I believe a lack of understanding with regards to what the rite means in the life of faith, a lack of support from the congregation, parents, and baptismal sponsors, and a lack of commitment from all parties involved (including the pastor) contributes to such a warped image of Confirmation. I believe this, because I have been on all sides of it. In some ways, I was failed by others; and in many ways, I contributed toward failing others. The only reason I didn’t follow fully in the wayward steps of my classmates, when given the opportunity to shake the dust of church off my shoes, was because—by the grace of God—the Holy Spirit put people in my life at just the right time to guide me through feelings of being done, past complacency and disengagement, to continue asking questions and wrestling with my faith beyond the classroom. Despite popular belief, Confirmation is not an audacious attempt by the church to cram everything there is to know about the Christian faith in the hearts and minds of extra-curricular overloaded, hormonally-charged, instantly-distracted adolescents. Such an experiment would be impossible, if not absurd. Confirmation, simply put, is an affirmation of the promises made at one’s baptism. If Baptism is that which welcomes us into the community of faith, Confirmation is a means of catechesis (religious education) to help us learn what our baptism means, why it shapes our whole life, and how we live it out daily. Confirmation is not a graduation from church—a means to an end; but one among many steps in the journey of faith—a means to a means. We never fully master the Christian life of faith. From the day we are baptized to the day we are laid to rest, we participate in continually learning and growing in trusting God, living and serving—each as a member of the body of Christ, and working with the Holy Spirit to spread the gospel throughout the world.
Recently, I met with a person close to my age and the topic of their involvement in church came up. The person was quite honest about “having done their time” as an adolescent—attending Confirmation, despite its mind-numbingness, to appease mom and dad. Bemoaning their time in Confirmation—as if it were akin to serving one’s time in a prison sentence—the person quickly flip-flopped to include: “But when I have kids of my own, they’ll go to church, Sunday School, and Confirmation” as if to appease me with something I likely will never see. This person, who had attended church their “whole” adolescent life—until they “graduated” Confirmation and had the choice to not attend anymore—was not all that different from me. They had done a stint away from the church, just as I had done more or less during college; they had experienced both life’s joys and challenges, just as I do; and they had been instilled with an image of the church as important—though with an apparent shallowness, just as I had been given by a number of people in my upbringing. Yet, as I listened to this person talk about their life since that laborious time in Confirmation, I noticed something. I cannot judge the person, because I shared in many of their experiences—right or wrong—but something seemed acutely apparent about what they said. The person, perhaps not knowing the difference, had made (and was continuing to make) decisions that demonstrated a lack of depth of faith. In times, when they could have been surrounded by a loving community of sisters and brothers in Christ to encourage, support, and attend to that person amidst distress, need, or doubt, they chose to be alone. In times, when prayer would have helped keep them rooted in the grace and forgiveness of God, the person chose to turn to other means for relief. In times, when trusting in the prevailing presence of the Holy Spirit would have guided them to make different life decisions, the person went “with the flow.” That which could’ve, and should’ve been learned in Confirmation had either blown away like a feather in the winds of time, or the seed that had been planted died from a lack of watering. Either way, Confirmation failed for that person—and the signs were telltale. For that person, they had fulfilled the Christian life—as shallow as it appeared in their thoughts and words; and unless something drastically changes, any future children they have will likely participate in the same misunderstood manner.
So how do we reorient our thinking about Confirmation? How do we convey upon our youth the importance of this vital rite in the church, while not overwhelming and scaring them out of it? How do we make this adolescent catechesis a means to a means, and not a means to an end? I would be bold to offer some quick and easy answer to these very questions which many in the church have been wrestling with for decades, if not centuries. Yet, though the problem is deeply nuanced, I do believe one thing we can change begins with us and not those, themselves, who are in Confirmation. It’s easy and deeply tempting to blame the kids for their failure to get anything out of the rite (I confess, I know that all too well). Yet, if we want our youth to invest in an important means to the Christian life of faith; we must start with ourselves. Commitment begins with the grandparents, parents, and those in the community around the youth. It’s not full proof; but we’ve all heard the African proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child.” Our society is perpetually moving, further and further, into an individualistic mindset: every person for themselves. This, however, is not the case with everything. Watching our boys basketball team play a phenomenal season this past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of teamwork. Some teams have one or two star players; but the teams which are most successful, and truly inspiring are those that work altogether—complementing one another’s strengths, and picking up for each other in every player’s growing edges. The church is intended to be a community, and functions at its most faithful when altogether—affirming and caring for each other. This includes even the rite of Confirmation. When the parents, sponsors, congregation, and (even) pastor are minimally committed in the faith formation of our youth, the students see, feel, and know it—causing them to stay surface-level, at best. We can say what we will about the curriculum, the teachers, or the students themselves, but the first step—the most crucial—is commitment by all those in the church and lives of the young people. So long as our commitment is elsewhere, we can be sure the same will be the case for our children. If we want to see our youth come back only during Christmas and Easter, or hopefully after they begin families of their own, than we’re already on the right track as we’ve been doing all along. If we want our youth to become deeply rooted in their faith—freely tapping into the life-giving waters of their baptismal promises—however; we, ourselves, must be reoriented to see how Confirmation, such as everything else we experience, encounter, and do, is a means (and not an end) in the means of the Christian life. Faith is a lifelong process of learning, growing, wrestling, struggling—and being loved by God through it all. God is committed to you—through good and bad, through thick and thin—in Jesus the Crucified and Risen Christ. Renew your commitment to the life of faith—giving yourself wholly to Christ, trusting in God to love, provide, and care for you in all things. Remember your baptism, affirm the promises made at the joyous occasion, live each day in the new life given to you through Christ Jesus.