by Jessica Langdon
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Father Scott Wallisch really looks forward to lunchtime on Fridays.
And it has nothing to do with the cafeteria food at St. James Academy in Lenexa where the archdiocesan vocation director serves as chaplain.
No, it’s because he hears high school students’ confessions during two lunch periods — and he finds that young people are hungry for the sacrament.
“It tends to be the most important two hours of my week, as it is an encounter with God that so many of them look forward to,” said Father Wallisch. “Hardly a week goes by when there aren’t kids asking if we will have the Friday confessions.”
Archdiocesan schools offer school-wide penance services during Lent and Advent, plus other opportunities to receive the sacrament.
“None of them are forced to go,” said Father Larry Bowers, chaplain at Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park and associate pastor at Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood. “We offer it — and there’s always a good turnout.”
Father Nick Blaha, chaplain at Hayden High School in Topeka and associate pastor at Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish, likewise never finds a lull in which he just sits and waits for students.
Today’s world pushes young people to make decisions on many big issues at younger and younger ages, he said. Challenging issues from drinking and drugs to sex can present themselves, and even the media exposes them to the topics.
“They recognize that there’s a better way, and they’re looking for help from God,” said Father Blaha. “They know it’s confidential; it’s not going anywhere. They talk about it and it’s done.”
And when even the Holy Father himself turns to the sacrament — as witnessed around the world during a penance service in March — and urges all Catholics to do the same, Father Blaha points to Pope Francis’ example.
“Don’t just admire from afar,” he said. “Get in there and do as he’s showing you to do.”
Abbot James Albers, OSB, of St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, sees lines for confession before every Mass at Benedictine College and also a steady turnout at Maur Hill-Mount Academy, where he is a chaplain.
“They understand the importance of the sacrament and the need for it and what it does to their lives,” he said. “It’s tiring at times because of the great demand for confessions, but it’s a good tired. It helps me in my own faith to see this growth and desire for the sacrament of reconciliation.”
He believes the world is a more challenging place now than it was when he grew up.
“They’re facing things that just weren’t a part of culture 25-30 years ago,” he said.
Father Daniel Schmitz, chaplain at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park and associate pastor at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Leawood, can vouch for that — especially when it comes to technology, which despite its good points has created new ways to bully or exert peer pressure.
In a homily that addressed appropriate online media use, he mentioned that he was “so glad I got out of high school without Twitter and Facebook” — only to see himself quoted on Twitter shortly after.
“Youth can get influenced by so much more than when I was their age,” agreed Manuel Hernandez, who teaches theology at Immaculata High School in Leavenworth.
Between increasingly explicit TV and music choices, and a lot of extracurricular academic and athletic pressures, he feels teenagers today have a lot on their plates.
“There are things that teenagers struggle with more than the general populace . . . and so our examination of conscience is better geared toward them,” said Father Wallisch of the one used at St. James. “Relationships with friends, dating relationships, interactions with their parents and siblings, gossip, partying, and academic honesty tend to be things that high schoolers need to examine as they prepare for confession.”
At Miege, students receive a somewhat extensive sheet they can take into confession with them, but are also given additional food for thought before reconciliation.
“We had two kids read from another [examination of conscience] that was more high-school specific,” said Father Bowers, asking teens to think about things that might be going on in their lives.
For instance, gluttony doesn’t always have to be related to food, he said.
“How much time have I spent on the Internet or social networking or playing video games?” he offered as an example.
When it comes to chastity, it’s not always a matter of the movies people see or the magazines they read.
“What are you looking at on your phone?” he poses. “It’s a lot closer to their everyday life.”
Meaning in the sacrament
A lot has changed in teens’ lives between second grade when they had their first reconciliation and today, said Father
“After confirmation, they’re making a lot of adult choices,” he said. “Making a mature confession is part of that.”
Further, Father Schmitz believes learning to “ask God meaningfully for forgiveness now” can set them on a solid path toward their life’s vocation — especially if that vocation is marriage, because it entails a lot of asking for forgiveness.
As chaplain at Aquinas, he has a special place in his heart for the students and often prepares for confessions with youth in a different way than he might for a general service.
He prays the Litany of the Sacred Heart on Fridays when he hears confessions at school. And he takes inspiration from St. John Vianney’s words: “I give them a light penance and perform the rest myself.”
Confession offers a sort of outlet for young people, believes Father Bowers.
Often, especially on reality TV, people air their dirty laundry and faults very publicly, he said.
With reconciliation, it’s as if someone is telling teens they can unburden themselves of the things that are weighing on them, but “you don’t have to share this on Facebook,” he said. “You don’t have to share all the things in your life that are going on. You can keep it in this private place.”
And while confession can lift a burden or feel very freeing — no one ever says they wished they hadn’t dredged the river so things can flow clearly again — there’s even more to it, believes Father Blaha.
“What I encourage them to see confession as is not just a spiritual shower,” he said. “This is more than getting rid of stuff; it’s about putting Christ back at the center of your life. If Christ isn’t there, something else is.”
While it can work both ways, many young people enjoy confessing to someone they have gotten to know — like a chaplain — who can help them find ways to work on things in their own lives.
When Father Wallisch works with teenagers, he can easily recall his own high school days.
“I am reminded of how difficult it is to grow up, figure out what gifts and talents God has or hasn’t given you, and find your place in the world,” he said. “It isn’t always easy to reach the kids during confession, but the more they trust that you actually care about them, the more likely they will be open to suggestions and encouragement.”
The sacrament also makes an impact on him.
“I feel like I desire to confess better myself when I encounter the humility and honesty I see in many high schoolers,” he added.
Whether teens participate in confession at school, go to their parish during regular times for reconciliation, or receive the sacrament from 6 to 7 p.m. at any parish on Wednesday evenings during Lent, people who work with youth hope they will see it for the healing opportunity it is.
“Make it a part of your life,” encourages Father Schmitz. “It’s one of the most personal encounters you can have with God.”
“I have seen reconciliation change a lot of kids,” said Father Wallisch. “Their faith grows when they see that God loves them so much that he is willing to forgive them over and over as they struggle to grow in holiness.”