Helping youth to know Christ, know their faith

Archbishop Nienstedt

Archbishop John C. Nienstedt

With the beginning of the second week of Easter, the Liturgy of the Hours in the Office of Readings presents us appropriately enough with the Book of Revelation, in which St. John the Evangelist receives a vision from God concerning the seven churches in the province of Asia.

The beloved disciple hears the voice of the Lord dictating both God’s praise and his concern for each of those faith communities. In almost every message, there is a clear call for repentance and conversion.

As I meditated on those passages this year, I found myself asking what message God would have for the Church of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 2013. What would be the strengths that he would affirm? What would be the concerns that he would express? What would constitute his call to repentance and conversion?

Well, since for Archbishop Flynn, Bishop Piché and myself, the Easter season is a key time for celebrating the sacrament of confirmation, I naturally thought of it as one of the topics the Lord would surely address.

Special moment

I have for the last 16 years loved presiding over confirmation, and I believe the Lord would positively affirm its celebration as a special moment when families and extended families come together to mark their special candidate’s reception of profound graces, and to rejoice in the consummation of that most special gift, the new life of baptism.

The Second Vatican Council teaches that: “. . . by the sacrament of Confirmation, [the baptized] are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit. Hence, they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed” (“Lumen Gentium,” #11).

On the other hand, I have to wonder what the overall, long-term impact of the sacrament may be.

Australian-born author and Catholic evangelist Matthew Kelly claims that empirical evidence and data he has gathered over the years from across the United States indicate that, within eight years after their confirmation, 85 percent of our Catholic young people have given up the practice of their faith. 85 percent! That is a staggering number! And, for me, it calls into question how we are catechizing our youth for this sacramental encounter.

Knowing Christ

From the earliest days of the Church, the Pentecost experience given to the apostles and the Blessed Mother was subsequently shared sacramentally with the people of God by the laying on of hands and the anointing with sacred chrism (Acts 2:38).

As the catechism teaches in paragraph 1289: “[The] anointing highlights the name ‘Christian,’ which means ‘anointed’ and derives from that of Christ himself whom God ‘anointed with the Holy Spirit.’”  (Acts 10:38).

So how, I ask myself, can the powerful grace of this sacrament not have a lasting effect on 85 percent of those who receive it?

There are several reasons, two of which I wish to highlight here.

First, I believe that many candidates preparing for confirmation have never had a personal experience with Jesus Christ.  They have known “about” him, but they have not known him! This indicates a collective failure to teach candidates how to pray, that is, to enter into a deep and intimate interpersonal relationship with Christ, who should be “our life and our all”  (cc. 2697).

Again, the catechism teaches:

“The wonder of prayer is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water: there, Christ comes to meet every human being. It is he who first seeks us and asks us for a drink. Jesus thirsts; his asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us. Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him” (cc: 2560).

Knowing the faith

Secondly, I believe that while the need to know the content of our Catholic faith is even more pressing than it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we simply do not challenge our candidates enough to know and, yes, to memorize the “facts” about the content of their faith.

For six years now, I have asked only one question in every confirmation homily: “What are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit?” This is not a throw-away inquiry.  For if confirmation is the dispensation of the fullness of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, then how will the newly confirmed know how to use these gifts if they don’t know what they are?

In the past six years, after confirming literally thousands of young men and women, only three were able to name those seven-fold gifts: wisdom and understanding, right judgment and courage, knowledge, reverence, wonder and awe. How does one live one’s faith if one does not know the content of that faith?

One of our pastors, Father Ken O’Hotto, shared with me a list of requirements he expects his confirmation candidates to know before he approves them for receiving the sacrament.

Some of those requirements are: to know by heart their prayers (Act of Contrition, Apostles Creed, Grace before and after meals, etc.), to be able to name the seven sacraments, the Twelve Apostles, the four Gospels, the marks of the Church, the mysteries of the rosary, as well as to be able to recite the Ten Commandments, the Precepts of the Church, the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.

I applaud such an important pastoral initiative. I am sure that Father’s candidates have the confidence of knowing what it means to be a believing Catholic.

Belonging to Christ

With the anointing of confirmation, the confirmand is “sealed” with the Holy Spirit. As we would seal a document of great importance, this “seal” marks the newly confirmed as belonging to Christ Jesus.

As St. Paul told the Corinthians, “It is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has commissioned us; he has put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.” (2 Corinthians 1:21-22).

“To be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit” implies a deep adherence to the person of Jesus and to his Body, the Church. It is a public assertion that one will follow the teachings of Christ and his Church, by practicing the faith, by defending the truths of that faith and by exercising charity in service to that faith.

All of the above convinces me of the importance of this sacrament in the life of every Catholic believer. I ask our pastors, our DREs and our catechists, both in our Catholic schools and in our programs of religious education, to evaluate how we are preparing our youth for confirmation, affirming what we are doing well and improving what may not be working so well.

God bless you!

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Category: That They May All Be One

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