Confirmation Q&A with Archbishop Nienstedt

| March 17, 2011 | 0 Comments

Catholic Spirit editor Joe Towalski recently talked with Archbishop John Nienstedt about the sacrament of confirmation.

Q: How many confirmations do you preside at each year?

A: We do basically about 34-35 confirmations every year. . . . I do about a third of that — 12 or 13 generally in the year. [Archbishop Emeritus Harry Flynn and Bishop Lee Piché also preside at confirmations.]

We have the majority of them at the basilica or at the cathedral, which is a good thing because confirmation is not being confirmed into your local parish but it’s being confirmed into the universal church. So when the candidates and the families and the sponsors come down to the cathedral or the basilica, it helps to reinforce that idea of the universal church.

I’m grateful to both the staffs of the basilica and cathedral [including] Father Joseph Johnson and Father John Bauer. They do an awful lot of extra work to prepare for those confirmations and to clean up afterward. I just want to say a word of thanks, in my name but in the name of the whole archdiocese for what they do. And, of course, Father John Paul Erickson [director of the archdiocesan Office of Worship], who does all the scheduling.

Q: Youth today face challenges that are different than a generation or two ago. How can confirmation help them and support them as they face these challenges?

A: I’m always happy to dispel the myth that confirmation is somehow a graduation ceremony. It’s quite the opposite. Confirmation is the beginning of a process; it’s the beginning of an adult life in Christ. I’d like to say, in terms of Cape Canaveral, it’s like putting you on the launch pad; at that point the great adventure of Christian living is going to begin.

Secondly, I’d say the question is, “Why have confirmation at a high school or junior high age?” It’s because, and we don’t often refer to it, normative for the church is adult conversion and adult entrance into the faith. That’s normative, but it’s not normal. Since the phenomenon of child baptism, we do kind of the reverse. The baptism of children can go back all the way to the Acts of the Apostles when Cornelius and his whole household were brought into the faith by St. Peter. We presume there were young kids as part of that household. But the idea is that because these young people are not growing up in a vacuum, they’re growing up as a result of the sacramental union of their parents; they are being formed in the faith. And, so, what more helpful way for them to react to that formation than to have them baptized as infants.

That phenomenon creates a bit of a problem when it comes to confirmation because obviously as an infant we’re not even at the age of reason and we don’t know what’s happening to us. And, so, instead of having the RCIA or the catechumenate before we are baptized, we actually have it afterwards. That period between baptism and confirmation is a period of catechesis of being introduced into the church, into the responsibilities, into the beliefs of our faith.

Confirmation in the junior high or senior high level is really the culmination of the catechesis and the beginning of their adult insertion into the church. I think that is very important for us to keep in mind. That’s why I particularly like confirmation at that age of high school. In fact, when I was in New Ulm, our normal age was in the 11th grade. I haven’t been able to convince the pastors of that here yet. I think they’re a little more mature; they understand that they are taking on these responsibilities, and they’re more ready as they go forth from high school into college to realize the challenges that face them in the practice of their faith.

Yes, we have great challenges in our society, not only to young people, but to everyone. We’re living in a secular, materialistic, hedonistic culture, and so there are all kinds to temptations around. If you want a good catechesis on sin, you just read the morning paper, and you see the violence and the perversity that is in our society. So these young people are facing these things all the time on the Internet, in the classroom, people debating their faith. And, they really need the help of the Holy Spirit. It’s a great moment in their life.

And, what I like about it, is it’s very much a family moment. The whole family comes together for that experience. We get a little more dressed up. Grandma and Grandpa are there. It may be a few aunts and uncles, and so it’s very much a family thing.

This year in particular in my homily, I’m talking about St. Peter on Pentecost Sunday in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. I think that’s a very helpful image — what happened to Peter that morning when the Holy Spirit descended upon him. I think we can safely say that Peter, although he was a sinner and although he put his foot in his mouth quite often, he was truly converted to the Lord. He loved the Lord. He followed the Lord. He gave up everything for the Lord. So conversion isn’t what Peter experienced that morning.

What he experienced was transformation. He was totally transformed when he received the fullness of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I think that’s an analogy to what happens to our young people. At baptism, they begin the process of conversion. They are moved toward the Lord. We can’t say we wait for conversion until confirmation. But I think we can say that at the moment of confirmation and, subsequently, they’re being transformed as disciples in Christ.

Q: Do you spend a lot of time preparing your homilies for confirmation? Do you have a main theme or message you convey at each and every confirmation?

A: I spend a good part of my summer vacation reading and looking at things. I’m always looking for a good story. Two years ago, I used the example of that wonderful young lady who made an act of faith during the tragedy at Columbine High School. Last year I used a reference to the movie “Ratatouille.” This year I’m using a sequence that I read in Mark Hart’s book, “Blessed are the Bored in Spirit.” It’s an interesting religious experience he had on an airplane one morning.

I look for these stories because I think they help illustrate things to the candidates especially. And if you can reach the candidates, you can usually reach their families, too — talking about the need for this kind of religious transformation, and the need to be on fire for Christ. Then I also bring in other things from Pew Research surveys — one of which recently said that 85 percent of young millennials believe in God, but only 25 percent went to church once a month. They had a survey in which 66 percent said they thought experimentation on animals was wrong but only 33 percent thought abortion of a baby in his or her mother’s womb was wrong.

You get these statistics and you say something’s wrong here. These are all supposed to be people who believe in Christ, who believe in the church, who are practicing their faith, and yet very fundamentally their belief structure and their attitudes and their actions do not follow from their faith. So we’ve got to bring it all together, and it’s the power of the Holy Spirit that does that.

Q: Youth preparing for confirmation go through a formal process of catechesis. But, more generally, how would you like to see youth prepare in the weeks and months ahead of the day?

A: The last two years, I’ve asked for a volunteer to tell me what the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit were during the homily. Last year, I only had two young people who were able to tell me what all the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit were [wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord].

And I say to them, if you’re going to receive these gifts, how are you going to use them if you don’t know what they are? So fundamentally, it seems to be that the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit have to be memorized; they have to have an understanding of them.

I think our regular prayers — the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, the rosary, Act of Contrition, the Act of Faith, Act of Hope and Act of Love — those are things that should all be known. The Ten Commandments, obviously, and also the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.

I really like what Father [Kenneth] O’Hotto over at St. Michael’s in West St. Paul is doing. He’s got two pages of requirements that he asks [those to be confirmed] to know and then he gives them a test beforehand, and he himself gives the test. He’s got such things as the names of the Twelve Apostles, the four evangelists, mysteries of the rosary, holy days of obligation. I think that’s terrific because this is the substance of our faith. And how do we practice our faith if we don’t have the substance?

I also think that, more than when I was confirmed, we have service projects that we ask our young candidates to do ahead of time, and to do them with their sponsors in many instances. That, too, is a great teaching moment of knowing that we have to put our faith into practice.

I’m aware that many of the parishes have a two-year program for confirmation, and I totally endorse that. I think that’s very, very important.

Q: What about afterward? What should we parents and parishes be doing to keep that faithful energy going after confirmation day and to keep youth connected to the church?

A: At the end of my confirmations, I always congratulate the parents and the sponsors for what they’ve been able to do to support their candidate until that moment. But I also say, don’t give up now. Again, this is not a graduation, and we’re not just setting them loose. In order to utilize these seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, they have to have an atmosphere, they have to have a context, they have to have a family that will encourage them to use those gifts.

So we have that strange word “mystagogia” after the RCIA [a period following initiation when new members strive to deepen their understanding of the mysteries of the faith.] After one has been confirmed, there should be a period of mystagogia. That could include going Wednesday nights to class still, or being involved in a youth group.

One of the parishes that I knew in New Ulm would invite the newly confirmed back to be assistant catechists in the grade-school program, or they gave them jobs in the Sunday liturgy being greeters and ushers and readers. But we need to get them involved in the community; I think that’s very important. . . . Invite them in and have them begin to use these wonderful gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Q: What role should sponsors play for those being confirmed?

A: Years ago, when I was still in Detroit, I used to begin my homily by saying how many are here tonight. Oh, we’ve got 50, we’ve got 60. Isn’t that interesting. I’ve got 60 different questions I want to ask you. But I said to the candidates, now don’t be afraid and don’t get upset about this because if you don’t know the answer, I’m going to ask your sponsor who will surely know the answer. Well, I did that one day and this poor gentleman was sitting on the edge of the pew and he just started perspiring terribly. I, of course, was kidding, but he didn’t think I was kidding. So I stopped using that tactic from that point on.

[The sponsor] is somebody from the community who walks with that candidate through the whole process, is there to help them find their answers, to talk to them, to advise them and to counsel them and to be there as a person they can lean on. Those sponsors really do represent the community of the parish. So it’s a very important and, I think, prestigious position when someone is asked to be a sponsor.

Q: What do you remember about your own confirmation day?

A: My confirmation took place in the fourth grade. I was asthmatic as a young man, and I remember I had an asthma and bronchitis attack and I was worried I wasn’t going to make the confirmation. But I got there, and I think the one thing I remember — it was Bishop Henry Donnelly who had the confirmation. In those days he came in with a full vestment with a train and everything — a cappa magna we called it — and then he vested on the altar. Then he came down and he asked questions of us. I had my hand up constantly, but he never called on me and I remember being so disappointed that he hadn’t called on me. I do remember very explicitly it was a big family day. We went back home and had Grandma and Grandpa over and some of the extended family.

My sponsor was my grandmother [on mother’s side]. She was also my godmother, too. She was very special.

Q: What else would you like to say about confirmation?

A: I really enjoy celebrating confirmation. For me, it’s not a burden or a task. I enjoy it because I think on that particular night so much comes together. I think it’s a great night for parents to sit back and with pride say yes I’ve brought my young daughter or my young son to this point in their religious experience. But then to remember it’s not the end. We all need what I would call these safeguards around us — this living community of faith that will help us bring forth the great potential of the faith.

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Category: The Lesson Plan