Sunday, May 29, 2011

Confirmation: The Sacrament in Search of Pastoral Practice

Today, in my mostly Hispanic parish in inner-city Joliet, we will celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation with 80 or so young people.  As one of the parish catechists, I have walked with 21 of them this year.  As a parish musician, I will have the privilege of helping them celebrate. But for many of them, I suspect, this is simply the end of a process that was pretty much pasted onto their teenage years. Despite my best efforts, I am betting  most of them will simply go through the motions of the ritual and then go on with their lives as if it never happened.  It will be merely a memory in a photo album of a day they got dressed up, went to church and then had a family party.

I know there were a few moments of evangelizing catechesis this year, but that may not make up for an entire life already spent in minimal connection to the Church and to faith. Of the 21 teens, only about 3 acknowledged regular Mass attendance. For the rest, it was occasional, or never, even though we talked about it at almost every session. Trusting in the grace of the sacrament today, I know this is for their good and part of God's plan for them somehow, and I can only hope that at least some will experience further conversion later in life and come to the practice of their faith.  I'd like to think that something I said or did will remain in their memory and someday come to fruition. However, as a catechist, I can truly say, this was not my problem, but a problem with how the Church has presented Confirmation.

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.


  1. Mustard seed.

    Well-done article.

  2. Thanks for the reminder... I just have to have more faith, I guess!

  3. At the end of each year I find myself saying, if only there were 30 class meetings, or if only we had a class for two years instead of one, or if only the blackboard were bigger, or the parents were more engaged, or the kids less tired in the evening...or whatever. But given the circumstances I can't control, I believe the kids maxed out on learning their faith.

    I think a healthy attitude is to do your best with what you have and serenely leave the rest to the Holy Spirit.

  4. Wow, this is powerful! You are speaking truth here! There is quite a large problem with confirmation and it won't change overnight.

    You know, I was one of those kids that did confirmation prep out of obligation and dropped out of religious practice soon after receiving the sacrament. And, 20 years later, the grace of that sacrament was there for me when I finally did have a real response of faith. If those kids ever do awaken to faith, it will be there for them as well. It was their right to be confirmed and you did everything you could do to prepare them for that. That's all anyone could ask.

    Of course, we all want to think we made a difference, had some impact and changed lives. Unfortunately, with kids, we don't always get the opportunities to see it. Even if we do have an influence, they won't show it to us a lot of the time.

    But, in the end, it was their right to receive the sacrament and their parent's duty to see that they did. You helped them fulfill that. Now they are fully initiated in the Church. There's so much more to that than what you can see in the face of a 13 year old. It's hard to measure what kind of impact that will have on them over time...but it can't be bad! ;-)

    Keep up the good fight!

  5. Thanks, Marc! Glad you were one who wandered back. I know some of these kids will. I just really hate the reality that catechists are handed and expected to function within. I still think we can do better.

  6. You know what, you are so right! I really think we can do better as well. The system right now is very flawed. The Church hardly spends any money on staff and developing programs. Kids are growing up disengaged from their faith, and volunteer catechists are kind of thrown into the mix without much support and expected to make things better. Many times there's little chance to make a difference because the odds are really stacked against us. It's frustrating to have a job to do and not be able to do it because those odds are so tough.

    Things do need to change, but it will be a slow process. Until then, I think Christian's attitude is gold. We do our best and leave the rest to the Holy Spirit. Still, it's hard sometimes to just think of myself as a cog in the wheel. I want to make a difference. I guess God doesn't show us all the good we're doing to keep us humble huh?