I love this story but not just because it's, well...hilarious....but because it reveals so much about the intelligence and awareness of children. That intelligence and more importantly, AWARENESS, is exactly why Pope St. Pius X allowed children of "the age of reason", usually figured to be about age 7, to receive Holy Communion, and therefore, the Sacrament of Confession.
Why? Because at that age, children can discern the Body and Blood. They are aware of Sin, of what that means, how it separates them from God, and they are most importantly aware of the fact that He gives Himself to them, in pure innocence, at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
No, they don't understand all the reasoning of 4,000 years or more of Judeo-Christian philosophy and theology, but they sure do know what is required to steal a goat and they know enough to try to hide their crime by lying about what they did.
Even more importantly, they sure do know that stealing a goat is WRONG or they wouldn't have, at the age of 5 and 7, escaped their home with a very viable plan, with a leash, walked a mile or so to a farm, liberated a goat, leashed it, and walked it home, then lied to the police officer who confronted them.
In my parish work, I have become aware of a number of local parishes that do not offer First Reconciliation before First Holy Communion. Their reasoning: children can't possibly commit mortal sin. Children don't understand sin and their "sins" aren't really sins because children don't understand what is wrong and why.
Hmmm...there's so much wrong with this, and yes, I'm going to talk about it, but first, let me tell you a little story.
Oh, the webs we weave, when first we practice to deceive....
When I was about 4 years old, I spent the morning in our little country neighborhood playing with my friends down the road. When it was time, I went home for lunch, having made solid plans to return to my friend's house to continue playing the afternoon away.
To my surprise and horror, Mom told me that no; I wouldn't be going out to play. I would be taking a nap. Of course I thew a fit becuase I was both wide awake and wanted to PLAY! Well, of course, me being 4 and Mom being Mom, she won that argument and sent me to my room, but you see, there's a bit more to this story...
As I sulkily ate my lunch, punishing Mom with my pouting silence, I came up with a plan to make Mom THINK I was napping, but I was REALLY going to go play with my friends. I was going to choose adventure and fun over obedience.
When I finished lunch, I (apparently) obediently went to my room, found one of my dolls, and placed her in my bed. You see, Mom always commented on that particular doll and how much her hair resembled mine. And I ALWAYS slept with covers over my head, even on hot summer days like that particular one, so it wasn't odd for me to cover my head but still leave a bit of hair poked out. I knew Mom would "check in" on me during my "nap", so I made sure to rustle the bedcovering a little. I think I even changed my shoes so she'd see a pair by my bed as though I'd kicked them off before climbing in.
Quickly, I opened my bedroom window, opened the screen (something my brother had recently shown me how to do), made sure there were no spiders as that was the ONLY thing that would keep me inside, and seeing that the coast was clear, I climbed out, closed the screen behind me, leaving it cracked just enough so I could open it again when I got back, and snuck around the house remaining below the windows to avoid being seen.
I spent a few hours with my friends, blissfully playing, but unfortunately, we got into a fight. I ended up stomping home, steaming mad, and because I was so angry, I completely forgot about my plan of escape and return. As such I burst through the front door, stood in the kitchen, hands on my hips and announced that I was NEVER going to play with D. and J. EVER AGAIN!
I can still see my Mom standing in the kitchen, wiping her hands off on a dishtowel, staring at me in shock and growing anger.
"I thought you were taking a nap!"
Uh oh! I can still remember the sense of horror that I had just exposed my very big lie.
I actually tried to race to my room ahead of Mom to erase the evidence, but predictably, she beat me to it, tore back the covers and exposed the deception and disobedience.
That was the first time I was ever grounded. I was four years old.
I know that some of you reading this will first question my age - four years old, running around the neighborhood? Yup, that's right, and no exaggeration. I'd been free to run around at about the age of 3, within limits. Our home was surrounded by retired couples and stay at home moms who knew all of us and where we were allowed to go and when. My friends lived the equivalent of a block from my house and we all knew to watch for traffic on the gravel that only served our immediate homes. Besides, times were very different then and there wasn't a lot of crime in our sleeply little town, and certainly not in our immediate neighborhood.
So, that objection handled, let's talk about a child's ability to reason.
1. I knew that I was disobeying my mother, and willfully so. Proof: I hid my crime and deliberately pretended to obey by going to take my "nap" without argument once Mom refused to give in. (Premeditation)
2. I went to great lengths to plan how to hide my disobedience, to include the return trip of climbing back in the window. (Deliberation)
3. I knew that if Mom discovered my deception, I'd be in BIG BIG trouble, but I did it anyway. (full knowledge that what I was doing wrong, consent to do it anyway)
What are the three elements of mortal sin? According to paragraph 1857 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a mortal sin must be an objectively grave matter, committed with full knowledge and consent.
Now, I will not say that my sin that day (or rather, slippery slope of many sins) was mortal, for the simple act of disobedience, no matter how complexly I went about it, is not normally a "grave matter", especially for a four year old. However, I would argue that it was sufficiently grave especially considering my age, the danger I could have been in, and the fact that one intent to disobey led to a whole host of other sins, including the fight with my friends which ultimately ended our friendship. (That's a long story and I don't want to tattle!)
Can children commit mortal sin? Yes, I would argue that they can. Usually, though, the fact they don't have sufficient knowledge and certainly can't reason through the consequence of their actions even if they can reason the concrete "how" to commit them, prevents them from meeting the definition of "mortal sin".
Always, though, when I speak with someone who advocates a more mature age for First Confession, if they argue on the grounds that "children aren't capable of mortal sin", I query, "Why would you wait to teach them about right, wrong, and sin when they ARE capable of doing something that grave?" Seriously...wouldn't that be like closing the barn door when the horses have already escaped?
For some reason, some adults of a certain age have no problem telling their children about right and wrong and even mete out punishments and corrections as they grow, but when it comes to Confession, they balk and say, "Oh, my kids can't really sin."
Except they do, all the time, and they are AWARE of it - but they need US to teach them what sin is and how that affects their relationship with God...and with others. How are they ever to learn about consequences if consequences aren't taught? Children know how to choose what is right, and they do THAT all the time, too, and understand that if they obey here, there are good consequences that follow, and that reinforces their good behavior. That's even basic psychology!
Confession, though, also teaches children how to identify their sins, how to correct them, and learn the consequences, not just in this life, but for the next.
And you know what? Children really really love Jesus a great deal, and they want to please Him, they want to be right with Him, and that want that deep, personal relationship with Him.
Still, there's one other thing we can't miss when talking about the Sacraments: Grace.
Not only do children need to learn how to identify sin and take responsibility for it, but they need that final revelation that SINS CAN BE FORGIVEN! Remember: God never reveals sin without revealing His Mercy.
Children can learn that, and not just learn it, but EXPERIENCE it, and then, in the Sacrament of Confession, receive the Grace to be strengthened against temptation, to be guided in learning to live in Christ. They can be placed on the path to Sainthood and perhaps, learn to never commit a mortal sin!
Dare we hope for such Grace? And why not? God freely OFFERS it!
Certainly, people can argue all day long about whether or not children can commit mortal sin, but when it comes to the mysterious workings of God's Grace in the soul, that's where the argument ends.
Why would we ever want to risk a child's eternal soul by denying them the Grace of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, especially, and properly, before they receive Our Lord's Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in their First Holy Communion?