Don’t celebrate Confirmation as the sacrament of leaving the Church

There’s an old joke about two pastors discussing the problem of bats in the attic of their respective churches. “I’ve tried everything,” Father Brown complains to Father Smith. “Exterminators, electric wires, traps, poison—everything—but I just can’t seem to get rid of them.”

Father Smith smiles and says, “Don’t worry. I have found the perfect solution. I had the bishop come to confirm the bats . . . and they never returned!”

Unfortunately this joke is as sad as it is funny: It accurately reflects the experience of so many pastoral ministers in the United States.

Confirmation—when celebrated during the teenage years as a rite of Christian “maturity”—often marks the moment when adolescents set aside their faith practices, sometimes for the rest of their lives.

In September 2015 the Pew Research Center reported the sobering statistic that more than half of adults raised Catholic have left the church at some point in their lives. Although a significant number of these Catholics eventually return, 4 in 10 do not. In another September 2015 article, “U.S. Catholics Open to Non-Traditional Families,” the Pew Research Center reported that nearly one tenth of the U.S. population is made up of former Catholics—many of whom likely have been confirmed.

Despite this reality, many pastors and youth ministers genuinely fear that if confirmation is conferred at another time—say, at the moment of first communion—an even higher percentage of young people will be lost to the church.

They contend that two- to three-year confirmation programs that require attendance at catechism classes and service projects seem to keep at least a percentage of young people engaged with the church through their teen years.

It is time to openly acknowledge that this approach to the sacrament of confirmation—that it is a “mature decision” on the part of adolescents to live as committed members of the church—is no longer working.

Instead this approach to confirmation seems to mark the end of catechetical instruction, serving for many as a “graduation” from the practice of the faith. The reasons for this are historical as well as pastoral and theological. Continue reading

  • Father Mark R. Francis, C.S.V. is superior general of the Clerics of St. Viator in Rome.
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