By Tom East, Director, Center for Ministry Development
…It is important to rediscover the richness of this sacrament, to grasp its link with the personal vocation of every baptized person and with the theology of charisms, to take greater care over the way it is presented pastorally, so that it does not become a formal and insignificant moment…
Final Document of the Synod of Bishops on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment, 2018, #61i
Confirmation awakens a young person’s experience of Baptism and points them toward sharing in Eucharist. It strengthens youth for their journey of discipleship and for active participation in the faith community. This is the richness of the sacrament that the Synod leaders speak of. Youth are in the process of choosing their direction in life. They are choosing who to be with and what to value. They are choosing their vocation. This is a significant moment and an opportunity to guide youth to encounter Christ and respond to his invitation. Confirmation speaks to this moment, but this requires a pastoral and personal approach. We are called to accompany young people as they open their hearts to the grace of the sacrament. The Synod leaders warn us of allowing the moment to become overly formalized and insignificant which sometimes happens when we reduce the process of preparation to engagement with information about God and faith instead of encounter. Christ is alive and seeks to walk with youth in this moment. Confirmation should be a strengthening and the start of renewed zeal for discipleship. Too often, the sacrament is the end instead of the beginning. The end of catechesis; the end of practice of the faith; the end of family support for faith engagement; and the end of participating in the parish. We can change the way we help youth prepare for and live out their Confirmation as a beautiful gift from God by building our confirmation ministry around the person of Christ.
Joining Youth to the Person of Christ
The content of our Catholic faith is a person, Jesus Christ. Preparing youth for the sacrament means helping youth encounter Christ and grow in the practices of discipleship.
“Sometimes even Catholics have lost or never had the chance to experience Christ personally: not Christ as a mere ‘paradigm’ or ‘value’ but as the living Lord, ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’ (Jn 14:6).”.
Saint John Paul II, Ad Limina Visit to the United States, March 1993, # 2 ii
The definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch, but also in communion and intimacy, with Jesus Christ.
General Directory for Catechesis, # 80iii
People who encounter Jesus are changed forever. When we love Jesus as our teacher and guide, we strive to know him and his ways. This is what discipleship is all about – following Jesus, learning Jesus, and allowing our lives to be fashioned to reflect the face of Christ to the world. We know Jesus through our encounter with him and by learning his ways. Dr. Michael Horan explains these two kinds of knowing:
Relational knowing includes knowing the background and facts that comprise the person’s history as well as the subtleties of spirit that make this person unique in the entire world. …. While catechesis aims ultimately at a relationship, that relationship is hollow without knowledge of the background and context that shape the person’s history. Knowing Christ, then, is to be steeped in two kinds of knowing.iv
Dr. Horan goes on to describe these two kinds of knowing as the distinction between saber and conocer in the Spanish language. Both verbs translate as “to know,” but they indicate two very different kinds of knowing. Saber means that one knows the facts and information. Conocer means that you know someone from personal encounter. Parents, pastors, bishops, youth ministry leaders, and all who love their faith and young people long for youth to encounter Christ and to know him in both senses of this word – to know him personally and to know his ways.v
The sacraments of initiation are all about these ways of knowing Christ. In baptism, we are joined to Christ, joined to his life, his love, his death, and his resurrection. We are encircled in love and drawn into His message of salvation for the world. Through Eucharist, we are nourished by Christ’s presence to share his love with others. Confirmation, as a sacrament of initiation, is a strengthening of our baptismal graces, and is linked to our reception of Eucharist.
Through this strengthening we are more firmly bound to Christ and are consecrated as witnesses to his love.
The sacrament of confirmation strengthens the baptized and obliges them more firmly to be witnesses of Christ by word and deed and to spread and defend the faith. It imprints a character, enriches by the gift of the Holy Spirit the baptized continuing on the path of Christian initiation, and binds them more perfectly to the Church.
Code of Canon Law 879vi
The Christian’s vocation is to follow Christ, passing through the waters of Baptism, receiving the seal of Confirmation and becoming part of his Body through the Eucharist. “So the Holy Spirit comes, fire after water, and you are baked into the bread which is the body of Christ” (Saint Augustine, Sermon 227).
Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, 2018, #61.
Confirmation is a strengthening of baptism that leads to a greater communion in Eucharist and witness to the world. Other Christian denominations have different visions for Confirmation; some of these ideas have also taken root in the preparation practices of Catholic parishes. For example, in our tradition, Confirmation is not youth’s ratification of baptism. (See CCC 1308) The grace of baptism is an indelible mark; youth need to accept these graces and live out their promises, but the Sacrament of Confirmation is not a decision point for youth to decide if they intend to be Catholic for life because baptism does not need “ratification.” Through prayer and preparation, youth open themselves to receive the gift that God has planned. Confirmation is also not a rite of passage into adult faith or the sacrament of Christian maturity. In many dioceses, Confirmation is provided at the age seven or age (age of discretion). Confirmation is a sacrament of initiation, so if someone has also received baptism and is receiving Eucharist, then after receiving Confirmation, that person is fully initiated. This can occur at a variety of ages.
The key is to focus upon God’s action in providing the gift of the Sacrament of Confirmation. As an unwarranted gift of God, this sacrament should celebrate what God is doing and what God seeks to do in the life of the confirmandi.
“Faith is a gift, the Holy Spirit is a gift, and sacraments celebrate the unmerited grace of God. Confirmation celebrates what God does, not what teens have shouldered.”
Rev. Paul, Turner, Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions: FDLC Newsletter
Receiving the Gift of the Sacrament of Confirmation
These understandings are important because sometimes the pastoral practices of a parish can be shaped by misguided interpretations. For example, some parishes overly emphasize the sense of youth’s choice in confirmation. In these cases, the preparation process is consistently informing youth of their choice to receive and the commitment that they are making. A young person chooses to receive the gift and the graces of the sacrament of Confirmation. It is more important to emphasize that they are already chosen by Christ. Similarly, some parishes imitate the processes of Christian initiation in developing their Confirmation preparation. All catechesis is informed by initiatory catechesis, but it is absurd for youth who are baptized and receiving Eucharist to be treated as though they are now “choosing” membership in the church and beginning their initiation. One parish, in imitation of the Rite of Christian Initiation, had the youth who were beginning their preparation process go outside and knock on the door to ask to be received inside. Imagine the confusion for a youth who one week was receiving communion with the community and the following week is forced to request entry to his own faith home.
Another pastoral concern is parishes that overly emphasize the “readiness” of youth to receive by creating rigorous processes with numerous requirements and various points of determining whether youth should be excluded from receiving. Canonical guidelines are clear. Confirmation is not reserved for an exclusive group within the church. All baptized persons are “obliged” to receive the sacrament. (see Code of Canon Law 890) The requirements focus on prayerful preparation to receive the sacrament.
To receive Confirmation, a baptized person should be suitably instructed, properly disposed, and able to renew the baptismal graces. At the time of receiving the sacrament, one should be in a state of grace, have recently received the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, have a sponsor and should have engaged in intense prayer to prepare to receive the sacrament.
Preparing Youth to Receive Confirmation
Understanding these requirements helps us to create a preparation process which focuses on those elements described in the documents. One of the big considerations is choosing how much to require from a confirmation candidate. We hope that the process of preparing will lead to greater participation in the parish, renewal of family faith, and engagement of youth in ministry and continued catechesis. When the preparation process is too big and has too many requirements, youth often feel a sense of “graduation” from participation which is the opposite of what we hope for.
Leaders often ask the question, “How can we encourage our young people to participate in youth ministry after they are confirmed?” The parish and her ministries are the context for receiving confirmation. The question is not how to encourage youth participation after confirmation. Effective parishes find ways for youth to experience their preparation for Confirmation as part of their family life, parish life and participation in youth ministry. Communities that invest in creating vibrant ministry with youth experience increased participation of youth before, during and after their participation in preparation processes. We can be intentional and connect youth to the living faith in the parish, in youth ministry and in their families as a vital part of their preparation. Our ministry can help youth know Christ, alive in their midst. These five steps help us build our process around the person of Christ.
#1: Focus on Encounter
To build our processes around the person of Christ, we begin with providing varied and consistent ways for youth to experience an encounter. This encounter with the love and mercy of Christ happens when we reconnect with the sacraments of Eucharist and Reconciliation. We promote encounters by helping youth to develop patterns of personal prayer, by engaging in service, by appreciating God’s presence in nature, through moments of silence, and reflection on scripture and the teachings of the Church. Retreats, spiritual conferences, and mission trips are often a source for encounters. Youth often experience encounters with Christ in relationships with family, trusted friends, and mentors. These experiences grow through deep belonging in the community of faith. An experience of encounter should be nurtured and cared for like a new flame.
…it happens that young people are helped to have a powerful experience of God, an encounter with Jesus that touched their hearts. But the only follow-up to this is a series of “formation” meetings featuring talks about doctrinal and moral issues, the evils of today’s world, the Church, her social doctrine, chastity, marriage, birth control and so on. As a result, many young people get bored, they lose the fire of their encounter with Christ and the joy of following him; many give up and others become downcast or negative. Rather than being too concerned with communicating a great deal of doctrine, let us first try to awaken and consolidate the great experiences that sustain the Christian life.
# 212- Christ is Alive – Christus Vivit, April 2, 2019vii
#2: Empower Parents and Renew Family Faith
Families accompany young people in faith and reveal Christ to the young. The home can be a place where young people experience encounter, formation, and unconditional love. Confirmation ministries are an opportunity to reach out to parents and help this sacramental moment become an opportunity for faith renewal for the whole family. We can build on the strengths of each family and empower parents to have faith conversations with their adolescent.
The Synod insisted that “the family continues to be the principal point of reference for young people. Children appreciate the love and care of their parents, they give importance to family bonds, and they hope to succeed in forming a family when it is their time.”
# 262- Christ is Alive – Christus Vivit, April 2, 2019
#3: Engage the Parish in Confirmation Ministry
We want youth to remember their baptism, but we also want the parish community to remember. When someone is baptized, the community makes a commitment to support the new Christian in faith and to support the parents in raising up young faithful. A parish community that accompanies young people and that joins in the mission of witness and care is a community that remembers their promise. Confirmation ministries can provide ways for a parish to pray for young people, build relationships, and find ways to include youth throughout the life and ministries of the community.
The community has an important role in the accompaniment of young people; it should feel collectively responsible for accepting, motivating, encouraging and challenging them.
# 243- Christ is Alive – Christus Vivit, April 2, 2019
… (Young people) will be better integrated into communities that are open, living their faith, eager to radiate Christ, joyful, free, fraternal and committed. These communities can be settings where they feel that it is possible to cultivate precious relationships.
# 220- Christ is Alive – Christus Vivit, April 2, 2019
#4 Accompany Young People as they Prepare for Confirmation
Confirmation ministry is about accompaniment – walking with, listening, providing formation in the context of lived experience. In Christus Vivit, Pope Francis describes this kind of personal accompaniment as essential in the process of faith.
In such places…the person-to-person contact indispensable for passing on the message can happen, something whose place cannot be taken by any pastoral resource or strategy.
# 218- Christ is Alive – Christus Vivit, April 2, 2019
Many parishes are finding ways to build their preparation process around accompaniment by having adult faith companions work together in pairs in conjunction with parents to accompany a small group of youth through preparation.
#5 Witness Faith to Candidates
Youth who are preparing for Confirmation long to experience the witness of intentional disciples who know Christ and strive to follow him daily.
The importance of witness does not mean that we should be silent about the word. Why should we not speak of Jesus, why should we not tell others that he gives us strength in life, that we enjoy talking with him, that we benefit from meditating on his words?
# 176 Christ is Alive – Christus Vivit, April 2, 2019
We empower parents, sponsors, and others who companion youth to be witnesses. The parish community also provides a witness through welcome, and inclusion. The team of people preparing youth have a special opportunity to witness to their faith, to tell the story of God alive in their life. It is a blessing in Confirmation ministries that there are so many good resources and media that can help to share the message of faith. But it is essential to remember that no video or program takes the place of the living witness of a community.
“thank the Lord for the grace of our confirmation that, filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit, we may always mirror Christ’s presence in our relations with others, our openness to those in need, and our living witness to the Gospel message of joy and peace.”
Pope Francis, Vatican City, Wednesday audience, January 29, 2014viii
Confirmation, like all sacraments, is an unmerited grace. It is part of the way that God chooses to share his love and strengthen the baptized. We are privileged to help youth prepare for Confirmation through the communities of family, parish, and youth ministry. We accompany young people and engage them in encounters. We witness a living faith and we provide space for prayer, faith growth, service, and reflection. We build our preparation ministries around the person of Christ who sends his Spirit upon disciples old and young. We stand back and get out of the way of the Holy Spirit, who has plans for these young people that are beyond our imagination!
In the journey of Christian initiation, it is above all Confirmation that allows believers to relive the Pentecostal experience of a new outpouring of the Spirit for growth and mission.
Final Document of the Synod of Bishops on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment, 2018, #61
Tom East is the Director of the Center for Ministry Development and Project Coordinator for the Certificate in Youth Ministry Studies Program. Previously, Tom was the Director of Youth Ministry and the Associate Director for Religious Education for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Tom has provided workshops on volunteer management in dioceses and parishes for over twenty-five years. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Religious Studies from Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles.