Is There Life After Confirmation?

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

“Those who have been baptized continue on the path of Christian Initiation through the Sacrament of Confirmation, by which they receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, whom the Lord sent upon the Apostles at Pentecost . . . By this gift of the Holy Spirit, the faithful are more fully conformed to Christ and are strengthened with the power to bear witness to Christ for the building up of his body in faith and charity.”

(The Rite of Confirmation.)

The Easter Season will see the celebration of a good number of Confirmations in the Diocese of Providence, sixty-some altogether, divided about equally between Bishop Evans and myself. While it makes for a very busy schedule, the parish visits for Confirmation are joyful events — for the candidates of course, but also for their sponsors, families, members of the parish, parish priests and bishops too.

It’s really encouraging to see so many families involved in the life of the Church, and so many fine young people stepping forward to profess their faith. When surveying a Confirmation class, I’m always struck by the tremendous potential that exists in our youth — intelligent, educated, talented and energetic youth — potential to do so much good for our Church and our world, to really make a difference!

At the same time, however, there’s a cloud that hangs over Confirmation these days — an elephant in the room if you will, and that’s the reality that a majority of young people being confirmed will, sooner or later, stop practicing their faith — and these days it’s often sooner rather than later.

One national statistic indicates that 80% of young Catholics fall away from the Church within ten years of receiving the Sacrament. That’s an astonishing number! Some will return to the regular practice of their faith as adults, especially when they get married (if they’re married in the Church, that is!) and have children of their own. Some will join the ranks of cultural Catholics, maintaining a structural link to the Church but attending Mass only occasionally, on Christmas and Easter for example. And some will never return to the Church, having discarded their religious practice as an unwarranted intrusion in their life, foisted upon them as children by well-meaning parents.

In any event, it’s terribly discouraging to know that so many young people, having just publicly renewed their profession of faith and commitment to Christ and his Church, will abandon the practice of their faith, with some dropping out as soon as they can. For these, Confirmation is no more than a graduation ceremony, and having placated their parents and grandparents, they’re set free to fly their separate ways.

I’m not sure what causes this widespread defection from the Church. Is it the poor example set by their parents who themselves don’t attend Mass and receive the sacraments? Is it the faulty catechesis they’ve received in the Church, either in Catholic schools or religious education programs? Is it the impact of the scandals that have rocked the Church in recent years? Or is it because the Church doesn’t provide young people with the opportunity to be involved in a meaningful way?

Or perhaps there are factors outside of the Church that militate against the participation of our youth. Is it the inevitable psychological rite of passage that young people go through – the need to spread their own wings and distance themselves from all organizations and institutions? Do they lose sight of important values in their lives and get distracted by the busyness of their careers, the lure of technology, and banal entertainment? Or, perhaps, they buy into the pervasive influence of secularism and “practical atheism” that has polluted our culture?

Is it any of these things, all of them, or perhaps something else altogether?

Regardless, it’s a sad and serious phenomenon, far removed from the goal of Confirmation quoted above that sees young people “being conformed to Christ . . . and bearing witness to Christ to build up his body in faith and charity.” When young Catholics drop out of the Church, they are, in effect, rejecting the spiritual heritage of their families, neglecting their obligations as Catholics, and refusing the saving grace of Christ that only the Church can give.

All of this leads me to mention an important program being sponsored by the Diocese on Wednesday, April 13th — the “Post-Confirmation Summit.” This gathering is being organized by the Youth Ministry Office, the Office for Religious Education and Faith Formation, and some very dedicated catechists and consultants. The Summit seeks to bring together several hundred participants — youth, parents, catechists, and pastors — to ask the question: “Is there life after Confirmation?”

In other words, to examine the questions I’ve posed here: Why do so many young people drift away from the Church after Confirmation? What are the real or perceived obstacles they encounter? What can the Church do to bring them back, or better, prevent them from leaving in the first place? And how can the Church welcome the personal and spiritual gifts that youth and young adults have to offer?

The Post-Confirmation Summit promises to be an extremely interesting and important moment for our diocesan Church. Please pray for the success of the Summit and its follow-up. And may the Holy Spirit, bestowed so generously by the Lord in the Sacrament of Confirmation, touch the hearts of our young people and move them to be lifelong, faithful disciples of Christ and active members of his holy Church.