When I was 11 years old, I endured the process as a young Catholic to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. I never really understood why I had to do it at the time, as I can barely remember what I learned in Catechism classes due to my low attention span. I remember walking up the aisle lined up behind my peers, each one of us with our godparents at our sides. As we approached the archbishop in front of the altar, he placed his hand upon my head and blessed me by my confirmation name – which also happened to be my middle name. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I do remember my uncle rebuking the archbishop for not addressing me by my first name, and my aunt trying to move us along so as not to hold up the procession.
It was a rather comical experience, but in hindsight I wish I had waited until I was a bit older. I feel like I merely did it because most of my Catholic friends in my class were doing it. Yet I’m pretty sure many of them had just as much of a lack of understanding as I had.
Sadly, the last time I remember immersing myself into the faith during my adolescence was during Confirmation preparation. This was also the last time I had gone to the confessional until I returned to the Church in my 30’s. Additionally, the local priest in our small-town parish never seemed to be available to do confessions before every Mass. This kind of discouraged me from wanting to seek out confession before receiving Communion every week.
There’s an ongoing, lamentable joke among Catholics that Confirmation is known as the Sacrament of Farewell. This implies it is the last thing a cradle-Catholic goes through before they either become Catholic-in-name-only or leave the Church altogether. Considering the amount of people who identify themselves as nominal or cultural Catholics, there seems to be very little reason to identify with the Church except as a social status.
I have a theory that many Catholic families in North America are so caught up with the rat race of capitalism that anything to do with cultivating faith traditions becomes an afterthought – especially after Confirmation. Perhaps it depends on the family. But as someone who has kids of my own, I can sympathize with many parents for how difficult it can be to work enough hours to support a family as well as make the time to cultivate the faith in our children. When I come home from work every evening, I find it takes an extra push of effort to spend time with my kids and teach them biblical morals as opposed to spending time on my iPhone.
The simplest way I can describe Confirmation is that it’s kind of like a second baptism. But rather than water, it involves the laying of hands. Protestant Christians like Charismatics and Pentecostals place a tremendous amount of emphasis on being baptized in the Holy Spirit. That’s exactly what Confirmation is. It’s origins can be found in the following passages of Scripture:
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samar′ia had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.”
– Acts 8:14-17 RSV
So Anani′as departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
– Acts 9:17 RSV
And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.
– Acts 19:6 RSV
Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrines of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, with instruction about ablutions, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.
– Hebrews 6:1-2 RSV
In my observation when I was an Evangelical, adults who baptized into the faith usually put the onus on themselves to be involved in a church community. They also set aside time to read the Bible on a regular basis – whether that be getting up early in the morning, or finding a weekly group Bible study. I’ve met many, many lovely families in the Evangelical community who are deeply in love with Jesus, and that love of the Gospel is especially evident in their children. While I’ve seen that same genuine godliness in many Catholics as well, they seem to have been fewer and far between.
I think cradle-Catholics generally have a habit of going into ‘autopilot’ mode. Many families who may be less than proactive may tend to rely on strictly going to Mass in hopes that their children will somehow absorb the faith – whether it be from hearing the Scripture readings, the priest’s homily or receiving Christ through the Eucharist. But if the parents themselves do not apply what they’ve learned at Mass at home, their children will not benefit from them. In some ways, I think this is one of the reasons why so many Catholic youth grow up having a disdain for going to church. They view it as a form of punishment as opposed to something to fall in love with.
If this is the case, then why should they even bother going?
The other factor that seems to contribute to the post-Confirmation problem is the character and involvement of the priest. It’s amazing how the morale of any group is significantly influenced by whoever is leading (whether it be a teacher, boss or project leader). The job of the priesthood is not an easy one to begin with. But I think the level of Christlike authenticity in the priest’s teaching and character can directly affect the level of spiritual growth in every parish.
Thirdly, I think there is a strong parallel between post-Confirmation apostasy and the parable of the seeds,
And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away. Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”
“When any one hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in his heart; this is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the delight in riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is he who hears the word and understands it; he indeed bears fruit, and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
— Matthew 13:3-9, 19-23 RSV
I think Catholics are generally happy to have their children initiated into the Church and to receive the Sacraments. But if the parish community is not a strong and fruitful place to be, their members will either be picked off by other worldly ideas (the seeds along the path), become disillusioned and give up on the Church (the seeds on rocky ground), or get so caught up in the busyness of making money or maintaining social status (the seeds among thorns). In all three cases, it seems as though the quality of the home environment as well as the Church community plays a role in whether someone remains a Catholic after Confirmation, or a mere Christian for that matter. It’s a strong parallel with how the quality of the soil determines how the seeds will grow.
From my point of view, the responsibility of changing Confirmation from being attributed to a gateway to apostasy rests in the hands of the Body of Christ as a whole. Not only does that include the priests and the laity, but also the individual who all must put the onus on themselves to be instruments of Christ.
Because if a Catholic cannot continually open their hearts to receive God’s grace, then the Sacrament of Confirmation might as well be a bid of farewell.