The text of a recent speech by Father Paul Turner to the 9th liturgical congress at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome (posted over at the PrayTell blog) tells part of the story:
The utter absence of consistent pastoral practice around the world reflects a theology of confirmation in disarray. A sacrament applied to various somewhat related circumstances, confirmation continues to frustrate parents whose teens refuse to attend catechesis, children who think it has everything to do with the bishop, and bishops who enjoy visiting parishes but would prefer to spend their time in a broader exercise of pastoral leadership. Confirm a child of catechetical age at the Easter Vigil, and many parents will wonder how a non-Catholic kid younger than their own can get confirmed, but theirs cannot. The Academy has provided some helpful elucidation, but not enough to effect changes. Parishes struggle to make sense of confirmation, and the best we can do is to reassure parents that the frustration is not their fault.I suspect that teen participants in the preparation process are similarly confused. The insistence that teens re-memorize formal prayers and Mass responses they have forgotten because they never use them, that they suddenly engage in "service hours" and attend a mandatory retreat, along with the requirements to pick a saint they may have never heard of before and to connect on faith issues with a sponsor can make this entire process a foreign country from which teens are glad to receive their exit visa (the Confirmation certificate).
When we insist that teens attend two years of religious education prior to Confirmation (common in my diocese and supported by policy) and make that two years seem like a review of everything they should have learned, because we are pretty sure none of them will come back ever for further catechesis, we shoot ourselves in the foot. We get what we expect: teens who see this as their last catechesis... because catechesis is something in which they are forced to participate. Like mandatory day-school attendance, this can seem like a "sentence" to time served, enforced by parents, until they grow up and can make other choices for how to spend their time.
While there is some pastoral wisdom out there (I recently heard Sr. Gael Gensler advise a group of parish DRE's that a sponsor for Confirmation should be someone embedded in the parish community life and should be chosen at the beginning of Confirmation preparation instead of near the end), I suspect that by-in-large, we have not made much progress in making sense of Confirmation. Instead of a relational, community-immersed apprenticeship in the life of Christian discipleship, most parishes continue to present classroom-model instruction that is minimally formational and does not provide opportunities for spiritual conversion beyond the obligatory retreat.
I know I cannot fix this by myself. Next year, faced with another group of teens, I will struggle valiantly to supplement the program with whatever I can to evangelize them, but I fear I will always fall short for most of the teens - because of the insufficient structures and systems the Church has continued to provide and the limited resources of my one-DRE-with-no-assistance parish. I can't change the world, but maybe, just maybe I can change a heart or two. I pray that today, at least a few of "my" kids will receive the sacrament with hearts open to God's grace.