A Slap in the Face: Preparation for Suffering

Confirmation preparation is our chance to give teens something worth living for.

Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you. Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Tim. 4:12-16).

When I was confirmed, the Bishop slapped me in the face. It was a gentle ritual act, a reminder that as a Christian I would suffer for the Faith. But it made no real impression on me. I had been poorly prepared to receive the sacrament and was far more interested in how I looked in my new dress. I'd chosen a saint's name from a book without knowing why she was important. I didn't know that Confirmation completed Baptism and gave me a greater share in God's life -- real power to fuel my life's unique mission. I didn't know it required a response from me, or that I would need that grace in order to survive the suffering that would inevitably come. I really didn't know anything. So it was only a matter of time before my life tanked -- big time. (A story for another time.)

When your Confirmation students arrived for their first day of instruction, you may have found them in a pitiable state of ignorance of the Faith, much as I was. Some were probably more interested in "texting" their friends than in listening to a lecture about God. Since many of them have been away from the Church since First Holy Communion, they see Confirmation as "graduation" from religious education, a mere right of passage that entitles them to marry in the Church some day, and gets Mom (or Grandma) off their backs. In truth, it should be the beginning of a great adventure.

In strictly human terms, you could not be blamed for giving in to despair at the hopelessness of the situation. But remember that we are Christians, members of a royal priesthood, and we have God on our side; and whether they know it or not, young people are desperate for meaning and purpose, and ready for someone with an authentic, active faith to tell them the truth about God's plan of salvation.

I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future (Jer. 29:11).

We live in a materialistic culture that reduces human beings to insatiable consumers, anxious to satisfy every craving and unprepared for the pain and emptiness such a life brings. With suicide rates so high among teens it is critical that we reach them with the saving love of Jesus Christ: a life-giving message of redemptive suffering, repentance, and peace that has the power to set their hearts aflame with love and inspire them to lives of gentle heroism and personal witness. When they are reborn in Christ, they are radically configured to His sacrificial love, setting them free to live in the joy God intended for them. They become shining lights in the darkness, leaders and examples for the world to see.

Remember the paradox of Christian life, that in order to find life we must be willing to lose it? This radical call came from Christ himself and should be the foundation of every Catholic's life:

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels" (Mk. 8:34-38).

Fortunately we don't live in a country where Christians are jailed, tortured, or killed for their faith. Our suffering is more mundane, the persecution more subtle. So rather than preparing them to face physical martyrdom, we must teach young people to lay down their lives for Christ through the gift of themselves.

In conjunction with sacramental life, nothing is so profitable to the formation of a Catholic mindset as the habit of service. It teaches profound lessons that cannot be put into mere words. Young people who learn early that they can prayerfully make a difference in the world are more likely to find both purpose and joy in their later lives; and the relationships forged in service can provide lifelong friendships of great worth.