Common Wisdom: Back to the Future

The startling announcement was made before the last blessing at a recent Mass. It was nothing less than putting the genie back in the bottle. High school students not yet confirmed were urged to contact our new pastor because next year our parish reverts to the traditional practice of eighth-grade confirmation.

Twenty-four years ago, the experiment of abandoning that tradition occasioned my leaving the parish with my eighth-grade son. Those days were rife with revisions. Someone with sugarplums dancing in his head, absent common sense, decided potential confirmandi should voluntarily come to the sacrament in high school. This ignored the fact that most teens do not have cars and parental involvement remains the same. It also failed to confront the exodus here as students disperse to at least six different high-schools, some with time-consuming commutes. Conflicting schedules of sports and other activities make an agreeable time for confirmation class the labor of Sisyphus.

Most offensive of all was the misplaced emphasis on what children could bring to the sacrament, not what the sacrament offered them. It was their option to “put on hold” the grace of confirmation precisely as they entered the challenging years of high school.

Judging this to be a mistake, I threw myself on the mercy of a neighboring pastor resisting such experimentation, and my son was welcomed into his confirmation program, along with the sons of several other parents sharing my view.

True to regrettably easy prediction, most of my son’s classmates remaining “on their own” never bothered to be confirmed. Reviewed by our new pastor, this 70s innovation proved a flop. “Numbers have gone down,” he told me. He is determined to reverse the trend. Local pastors chide him for going against the stream, that there is a new order, that “we’ve changed.” He is not intimidated.

I detect an unmistakable whiff of pride in obstinacy by fellow clergy in the face of cold statistics, a reluctance to admit the old way was better than the new. But statistics are undeniable. In returning to the way it was, my pastor perceives an opportunity to influence his parochial school seventh- and eighth-graders, lost when graduates go on to various high schools. Just so. My 1976 sentiments resurrected.

For those of us of a certain age, confirmation in the eighth grade was a fixed custom. It was regarded much like the bar mitzvahs of Jewish friends, a rite of passage, a step forward on the path to spiritual maturity. Baptismal promises spoken for us as infants by our godparents now would be proclaimed from our own mouths. I remember the solemnity of the confirmation ceremony, the awesome figure of the bishop walking the aisles, asking us questions about our faith. Heart pounding, I put my hand up and was called on to answer. Happily, the Holy Spirit descended prematurely, and my response was correct.

Today, there is no hard-and-fast rule about age for confirmation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church only refers to “the age of discretion.” This allows a lot of latitude. In our archdiocese, there is no uniform policy, which invites a variety of decisions by as many pastors. I certainly understand the motivation to have confirmandi personally yearn for the sacrament instead of routinely led to it, but common sense and experience reveal that ideal as utopian and impractical.

Mine, of course, is a Pyrrhic victory. There is little satisfaction to learn that what I intuited as wrong in 1976 is similarly diagnosed by my pastor in 2000. Delayed confirmation, after all, was just one of many missteps in catechesis and liturgy in that era, which delivered a generation of Catholics woefully untutored and denied much of the beauty in worship, resulting in indifference and disconnection from their religious roots. This even after extraordinary compensatory efforts by many parents to fill in the blanks. Spiritually, it was a discouraging time to raise children. Many of these children, now adults, make their way back to the Church with their own offspring, trying to instill the faith of their fathers when they are practically illiterate themselves. They were victims of an aggressive segment of restless clergy and laity from whose wrongheaded legacy of alterations, accretions, and deletions we struggle to free ourselves. I salute my pastor in making one such restoration, in an effort to ensure a brighter future for another generation.

The promises of the sacrament are his focus, outlined in the catechism, to arm those eighth-graders with “an increase and deepening of baptismal grace, increasing the gifts of the Holy Spirit, giving strength to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, never to be ashamed of the Cross.”

In other words, an uncompromising dose of exactly what high school students have always needed.


  • B. F. Smith

    B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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