictated by the verbal guiding of textbooks and teachers.  Children are co-constructors insofar as they actively (if even subconsciously) piece together the meanings of their own personal sacramental experiences using communal resources.

On the more critical side, Beste avoids causal language in her article in favor of association because of the non-longitudinal nature of her interview data and the fact that she only interviewed the children AFTER they had experienced the sacrament.  Future research might try to ask about children’s motivations for engaging in the sacrament PRIOR TO the experience of the sacrament to avoid problematic time ordering; as well as the common problems arising from the fact that persons, as active meaning makers, construct “accounts” that make sense to themselves and others “ex post facto.”  Unfortunately, because of Beste’s recognition of this constraint on causal interpretation, Beste also appeared to avoid explicitly developing a causal model of how (perceived) agency might impact one’s consequent experience of the sacrament, although such a theory is implicit in much of her writing and would have enhanced the article as a whole.

There were other problems and questions I had with this article.  Her tables were very complicated to read (although her text walks you through them in a relatively accessible fashion).  I also wondered why she did not make more of the differences between schools.  Were the experiences at these 3 different schools and 5 different classes so uniform as to not impact the outcome of the sacrament?  Even just in the description of the actual reconciliation ceremonies, it appeared that there were many differences across schools–did this impact the experience of children?  I also wondered about the experience of those outside of Catholic schools–how might sacramental preparation differ in CCD and how could that impact both perceived agency and the meanings attached to the experience.  Methodologically, I wondered how many children were in the five classes?  What was the response rate (i.e.  how much attrition was their due to parental consent and then child consent.)  I also saw that boys were much more likely to have lukewarm/non-positive experiences and were also more likely to feel coerced into preparing for the sacrament…what gender dynamics are occuring here?  Despite these questions and/or issues with the current article, I appreciated the article and was glad that I read it.  As such, I will leave you with one last passage from the article that I found especially memorable (and not just because of the pseudonym):

Brian captured his intense emotions during the sacrament in the following way:  ”I felt like ‘Hey, I’ve been forgiven.  I’ll go give my penance and then don’t do the sins ever again.’ My stomach was jumping up and down at the beginning and the end.  Because it was nervous then happy.”  Brian was so enthusiastic as he continued to talk that I asked him to describe his least favorite part of the entire experience.  Brian paused to think, looked directly into my eyes, and said, “Leaving the sacrament.”

It certainly is worthwhile to listen to children!