“Cross the line if you did not grow up in a practicing Catholic household.”
Only two of the 54 Confirmation students taking part in the activity stepped forward. I knew from demographic data that this could not be accurate; fully 75% should have crossed. But I also had no reason to doubt their truthfulness—a few questions later, more than a third would step forward to agree with the statement that they had been forced to enter the Confirmation program against their will.
The answer, I realized, was that not only were most of the students from non-practicing households, the majority didn’t even know what the term “practicing Catholic” signified (typically, weekly Mass attendance). For them, identifying as Catholic and being a practicing Catholic were the same. Whatever we may think about that assumption, the fact is that it is increasingly common.
Working as a retreat director has given me glimpses into the spiritual lives of hundreds of Confirmation students this year alone and as Brian said, often the seeds of their faith have had little or no nourishment.
Our retreat center, as a result, has taken seriously the idea of beginning with our retreatants’ personal experiences. Sometimes, indeed, it is amazing what they do not know—Mother Teresa, for example, can no longer be referenced without explanation. But it’s also amazing what these students do know, wonder, and ponder.
A common first night activity on our Confirmation retreats is a sort of structured question-asking, with questions ranging in tone from lighthearted to profound. One retreat, I asked a relatively low-risk question to one of the retreatants in my small group. “If you could have three wishes, what would they be? You can’t ask for more wishes.”
I’ll admit it—I expected her to say she wanted perfect grades or a great car. Instead, this: “I wish I could meet my real dad. I wish I were healthy and could run around like everyone else. And I wish my grandma were still alive.”
Other retreatants started chiming in with their own responses. “I wish my brother would talk to the rest of my family.” “I wish my mom didn’t have depression.”
The next day those same retreatants, emboldened, I think, by being heard by one another and by me the night before, shared meaningful stories about the highs and lows of their faith lives. They knew their own joys and hopes, their griefs and anxieties, and I believe that they and all young people are looking for a God and a Church that responds to those experiences—that meets them where they are. That meeting creates the space for conversion and the desire for discipleship.
One of the students on a recent retreat wrote this on his evaluation: “I feel like a changed Catholic.” I wish I could ask him more about what he meant, but I think he felt that sense of being met, and felt changed by it.
The extended time and different physical space that accompany a retreat create a unique space for this meeting, conversation, and conversion to happen. The more we can create that space in Confirmation preparation, the better we’ll serve our future Church.
Sara Knutson received her Master of Divinity from Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. She currently works as a retreat director at TYME OUT Youth Ministry and Retreat Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and is beginning an outdoors retreat program this summer.