Having gone through eight confirmations aside from my own, I’ve done some thinking about how we can better prepare candidates for this singular sacrament. I want those who are marked with the chrism to know its unmistakable foreverness.
Here’s what I’ve learned as a parent observing the process this many times.
Seventh and eighth graders don’t know what they don’t know. They do know that they are starting to grow up, and that being about to grow up, their opinions about life, about faith, about everything, will matter more, if to no one else other than themselves. What they need is not here’s what you do and here’s how you do it in faith formation (what we often do –pick a saint, pick a sponsor, do a service project, learn the seven gifts, go on a retreat, to confession, and the Bishop comes this day). You’re confirmed. Here’s your certificate. Have some cake. Come to mass and continue your journey. Good luck.
What they need is for us to dare to share not only our faith but our faith journey, not only our virtues, but our wrestling with God, not only our certainty, but our decision to trust beyond ourselves in what we do not know by our senses, but only by faith. If we really want people to become intentional disciples of Jesus from the get go, we need to be just as serious about the reality of what it means from the get go.
What does that mean?
It means we tie the discernment of the saints with the discernment of the service project. We don’t prefab the opportunities except in the broadest of contexts –like the first class is about the Spiritual and Corporeal Acts of Mercy and asking them to sift through them, (with examples from scripture and modern day) and pick which of one and which of the other is their favorite.
Immerse the candidates in the hard reality of living those acts, by revealing not in rosy tones, the pervasive need and grit of providing these physical acts on more than a singular or symbolic basis. feeding the hungry, giving drinks to the thirsty, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, burying the dead, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked and providing alms for the poor, these are not one time wonders, but ongoing callings for each of us, for all of time.
Likewise, we need to underline the emotional, intellectual courage, persistence and forbearance required for spiritually bearing wrongs patiently, advising and counseling others, forgiving the sinner, teaching the ignorant, and offering these deeds invisibly. Connect the acts with the virtues that inspire and accompany them. We all think we can do it in theory but even teens know, reality is always much harder. Faith always involves joy, but faith always also involves the cross and sacrifice –a death of self, something we don’t teach, preach or acknowledge when we’re in the rosy happy glow of teaching sacramental formation.
It may seem meta, but we haven’t done well with evangelization not considering the bigger picture, the goal of our catechism –to create intentional disciples, so it’s time to start thinking broader, bigger, deeper, harder.
How do we know if we’re dying to self or engaged in self destructive behavior? How do we know if we are being selfless or trying to appear good? How do we know what we do is God’s will? These are the fundamental questions that matter that we don’t ask and worse, we don’t answer. We rely on feelings, moods, visible effects. These may be signs and comforts and reinforcements for good behaviors, happy things, even good acts, but that doesn’t make them God’s will for us individually.
We can tie holiness to the ordinary because the ordinary is what we are called to make holy. When you feed your brother, you’ve fed the hungry. When you’ve changed a baby’s diaper, you’ve clothed the naked. When you do the dishes for your mom and it’s an act of love, it’s an act of mercy, it’s an act of love, it’s an act of sacrifice. Little things with great love means doing all of that without complaint, praise, recognition or benefit. Little things with great love means doing it because it gives a good to others. It’s a much harder lesson than the simple words convey at first glance.
The ready made opportunities should be to access the process and mentor with someone who does this as a lifetime reality –like caring for addicts, homeless or prisoners, for the disabled, for the hungry, for the poor, for the needy. Our existing superstructures of Catholic Charities, outreach and pastoral ministries should make this part a natural extension of existing ministry, and allow students to wrestle perhaps each month over the two year process of preparation) with a different part of building up the body of Christ. (This is the mission of every confirmed Catholic).
Logic or efficiency isn’t the goal, immersion and experience of the deeper mystery that grace is, is.
How we both reveal and experience that grace in the service of others, in the encounter of others, is what matters, what will resonate, what will leave the soul seared by the Holy Spirit such that they can either sell everything and follow Him, or walk away sad.
The rigors of what if a student finds a particular ministry they love or hate, are things to be handled on a case by case basis, because what has hurt us most I think, is the efficiency and top down model of faith formation implementation, which is neither person nor relationship based.
When we can consider no one’s perspective because of policy, we value the policy and not the person. When we ignore the spiritual goods that come only with effort, only with struggle, only with wrestling with the intellect, with the heart, with the body, with the will, in favor of what is simple, streamlined, check marked, vetted, identifiable and efficient, we should not be shocked when people emerge unable to bear any ministry or religious development that isn’t all of those things.
Nor should we be surprised when people don’t value what has come handed to them without sacrifice, without effort, without personal will.
What else? This is a symbolic act, but I think since formation is done by the pastor and parish and school and parents and not the Bishop, Holy Week, the pastor of the parish should host a mass both for the parish student candidates (7th and 8th) and wash all their feet –because they are preparing to do this work. They are preparing to declare themselves friends of Jesus –if they abide in His love. Because it is here, they will begin their journey, with the Bishop yes, but also, in the discrete and ordinary of their lives, amongst their faith family.
Submitting one’s feet is an act of humility, of being willing to be marked early. While none of this is a guarantee, all of it is perhaps a start of sowing deeper seeds in the souls of those we hope will be steeped in the faith for all of time. It couldn’t hurt (except our pride) to recognize, all our efforts right now, are not yielding the deeper roots we’ve wanted for each of them, for all of them all along, and begin to work on that soil today with hope that God will make straight with crooked lines what we’ve done and failed to do, because God has always wanted each of us more than we imagined.