Ask Richard: My Parents Expect Me to Sponsor My Sister’s Confirmation

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

I was a Catholic, but when I made my confirmation last year I was already an atheist. That felt extremely wrong to me; the other teenagers that were making theirs believed and it was a big deal to them, but to me it was just silly. I begged my parents to not make me but it wasn’t up for discussion. I made it anyways and then my family stopped going to church because of the fit I would throw over it, but I thought finally I was done with religion.

Now my younger sister is making her confirmation and my parents want me to be her sponsor. This requires me to go to church with her every week, go to a retreat, meet with the priest, and walk her up to the alter during the ceremony. I think you can see why this would be a problem. I told my parents that I couldn’t do it, but once again it was not up for discussion. I thought maybe I could get out of it because the age requirement for a sponsor when I made it was 18, now it’s only 16, so I have no excuse.

They don’t know I’m an atheist and I’m really worried that if I told them I was they would make me go back to church; I’m almost certain that that would happen actually. So I was just going to wait out telling them until I moved out and was financially independent of them. But me telling them really isn’t the problem at hand, what I want to know is if there is any way I could get out of being her sponsor, and if not what I should do in the meantime.

Sincerely, Cecilia

Dear Cecilia,

I think you’re sensible to not reveal your atheism at this time. You’ve made it very clear to your parents that you don’t like church, but sometimes parents become very reactionary when they hear the “A” word.

Teen atheists who are under the thumbs of parents who are both religious and dictatorial often must choose between unpleasant options. They try to preserve the few good things they have in their situation, such as you have in no longer being forced to go to church all the time.

From your letter, it sounds like you’re sure that your situation will get worse if you tell your parents that you are an atheist. So the option that is less unpleasant is probably the one that will last the shortest time. The process of sponsorship has a set length. If you were to reveal your atheism now, forced church attendance and who knows what else could last much longer, perhaps as long as you are financially dependent on them.

So if you’re stuck with having to do this, then create something positive, valuable, even wonderful with it. Build a strong alliance with your younger sister.

The two of you probably have a few differences in your personalities, but sisters who have domineering parents often form close bonds to help each other endure until they are finally free to live as they choose.

Talk to her. Use your role as sponsor to your advantage, and create a just-between-the-two-of-us partnership, a rapport. Tell her that whatever she shares with you will remain confidential. What are her feelings about all this? Is she happy and excited about her confirmation? Is she nervous? Neutral? Apathetic? Conflicted? Is she a strong believer, marginal, doubtful, or does she secretly think it’s silly like someone you know?

As she begins to confide in you, honor her trust and take in whatever she shares with complete acceptance. This will probably cause her to be more receptive and accepting of your views, and more trustworthy of holding your confidences. Gradually, one step at a time the two of you can build a friendship wherein you can both be fully yourselves.

Regardless of where she stands on religion, think about how you can rise above the conflict you have with your parents, and be supportive of her, sister-to-sister. Love for our family members does not have to be canceled out by differences in religious views, and it’s a tragedy when so often people on either side choose to let that happen.

Let your basic task be helping her get through this with the least amount of difficulty, one way or another.

If she’s fully behind the confirmation, don’t spend all that time in the church and at the retreat being tense and impatient, rolling your eyes and muttering resentfully. That will just make it awful for both of you. You don’t have to pretend enthusiasm; just be easygoing and get the job done. If she has some doubts about any of it, those areas might be your opportunity to discreetly plant some seeds that might later sprout into critical thinking. If her attitude is already similar to yours, then as the two of you sit through the process you can share knowing glances and snicker about it later, and your bond will become even stronger.

Cecilia, if you focus on supporting your sister in whatever she needs rather than on your resentment for being forced to do this, you will probably end up with a friend, a confidante, a comrade, an ally. Whether she turns out to be a devout Catholic, or a freethinking atheist, or something in between, she will be a treasure in your life. Brothers and sisters who are also allies can have a unique closeness that makes them incomparably valuable throughout life.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • Silent Service

    The more I read stories like this one the more I love my Father for not letting my Mother make me go to church as a teen.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    Cecilia,

    Having you and your sister confirmed must mean a lot to your parents. It probably means more to them than regular church attendance. You are probably going to have to humor them and just be your sister’s sponsor. At the same time, I would also advise you to let your sister know that you consider the formality to be a mostly meaningless ritual done mainly to appease parents and other authority figures. You may want to postpone letting people know that you no longer believe in God, but you can tell them that you think all the Catholic rituals are only customary and only really have meaning for those people who assign meaning to them. If they start to ask you if you believe in God at all, just find a way to stay ambiguous for now and say that you don’t believe all the stuff like some kind of evangelical bible-thumping fundamentalist Christian. That will probably be something they can relate too. You can break the confirmation cycle with your own future kids.

  • tallgrass

    I’m not normally one to advocate a more confrontational approach, but perhaps Cecilia could opt out on the grounds that she’s upset with the church over child abuse, not ordaining women, its stance against abortion and/or birth control, or some other issue like that. That way, she doesn’t have to reveal that she’s an atheist, and her parents should have a hard time arguing against it. It would also lay a foundation for her later coming out as an atheist, as it would establish both her uneasiness with religion and her strong moral values (which I think would give her parents at least a little consolation when they hear the A-word).

  • Ian Reide

    First, let me express my sympathy for your situation. I was in the same, I hated every moment. Hang in there, it gets better, not right away, but it will.

    Second, you don’t need to be too passive in your acceptance of their religious bullshit. Have some fun. Ask a few tricky questions. Ask as if you care. Ask for answers to obvious contradictions. Asks as if you want real answers. Then watch those idiots squirm.

    Third, controversially, you need to think about what you will do with your parents when you can leave home. I spent decades struggling to try and create a real relationship with my parents, and every time screwed and humiliated. If you have deeply religious parents, those who would through a fit if they knew you were an atheist, I say walk away. It will be hard, it will hurt, but overall it will hurt less.

    Good luck.

  • jolly

    Don’t use the word, atheist but throw a wrench in the works whenever possible. Ask questions but sound like you are really wondering why. I was forced to be confirmed at the same time as my brother and I choose Barnabas and he chose Edward as the names the church would know us as because they were the names of a vampire and a werewolf on Dark Shadows on TV at the time. If they let me be confirmed, they’ll let anyone.

  • Silent Service

    Ian,

    That’s incredibly sad. I have issues with my parents; most of us do. But to have to write off any chance at a relationship with them would be devastating. I’m not sure I could do that if I wanted too.

  • mike b

    What a great chance to be creaative, fair, and positive. Richard’s advice is good. I have a feeling that your sister will get through all this, riding with you.

  • Blacksheep

    Ian,

    If you have deeply religious parents, those who would through a fit if they knew you were an atheist, I say walk away. It will be hard, it will hurt, but overall it will hurt less.

    So is that the atheist way – to walk away from people you love because they disagree with you – or just your own advice for living?
    Kinda weak, no?

    What if you have “deeply atheist” kids – ones who “throw a fit about going to church” – would you advise parents to walk away from them?

  • Blacksheep

    Jolly,

    If they let me be confirmed, they’ll let anyone.

    If you lied about your faith, and said you believed, why wouldn’t they confirm you?

  • Jeebus

    @ Blacksheep

    I wouldn’t be commenting on other’s lives, especially if you know nothing about them. You have no idea what Ian may have had to endure. I grew up with some kids that have cut ties with parents or other family members over issues other than religion. Maybe you should “walk a mile in Ian’s shoes” before commenting on his life decisions.

  • Liz

    I basically wrote off having a good relationship with my parents. I moved out of state shortly after i turned 18 and only talked to my mom a few times in the next two years…mostly when we drove to visit both our families…and mostly because I wasn’t about to walk completely away from my young siblings.

    Then I had a child at 20, so I talk to my mom a bit more since her focus is on my son and not me. And she hasn’t brought up any religious shit, so hopefully she realizes he’s not her religious responsibility like I was!

    It’s so hard having a mother who is NOTHING like you. And not being as fortunate as Silent Service, my dad handed her the child rearing reins and stepped back =/ I still wonder if that man is an atheist or something. He sure as hell wasn’t a Catholic and refused to go to RCIA (or whatever it was called)…

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com Anna

    Aha, I knew this topic had come up before:

    Should An Atheist Sponsor a Sibling’s Confirmation?

    Ask Richard: Teen Atheist Faces Pressure to Attend Confirmation

    Personally, I can’t imagine being put in this situation. Isn’t confirmation supposed to be a free choice? Did the priest know that you were being forced to make your own confirmation? Does he know that you’re being forced to be your sister’s sponsor? Although your parents obviously don’t seem to care, one would think that a priest would be bothered that you are being forced to participate, particularly because you’ll be making false proclamations of faith. If he believes this to be a holy ceremony, I would imagine he would object to the fact that you’re being forced to lie your way through it.

  • Liz

    @Blacksheep and why would you assume that you need to lie about your faith and say you believe in God to be confirmed? I for one, told both my parents AND the deacon who was supposed to evaluate our ‘faith’ that i didn’t really know what I believed but I was sure that I didn’t agree with Catholic doctrine and they STILL had me get confirmed. Saying it was normal to question faith and this ‘big decision’ but they knew that I would realize what kind of commitment to god I was making after I made it.

    =P

  • Nordog

    Richard,

    As apparently is your habit when giving advice, you come across as rational, prudent, wise, and kind.

    However, I cannot shake the notion that it is best for people in this situation to be honest with those around them, especially regarding “big ticket” items like faith or atheism. But then I must acknowledge that what I would tend to do (or want to do) may not be the best course of action for another person.

  • Liz

    I mean, obviously if someone stood up and denounced ‘God’ and everything about the Catholic church and downright refused to be confirmed AND repeatedly did so, they would probably accept that. But these are young adults, still living under their parents roof and still living under their rules for the next four years. It is hard to refuse doing something in a situation like that.

  • Liz

    I mean, obviously if someone stood up and denounced ‘God’ and everything about the Catholic church and downright refused to be confirmed AND repeatedly did so, they would probably accept that. But these are young adults, still living under their parents roof and still living under their rules for the next four years. It is hard to refuse doing something in a situation like that.

  • The Other Tom

    Cecilia,

    There are ways of getting out of this, but there’s always a price to pay. That price is that it will make your parents very angry, and they may take it out on you for years to come – potentially even ensuring that you don’t get a college education because of it. That’s why you must consider carefully before dodging this order: is getting out of sponsoring your sister’s confirmation worth potentially making your parents so angry that you don’t get to go to college?

    If you’re prepared to take that choice, you have a few options short of saying you’re an atheist.
    * Tell your parents you don’t believe in the ritual, that you’re just trying to live a biblically moral life in a quiet manner and the bible doesn’t say you have to be “confirmed” so you think it’s nonsense and so you want no part of it because it offends your sense of what christianity is about.
    * Tell the priest that you don’t believe in the ritual for the same reasons and don’t wish to participate. That will likely ensure that you’re out of the ceremony, at the risk of angering your parents even more.
    * Cite the bit from the bible (I think it’s in Matthew?) where Jesus orders you to pray quietly in private, and on that basis refuse to participate in any public prayer.

  • Blacksheep

    @Blacksheep and why would you assume that you need to lie about your faith and say you believe in God to be confirmed? I for one, told both my parents AND the deacon who was supposed to evaluate our ‘faith’ that i didn’t really know what I believed but I was sure that I didn’t agree with Catholic doctrine and they STILL had me get confirmed. Saying it was normal to question faith and this ‘big decision’ but they knew that I would realize what kind of commitment to god I was making after I made it.

    I would assume it for two reasons. First, because I’m familiar with the vows that are taken in a confirmation ceremony, normally in front of the congregation, which are of the “I believe…” variety. The only way to get confirmed is to go along with that.

    The second reason is that I have personally been involved in situations in which kids really felt that they didn’t believe in God or church doctrine, and really did not want to be confirmed, so we supported them by speaking to their parents and explaining that at the very least, their son/daughter is not comfortable doing this now, and please be as understanding about it as we are, and that the young person is being honest, and that faith is not about forcing someone to believe.

    I’m not being assuming, it sounds like I have simply had entirely different experiences.

  • Blacksheep

    Jeebus,

    I wouldn’t be commenting on other’s lives, especially if you know nothing about them.

    Isn’t that precisely what Ian is doing?

  • Jim H

    When I went through Catholic confirmation (at 13–way too young to understand it, IMO), I got to choose my own sponsor. “Cecelia,” this might me your way out–if your sister chooses someone else. Of course, Richard’s advice about building a rapport with her is still great advice; you might need to do that to get her to make that choice, for her own reasons. One of those would be to help put her older sister.

    @Liz and others: as I say above, confirmation is too big a deal to foist on a teenager. That’s probably why they see it as “no big deal” when a teenager isn’t sure about things; they wanted us to go through the motions so they could continue the indoctrination. (again, my opinion)

  • http://needforcognition.blogspot.com/ Christy

    What about going to confession and confessing to the priest that you’re an atheist and would only undermine your sister’s confirmation. The priest wouldn’t be able to tell your parents what you said, but would probably support you not being the sponsor!

  • doglovingirl

    I, like many others here, like Richard’s advice. I would add one caution: be careful, in your sisterly bonding, about how much you reveal about your lack of belief. If your sister is gung-ho about the confirmation (or even just lukewarm), one little eye-rolling to her on your part might send her to your parents — then your secret is out, and the consequences could be ugly. It’s exactly what you wanted to avoid. Just make sure she’s really your ally (and won’t tell your parents on you) before you do too much snickering and eye-rolling and talking about how silly it is, you know?

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com Anna

    Blacksheep,

    The second reason is that I have personally been involved in situations in which kids really felt that they didn’t believe in God or church doctrine, and really did not want to be confirmed, so we supported them by speaking to their parents and explaining that at the very least, their son/daughter is not comfortable doing this now, and please be as understanding about it as we are, and that the young person is being honest, and that faith is not about forcing someone to believe.

    That’s good, but your experience is not universal. We’re talking about children and teenagers who have been forced to undergo religious rituals against their will. Just because you haven’t witnessed it personally doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. It happened to Cecilia, it happened to Ian, it happened to Jolly, it happened to Liz, and I’m sure it has happened to thousands of others. While I’m willing to bet that the majority of parents would not force a child to undergo confirmation, there are always going to be parents for whom force (or pressure or guilt or coercion) are tactics they are ready and willing to employ. And children cannot always count on clergy members to help them out of the situation.

  • http://girlofthegaps.blogspot.com/ Nicole Schrand

    @Anna & Blacksheep,

    Having been through the Confirmation process myself (and yes, personally, I did lie through the vows and whatnot, including the bit where they ask if you’ve been coerced, out of fear of being disowned — and I still feel conflicted about this, five years later), I can say that just because the RCC claims that you can only be confirmed if you believe and are willing etc etc does not mean that they always practice what they preach. One of the boys a year older than me, an outspoken atheist forced to attend confirmation training, was clearly not a candidate for confirmation, having neither the desire nor the faith for it. He was still invited at every stage of the process (including the night of the ceremony, when he showed up at the request of some of his friends) to undergo Confirmation. Had he acquiesced due to social pressures or what have you, he would have been confirmed, regardless of what RCC doctrine says on the matter.

    On the other end of the spectrum, there was a priest at my first church who — though he grew up Catholic — wasn’t confirmed until his mid-20s because he wanted to “be sure he chose the right religion.” He constantly urged the youth group members to take their time on such an important decision. Just goes to show that some people go by the book, and others just want to inflate the membership numbers (since you can’t ever be removed from the registers, apparently).

  • http://girlofthegaps.blogspot.com/ Nicole Schrand

    Cecilia –
    I’m sorry you’re having to go through this. I would like to offer some additional advice from my own experience. Possibly it’s not relevant to your situation, but I went through a somewhat similar predicament.

    When my younger sister was getting ready to be confirmed two years after me, I was already out to my family as an atheist, and I wasn’t asked to sponsor her. However, my mother still wanted me to write her a letter for her to read on her retreat.

    I don’t know about your sister, but mine has always been extremely religious. I knew that she struggled with my atheism, so the letter I wrote was an attempt to explain my viewpoint, as well as an affirmation of support and love from me. I urged her to consider her decision to be confirmed carefully, but I also fully supported her decision. For her, unlike for me, confirmation seemed to be an uncoerced choice, so I was not opposed to her being confirmed.

    I checked with religious friends to make sure that nothing I said would be offensive or hurtful.

    My sister then proceeded to use this letter as an excuse for her own poor behavior less than a week after receiving it, claiming that it had been damaging and stressful. My entire family blamed the incident on me, and it was more than six months before things settled down from the incident.

    I suppose what I am trying to say is that while having your sister as an ally would be ideal, be careful of what you say and do. It may backfire. Take care.

  • gamer-geek

    I’m just going to leave my personal experience, from over two decades ago. I too did not want to be confirmed but my parents would have nothing of it. My eldest brother had already announced that he didn’t believe in God (college and philosophy courses were blamed for that) and my two other siblings were of a similar opinion, but not as open about it. I ended up asking my sister to be my sponsor, and she told me that she didn’t believe, to which I responded that was what made her perfect for me – she’d go through the motions my parents wanted, but neither of us would really mean any of it. Of course, I still continued as an altar server for years afterward because at least it gave me something to do when my parents forced me to go to church. It’s like putting on a little play each week!

  • http://tuibguy.com Mike Haubrich

    As a former Catholic, I understand that the role of a sponsor is to be a spiritual guide and I think it would be unethical to agree to be a “sponsor” for someone. It is quite a different thing than allowing yourself to be confirmed when you don’t believe yourself.

    As a sponsor you are standing up for the confirmand, and accepting responsibility for their spiritual growth when called upon in crisis.

    If you are afraid to be honest about your reasons for not being your sister’s sponsor, I think that the best tactic is still an honest one by explaining that a teen is still too young and not mature enough to carry that sort of role. That is the truth, and you needn’t feel like you are being evasive in using that reason.

    I had chosen a trusted adult to be my sponsor, and though I never called on him to fulfill the role following the ceremony it was rather cool when he was later elected sheriff to let my friends know that he had agreed to be my sponsor.

    I think that it would be dishonest to do this Cecilia, and fair neither to your sister nor your parents. It is unfair of them to ask you to do this and it that the best thing to do is to respectfully decline. If you choose to reveal the real reason later, then do so.

  • jolly

    Blacksheep, I didn’t lie about my non-belief. Even though I had never heard the word atheist, throughout the classes I made my lack of belief quite clear, they stopped asking me questions. My mother hinted that once I was confirmed, I wouldn’t have to go to church any more. Like most of the Catholic bs, they just want people to say things by rote, not actually think or agree with what they are saying.


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