When I was about six years old, my dad took me to Alamitos bay for a day of sailing with an old shipyard buddy. As we came about on the last tack to approach the float in front of his house, my dad’s friend suggested that I go overboard, and he would throw the mooring line up to the beach. I had to confess to him that I did not know how to swim, to which my dad replied, Well, this is as good a time as ever to learn, and with that he pitched me over the side.
As the years passed, I became aware of my dad’s impulsive nature; but that day I was unprepared. I sank alongside the dinghy like a rock, the water being much deeper than Dad thought. When I finally surfaced, gasping for air and floundering about, I saw Dad standing in the boat as he tossed me a lifeline. I grabbed on hard, and in one quick motion I was plopped back on board, none the worse for wear. I look on it now as a rite of initiation, a coming of age for all boys who live by the water. Like all rites, this one had a powerful message: always know how deep the water is before you get wet.
Four years ago my daughter, Jen, asked me to teach confirmation classes to teenagers. I paused to consider what I would be getting into and how deep the water would be. I had tried to teach C.C.D. when I was in high school and was a dismal failure. In the corner of my eye was that blinking red light, the you are going to drown warning light. But Jen was enthusiastic, and they did need someone else, so I threw better sense to the wind and took the plunge. After all, I had raised three children, been a Scout leader and coached kids’ sports teams. How tough could this be?
Well, let me tell you, it was an E-coupon ride straight into Confirmation Hell. The class was full of angry, sullen teenagers delivered to the school door virtually at gunpoint by anxious parents. They had no sense of why they were there, and the parents had no clear notion of why they sent them. Everyone was trapped in a traditional Catholic ideal of what ought to be, looking to get their child’s sacrament ticket punched in the confirmation column.
To make matters worse, the textbook must have been written by someone chipped out of an iceberg. It was stodgy, linear, dogmatic and traditional. Perhaps it played well in the corn-belt, but for a bunch of California kids it was a loser. I hated to come to class to teach it and the kids hated to come and listen to it. We were in water over our heads, holding on to an anvil.
As the year ground on, I started to read whatever I could lay my hands on that addressed the issues. I found no lack of materials or opinions in magazines and periodicals. Everyone seemed to be talking about how to teach young people, especially this new generation. All of these folks were educated, with letters behind their names to reinforce their credentials. Priests, theologians, psychologists, educators and nunsall weighed in on the topic. I was impressed by the sheer weight of their thinking regarding teaching religion to teenagers. At the same time, though, I wondered, If these people are so bright and so certain, how is it that we are losing the game?
I found it odd that everywhere I looked, the issue was tinged with a sense of gallows humor. Confirm them and you will never see them again!... Confirmation may be the last religious experience they have before they are married!... Too much MTV and too modern, they will never understand the Sacred Truths! One article even told a humorous ditty about Irish pastors trying to get rid of bats in bell towers. The successful one confirmed the bats and never saw them again. How odd, and how funnyunless they are talking about your children.
I am just an average guy who works for a living, has raised a family and is interested in my parish community. I am one of the unwashed masses who teach religious education in America today. I bring some things to the tablemy years of experience, my personal faith, a Jesuit education and an overactive imagination. Nevertheless, in the minds of the theological apparatchiks who live in the gearbox of the church, I am one of those people: a nonprofessional, who by definition cannot possibly have a grasp of the issues and their complexity.
Article after article seems to affirm the idea that laypersons will teach a watered- down faith. They will teach a feel good version of religion where Jesus is your buddy. They will teach a personal relationship with Jesus kind of Catholicism that has no depth, detail or guilt. We will, quite possibly, do more harm than good. Only one thing bothered me: these people who wrote were not around when the bell rang. I was the one standing in front of the class, and for me, it was sink or swim.
We had confirmation in the spring of that first year, and I watched as a motley crew of teenagers trooped into church dressed as if they were going to a Jimmy Buffett concert. They stood bored and detached as the sacramental oil was placed on their foreheads. It was a no-brainer, a non-event. I became convinced that we could do better.
Confirmation should be a landmark event, a special day, a day of reflection, bestowing a resource to be used the rest of one’s life. It is a rite of initiation, an experience of cognizance, and as such should be something to remember. On that particular day I began to shape a vision of what confirmation ought to be, a vision that it would not be ordinary.
Converting the vision to reality begins with knowing something about the target of the effort. I am a Boomer who has raised a houseful of Generation Xers, but I was now looking down the barrel at the Next Generation, and they were looking back. If I were to teach them, I needed to learn something about them. I purchased a copy of Tom Beaudoin’s Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X. It offers an excellent insight into the generation that precedes N-Gen and provides a jumping off spot for evaluating today’s complex new teenager. As a companion, I also bought a copy of GenXers After God. Written by Todd Hahn and David Verhaagen, it provides a new look at discipling teenagers. It was the beginning of my confirmation education.
It is clear that we need to be better communicators to teach young people. One morning, outside my office, two men separated by the street squared off and began to yell at each other. Both were big men, big enough to block out the sunlight, and both were going at it hot and heavy. Their language was purple, their body movements aggressive. I stood there quietly, convinced that violence was imminent. But nothing happened; there was no fight. What I was witnessing was not a hostile interaction, but a carefully orchestrated and choreographed conversation between two friends that had a distinctive and unique rhythm to it. I didn’t understand it, but they did.
The lesson learned was that when we communicate with individuals or groups with disparate cultural, economic or generational backgrounds we must be aware of the distinctive and unique rhythm of discourse that accompanies each. To not identify or understand the rhythm places us outside of the conversation. Whether I am the speaker of ideas or the hearer, I must understand the need to adjust to the rhythm of the other person.
In my travels, I had gotten an earful from my confirmation contemporaries about the profound difference in the current crop of teenagers. They are unlike anything I have ever taught! was a common refrain. That is true. They live life at the speed of thought, information coming in cyber bursts, each teenager having a profound sense of personal empowerment and a barely recognizable standard of respect for figures of authority. As one fellow put it, They will come into your room and, without asking, remove your CD and replace it with one of their choosing, turn up the volume and think nothing of it. It is not disrespect; it is just the way they are. If I wish to teach or communicate the good news to them, then I must be able to recognize and adjust to the very unique who and what they are and adapt to their rhythm. The responsibility to change is mine, not theirs.
The message of confirmation presents its own problems. Pandering to the prediction that those confirmed will leave the church, we serve up the Sacred Truths of our faith and the rich mythology of Catholicism in an endless stream of pointless data, presenting it with all of the flair of a class in Algebra 1. There is little or no thought on our part if a teenager cares a whit about any of it. It’s a matter of instructing them with as many facts as possible to tide them over until they choose to return.
When we should be giving them something to hang onto in a challenging world, we give them facts, figures, dogma and inaccessible apologetics. The presumption is that they will face challenges from the exterior, but armed with these bites of religious factoids they will be able to sustain themselves. It is religion for the head, not the heart. The prophecy becomes self-fulfilling as we see them walking out the door. And instead of changing what we are doing, our response is, See, I told you so!
In fact, the challenges come from within, from the lonely, broken heart that has never seen itself as the beloved of God. From the boy who thinks that he is stupid, to the girl who thinks that she is ugly, to the streetwise kid who saw his cousin shot, to the one who never gets picked for basketball, the angst of teenagers cries out for healingnot for a dry dissertation of religion, but a healing of energy, hope and the presence of a God who wants nothing more than to love them.
Is Jesus is your buddy bad theology? Not if you need a friend, a lifeline to grasp or a handhold to save you. What else is spirit and faith if it is not a relationship with the Lord, a message for the heart, a place to begin?
We did not give our students a two-year course of religious education; we taught them a lifetime, experiential catechesis of faith, a walk through life with the God who loves them and the certainty that they are never alone.
We confirmed 46 students in our 2000 class last spring. I saw hope, smiles and tears of joy as the bishop lay his hands on their heads to administer the sacrament. Many of them have already taken a place as lectors, eucharistic ministers and ushers committed to being a part of our parish community. They sit on our parish council, work in the religious education program, have started a youth ministry, and this fall 12 of them came back to help teach the Confirmation 2002 class.
I had a vision that it could be better, that it could be personal and full of meaning. But what’s happened has exceeded all my expectations.