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Rite of passage

30 November, 1999

Barbare de Búrca looks at some of the problems and assumptions surrounding the sacrament of confirmation in handing on the faith to adolescents.

The sacrament of confirmation marks a stage on the faith journey of the young Irish Christian. But what happens then? While still cosseted by the innocence of being a child, supported by very firm structures in place through the school system, the religious education of the child in primary school initiates the child into the Christian way.

Whether this adequately prepares the young person to make an informed choice to face the challenge of a world resistant now to the regular practices of a faith journey, is debatable. In my experience, children of primary school age are still too young to make a personal, mature faith commitment. Much more support and maturity are needed before one is ready to face the hazards and the hard questions that the faith journey presents.

Three strands nurture the child’s spiritual development: home, school and the faith community. It is my experience that many parents today have no adult grounding in faith matters, and are not very articulate about the realities of Catholicism. Others feel a strong sense of alienation from the institution of Church.

Yet many yearn for a relationship with God for their children and for the Christian value system which holds such promise when lived authentically. Even though personally they may have no deep commitment or passion for Christianity, they present them for the sacraments.

The Confirmation child, in theory prepared to enter into the adult phase of the faith journey, is missing a strand of knowledgeable support from the home. The seed of faith, while sown by reception of the sacrament of baptism, fails to thrive if the lived experience of the child is at odds with what is taught in school.

The other strand, which is supplied by living in a lively faith community, is also weakening. Sunday worship, where the spiritual life is nourished through hearing the Word of God and by receiving Eucharist together, is no longer the norm it once was.

In the context of present practice, the question arises whether the ritual of the sacrament of confirmation is moving away from its religious roots. Despite its deeply religious significance, it is in danger of being perceived as merely a cultural ritual, marking a rite of passage to the age of puberty, and a time for moving out from the family/school nest to scan wider horizons. This is a challenge that has to be recognized and wrestled with by parents, teachers, and parish communities if the children of Ireland are to be nourished by the Christian tradition.

The newly-confirmed person who observes the outward practice of faith can often be out of sync with friends and other family members. Some may be playing football, sleeping late, or doing weekend work for pocket money. Others may be very actively opposed to any form of religious worship.

The secular pressures for the young person entering the fraught world of the teenage years make it hard to go against the flow. So, it is almost inevitable, unless one is strictly controlled by parents, or very graced and responsible, that a falling away from communal religious practice takes place.

To postpone the reception of the sacrament until older could, in theory, result in a more mature choice to belong to the Catholic faith. It could put a great onus on older Christians to be articulate and authentic in their personal practice, making it an attractive option to join them. But it may also deprive young people of the present grounding and grace which can flourish for them later on.

‘Handing on’ the faith: For me, this phrase implies a parcel or baton safely and neatly put into the hand of the receiver, who will progress to the journey’s end with it firmly grasped. But I did not receive faith like that. Indeed during one long barren stretch from adolescence to middle adulthood, it appeared to me that I had either dropped it or had not been given it in any authenticity or attractiveness in the first place.

At that time this was unusual as all around me family, friends and neighbours were practising in an unquestioning way and I felt like the odd one out. It is my experience that with increasing frequency the
passing on of the faith baton is fumbled and many people are in the transitional stage of disillusionment.
I am also painfully aware that it is not a simple matter of ‘passing on’ this parcel of knowledge when it finally begins to make sense.

How does faith grow? In all educational fields, the seeds of learning sown in childhood have great potential. In faith development this happens with the preparation and the reception of the sacraments, through shared practices, liturgical seasons and ceremonies and by example.

Faith seeds wait there to be broken open into flower. Some of those seeds may have been sown in the period of preparation and reception of the sacrament of confirmation. Pondering on who God is, or what life is all about, sparks for many young people an interest in nurturing a God relationship. Most young people that I know pray. It is with the institution of Church that they have difficulty. Rules are not very popular either.

From the onset of puberty there is a period of transition which follows a pattern of struggle and searching to make one’s own sense of the world. Solid intellectual, theological and moral formation, respectful space for debate and questions, and good liturgies can feed their religious understanding and imagination. Along with life’s experience, this can facilitate a leap of heart, and perhaps an opening of the gifts of the Spirit!

This article first appeared in The Messenger (April 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.