Rethinking Confirmation?

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I teach confirmation class on Sundays. This, I think, is true for many who read this blog and especially those who write for it.  I helped out at a new parish this year, and I took the first semester to acclimate to the way things were done.  The catechists are top notch, and the parish leadership is faithful, committed, and very talented in this area.  They have created a learning environment that effectively passes on the key elements of our faith.  Talks, small group work, activities, and many other methods aid in the learning process.  It is a very fine model of catechesis.

However, as fall classes drew to a close I began to become dissatisfied with the results of our efforts. The students were learning, and they can tell me much more about Christ, the Holy Spirit, and discipleship now than when they walked through the doors in September.  What was missing was any sense of relevancy.  This information they learned had almost no impact on how they lived their lives.  This was particularly discouraging considering that the first semester was all about discipleship, and the living out of one’s faith.

I have had similar experiences in the two or three other parishes where I have taught confirmation, and the many teachers and catechists I have talked to over the years also echo this frustration.  The sad truth is this should not be a surprise. We know this is the case.  We know that students are coming to us for confirmation preparation without an invested interest in the God of Jesus Christ and his Church.  How can we expect them to apply these lessons to their lives when they don’t see the relevance?

Perhaps it is time to rethink our approach to confirmation catechesis. It is impossible for religious education classes to nurture the seeds of faith, when those seeds have undergone little or no previous development by family, friends, classmates, or society.  Understanding is not wisdom, and thus understanding the teachings of the Catholic faith is much different than having that learned faith change the way people live their lives.  Indeed, the latter must be the aim and goal of all faith formation.

What, then, needs to happen?  Instead of solely focusing on teaching students about Christ and his Church, we must teach young people how to recognize Christ already present in their lives, as well as give them opportunities to encounter Christ in the class.  It is only by helping young people encounter the great mystery of our faith in their lives that the Church’s teachings can have impact on their lives.  Gone are the days of cultural Catholicism where through practice and tradition Catholics learned how to live Christian lives. This lifestyle is no longer prevalent in American culture, and teaching as if students are already imbued with the basic elements of faith is simply unhelpful.

In the coming weeks, I hope to write a series of posts on what such a catechetical approach would look like.  How do we engage the questions and challenges facing young people today with the faith of Christ? How do we provide opportunities for encounter with Christ?  How do we facilitate conversion in a secular and consumerist world? These are only some of many questions surrounding catechesis in the twenty-first century.  Anyone have ideas?

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10 thoughts on “Rethinking Confirmation?”

  1. Brian, Thank you for posting this and for your honesty. As your forthcoming posts address this need, I’d also be interested in your thoughts about the timing of Confirmation and how it related to First Communion. I’ve heard rumors that in my own archdiocese, change is coming and those two sacraments will be offered together in 3rd or 4th grade instead of what I’m familiar with: First Communion in 2nd grade and Confirmation in 7th or 8th. I’m curious if you think the timing places or should play a role in how we rethink Confirmation. Many thanks for your post and your consideration.

    1. Hi Katie, thanks for your comment. It is a very relevant question for a number of diocese including here in Boston, and I will definitely be talking about it. The discussion brings up the uncomfortable question of the relationship between religious formation and the conferral of the sacrament. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts!

  2. I think more and more the struggle for relevancy has to do with competition. We’re competing with a variety of strong forces for the attention and INTENTION of young people. School… friends… sports… the list goes on and on. And I fear because of that we often fall into the trap of checklists and bulletpoints, where we gauge “success” in a Confirmation program by how many service hours they perform, how many sessions they attend, how many gifts or fruits of the Holy Spirit (or Commandments or Books of the Bible, etc.) we can number and name. It’s all great to know, but as you point out how do we make it RELEVANT?

    You didn’t mention service requirements and I’d be curious to read more about that. I think those experiences – when managed well – can be the most profound way for young people to understand the relevancy of their faith in their own lives as well as n the lives of others.

    Three times in your post you used the word ‘encounter,’ and I think that’s the key. How do we help our young people encounter Christ in Scripture? In the Holy Eucharist? In our world? We say “Christ is present” but how do they truly know and understand that? This has been the challenge I’ve been wrestling with, even with a program that I believe to be quite good.

  3. I agree it is time to rethink! With our Sacramental prep we are competing for attention and time (and intention as Wayne says), and doing so in a world that no longer presumes prominence of place for Church. It seems to me, we have spent too long using that as an excuse – assuming that if parents and children were really more open, the experiences would be positive and rewarding. In trying to push back against the changes in culture and multitude of time commitments we have become ever more dependent on tracking quantity as an indication of preparedness rather than the quality. So “X number of classes, X hours of retreat, X hours of service and X hours of pilgrimage, or X hours of etc” means they have completed the program. We keep trying to make changes, with the best possible intentions, but basing them on the same foundational programmatic expectations.

    What if we were to throw this all out the window? We know formation – for sacraments and for faith – is not about the number of hours. Not about the passing of a test, or the reading of a text. Formation is more profound than that. It is about the conversion of heart based on the relationship with the person of Christ or that Encounter mentioned multiple times above. It seems to me that only after the encounter, the start of a personal relationship, can the content of formation be relevant. What do I care if I am learning Books, Gifts, Lists, etc about some historical person whom I don’t really know?

    Yet, if we were to focus on the encounter, the developing of relationship, the practices that the disciples took 3 years learning, if we spent time helping our confirmandi learn what it means to be in a relationship with this person, wouldn’t the intellectual pieces then make more sense? Wouldn’t the service pieces be more grounded?

    1. It is hard to disagree with the above comments. I would like to add that ‘Formation” occurs within a Community. It is hard to expect Confirmation Candidates to embrace and live their Faith without good role models and support, including witness, from the larger Faith Community. It is true that “youth” are the future of the Church but without an on-going lived experience of God’s presence in their everyday life there will be no future. Remember in God’s time everything is present; it is the only reality. I say the “youth” will be fine when the larger Community of Faith embraces them and shares their lived experience of faith in all encounters with them. As Fr. Ron Rolheiser points out in the “Broken Lantern” God is real. The problem is there is a lack of awareness to that reality. That takes OJT by the entire community of faith from one’s BFF, their family, and the Church at all levels and we should never that we – meaning all the Baptized; regardless of age – are the Church.

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