Fr. Peter Daly
When do people in our culture make mature, life-time commitments? At age 12 or 13? Probably not.
Nevertheless, we confirm our children at that age. We ask them to state publicly that they wish to be full members of the Catholic Church. We know full well, that even as the bishop is applying oil to their foreheads, most of them will abandon the faith for a while, perhaps permanently.
This is not just a problem in the
Catholic Church. According to an article
published last fall in the Washington Post, by Presbyterian pastor Henry
Briton, the same thing happens in all the mainline Christian
denominations. Children are confirmed
and almost immediately stop participating in their churches. Seventy-five percent of Presbyterians, for
example, stop practicing after confirmation. This is compared to 59% of
non-Latino Catholics in the
For most young people, confirmation is graduation from religion. . We may see they again on a regular basis when they want to get married or perhaps some personal crisis draws them back, such as a death in the family.
Like most pastors, I am saddened by this. Not because of a lack of "institutional" identification, but because they miss out on all the support and help the family of faith can give to their young and turbulent lives.
I don't have any solution to the problem. There probably is no good solution. But I do have some suggestions.
First, we need to put this in perspective. People make all kinds of sincere promises that they do not keep. How many of us have resolved quite last New Year's day to loose weight or give up smoking? Just because people fail for one reason or another does not mean they are not sincere.
Second, we need to recognize what Rev. Briton says with pithy brevity, "Religion is caught not taught." The way insure that people, actually will live their faith in Jesus Christ is to expose them to people who are living it. We cannot expect them to memorize their way to religious commitment. We cannot treat the faith as merely a set of propositions and lists to be learned.
The practice of many bishops of interrogating the confirmandi seems to me to send the whole wrong message. There obviously can be no thorough examination of the candidates. It is a hit or miss exercise in terror for adolescents who are afraid of embarrassing themselves in front of their family and friends. It would be better if bishops would tell a story, perhaps their story. Why has the bishop persisted in the Catholic faith? Why does he find it meaningful? Who does the bishop see as a religious hero in his life who made him want to live his life in commitment to Christ and His church?
Third, every confirmation program should include some kind of retreat. Coming to faith commitment requires exposure to prayer. For many of them, the retreat is their first real experience of personal and sustained prayer.
For the young people in our parish the retreat really the most important part of confirmation. It is the actual moment that some of them really do make a true commitment. It is the first time that they hear the stories of faith of from adults and youth mentors. It is the first time they really feel the presence of the Holy Spirit in prayer. I would require a retreat from anyone about to make a serious spiritual commitment, whether in marriage, ordination, baptism or confirmation.
I know that these suggestions will not change the percentage of practicing Catholics radically. However, it might make our confirmation ceremonies a bit more meaningful and our expectations a bit more realistic.