Unleash the Gospel challenges parishes, archdiocese to re-examine sacramental prep
DETROIT — “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Thousands of young Catholics will hear those words from Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron or one of the Archdiocese of Detroit’s four auxiliary bishops in the coming weeks.
Much like the first confirmation at Pentecost, the sacrament marks a transformational moment in the life of the Catholic, when one is anointed with the Holy Spirit and sent on a mission to go out and preach Jesus Christ to the world.
“Confirmation is a sacrament of initiation, an initiation into the life of the Church,” said Patty Chase, regional coordinator of catechesis for the archdiocese’s Central Region. “Confirmation should be what jettisons us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, into a life of discipleship.”
To that end, in his pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel, Archbishop Vigneron calls on the archdiocesan offices of family life, evangelization, catechesis and Christian worship — along with every catechist in the archdiocese — to re-examine how confirmation preparation is helping to prepare new Catholics for the spiritual journey ahead.
“We’ve been in a certain model that hasn’t been effective; and it’s not just catechesis,” said Anita Houghton, catechesis coordinator for the Northeast Region. “The whole picture indeed calls for a paradigm shift in how we go about catechizing.”
Chase and Houghton, along with other catechesis leaders, say confirmation prep needs to be rooted in a wholesale re-examination of how families are evangelized as a whole. At the parish level, often this means not being afraid to try new ideas.
Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Farmington confirms parishioners baptized as infants in the spring of their eighth-grade year, a system Greg Crachiolo, director of religious education, said changed this past October, before which the parish confirmed students in the autumn of their ninth-grade year.
Although it’s just a few months’ difference, the change gives the parish more time to help form students about their role in the Church.
“By changing it to May confirmation, we’re still able to minster to these people after they have been confirmed,” Crachiolo said.
Crachiolo said having confirmation prep “compete” with the time commitments of high school left students distracted.
“A majority of folks think once they are confirmed, they’re done,” Crachiolo said. “Just check off the sacraments and get it done. The hope is that we will stay in contact with these students after confirmation.”
The parish is considering the idea of a student mentorship program, in which the recently confirmed will serve as mentors for the next group of students, Crachiolo said.
“It’s about getting these young people to start making adult commitments to the parish,” he said.
St. Anastasia Parish in Troy does confirmation in the ninth grade, allowing candidates to tackle more mature content in formation, but it does have drawbacks, said Andrew Cipolla, ninth-grade catechism coordinator at the parish.
“I’m not sure why we do it in high school; I do find the freshmen tend to be more distracted,” Cipolla said. “Perhaps if it’s done earlier, there would be more intention. (Conversely,) there is an opportunity to take more ownership of the faith. They are already choosing what classes to take in high school, what colleges to think about, and they can choose to make the faith a part of them.”
On the near opposite end of the age spectrum, Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth just completed a four-year pilot project confirming students in the fifth grade, and this year the parish confirmed students in sixth grade.
Confirming younger students provided the opportunity to incorporate parents more into the catechism program, as well as giving the parish more time to involve students in faith formation after receiving the sacrament, said Sandy O’Shaughnessy, director of religious education.
“Instead of confirmation being a carrot dangled for children when they are older, we’re treating confirmation as a sacrament that is given,” O’Shaughnessy said.
Rather than being seen as an initiation into adulthood in the faith, confirmation should be emphasized as the moment when the Holy Spirit dispenses graces onto the confirmandi, O’Shaughnessy said.
“When we were looking at what was happening when you confirm in the eighth or ninth grade, we saw children being sacramentalized but not catechized,” O’Shaughnessy said. “We wanted to look at confirmation as a gift given, so we can mature in the faith.”
Since receiving permission from Archbishop Vigneron four years ago to begin the pilot project, O’Shaughnessy said the parish has noticed students are more engaged and prepared to receive the sacrament.
“When children are younger, the families are much more involved,” O’Shaughnessy said. “There is this sense of receiving this sacrament as a family, owning it together.”
That’s not to say there aren’t drawbacks to confirming students at a younger age, O’Shaughnessy admitted. For one, younger students are often less able to comprehend the more abstract elements of the faith.
“With younger children, there is still this sense of magical thinking, which affects what you can present to them,” O’Shaughnessy said. “By sixth grade, you’re able to better understand the concept of confirmation.”
While age is an important factor to consider, it’s secondary to conveying the message of what confirmation brings, parish and archdiocesan leaders say. It’s not a conclusion or a graduation from faith formation, nor an “adult decision” about entering the faith, but rather, the moment one receives graces from the Holy Spirit, which in turn enables a person to evangelize.
“Confirmation is not about what you are committing to; it’s about what you are receiving from God,” O’Shaughnessy said. “Kids need to understand that God has a calling for their lives, and they have a responsibility to spread the gift given to them to bring others to Christ.”