Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Photo via iStock

The sacrament of confirmation is the pathway to an adult faith life for young people. As their teachers, it is our job to help today’s confirmation class students meet and love Jesus and live his Gospel. But our job today poses unique challenges. The young people we teach breathe an air saturated by secular social media. Their school lives were transformed for several years by Covid-19. They inhabit an online world for formal and informal learning, for social relationships, for entertainment. Studies show they have lost trust in once-sacred institutions, including our church and our democracy.
The world of trust and truth has changed. The standing of the institutional church, bishops and priests has been damaged by the scandal of sexual abuse by members of the clergy. Trust in the Boy Scouts of America, sports coaches and even doctors has also been harmed by extensive sexual abuse of young people. On top of such scandals, the political climate in the United States has destabilized the presidency, Congress and even the courts. Fundamentally, “truth” can take on a whole new meaning for today’s confirmation students. Each day they confront a world of “alternative facts.”
So why do today’s youth show up for confirmation class at all? Last year, for the first time after six years of teaching confirmation class, we asked our students on day one: What brought them to seek confirmation? We were not entirely surprised when all the students admitted they were present only because someone at home had forced them to attend and be confirmed in May. Not one of them was personally committed to receiving the sacrament, the Holy Spirit, or to embracing their adult Catholic life—at least not yet. The most frequent answer to my question: “Abuela (or Nonna, or my grandmother) said I had to be confirmed!” Yet, each year now, we see the astonishing power of the Holy Spirit transforming today’s young people as they not only grow in their understanding of the sacrament of confirmation, but embrace it.
We teach at St. Paul the Apostle Church, a Paulist parish in New York City, where our confirmation classes each year include 12 to 16 young teens age 12 to 14. They represent in many ways the racial, ethnic and language diversity of Manhattan. Some students’ families live in Section Eight housing units near our church, others in stunningly elegant condos and still others in various middle-class apartment buildings nearby. Students come from both recent immigrant and long-established American families. They attend some of the best and some of the weakest city schools.
Our teaching team is diverse as well. One of us is a young, single Peruvian-Puerto Rican American civil engineer with a masters’ degree from Columbia University; another holds a Ph.D. and is a former college president who is also a mother, grandmother and spouse. But our interns are the most powerful feature of our team. These young people were members of our class in prior years and have been confirmed. They now volunteer to co-teach with us. They dedicate time each week to help us prepare and teach an hour-long class on Sunday. Their witness, their stories animate what it means to be young and Catholic in today’s society.

Our Approach
Our team’s experience over the years suggests that catechists should aim to bring the unique wisdom and beauty of God’s love and our Catholic faith to our new confirmands rather than simply bringing the students to church. We use two major approaches to pursue this central goal. First, we have found that these teens need to know themselves better. We try to introduce them to their own powers. Second, our students also need vivid ways to meet the loving, transforming Jesus in their daily lives, online, in games, on sports fields, in classrooms and at home. 

As they come to understand their personal gifts from God and learn how Jesus can provide them clear direction for their daily lives, they are captivated by this Jesus. In class, they learn how to make the Beatitudes matter to real people. They learn to be the peacemakers, be the merciful, be the righteous who seek justice for others. 
We tell them God needs them to be Jesus for others by living as Jesus did and as Jesus calls us to live for others. These actions make the presence of Jesus at Mass and in the Eucharist more real for them. They begin to see the importance of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that they will receive in confirmation. They see how useful courage, wisdom, understanding and the other gifts will be as they pursue the work God will give them.

Few young people we encounter seem to have thought much about their own priceless abilities. We stress how unique each of them is, made, like every other person, in God’s very image. We stress how much God loves them as they are, wants them to be happy and wants to help them become the best versions of themselves.

We use language they know to explain how God will communicate with them. We sometimes talk about prayer in terms of a spiritual smartphone. Prayer allows them to communicate with God from the moment they wake in the morning, stand up and thank God for a new day to help others. It can take their smallest thoughts to God, any worries or needs they have. They have the ability to hear and feel God’s responses all day long. They just need to listen, to stay tuned in to the voice of God with them.
We explore with them the amazing gifts God has given to each of them: their conscience, their self-awareness, their own free will. We review how these remarkable capabilities, working together, create their agency. Agency is their ability, their power, to know and act: to see right from wrong, to make decisions, especially decisions to be Jesus for others. Through their agency they can admit errors, ask for forgiveness, forgive others, experience God’s forgiveness and learn from their mistakes. For many of them, this is an eye-opener.
Students learn that their abilities provide their personal spiritual superpowers against the negative forces around them. These superpowers enable them to choose to be positive forces regardless of what is going on around them. That is how Jesus was and still is. They learn that they are never alone, always are loved and needed by God. Class time spent exploring each of these gifts seems to give our students a clearer personal self-understanding, even self-appreciation. One young man told me last January, “I never knew God needed my help. I feel different about myself now.”

For the past seven years, the other major focus of our team has been wrestling with how to make the Gospel a vital story present daily in each encounter all day, wherever they are. We are so grateful to have discovered Matthew Kelly’s Decision Point as our text. Each of his 12 chapters is introduced by a set of short videos. Every one of them is lively, fast-moving visually and full of memorable stories, including some about the author’s wife and children and his efforts to be a Christian man. Kelly consistently shows how much of secular culture undermines Gospel teaching. Young people respect him, his intelligence, and his deep love of his Catholic Faith. The slogan Kelly often uses is: “Be Bold. Be Catholic.”
Using Kelly’s text and videos has inspired us to develop a pedagogical approach we call scenario-building. Each week, catechists and interns review the spiritual concept to be presented in the upcoming class. We then share moments from our own real lives in which the concept’s ideals have been challenged by cultural values or by the influence of friends, creating conflicts for us in what we chose or how we proceeded. 
For example: Jumping the subway turnstile because friends are doing it? Or not? Saying nothing when peers make racist, antisemitic or homophobic statements? Or speaking out? Letting cyberbullying occur during an on-line game? Or stopping it? Carrying an extra orange for the hungry man at the top of the subway stairs near school? Sometimes we find videos or online cartoons to present the challenges, sometimes interns tell their own stories. 
When interns share their stories with confirmation students during class, they share the problems, successes and even failures they have faced living their faith in their own daily lives. This has a huge impact on the younger confirmation students. Over months of classes, confirmands become more brave about recalling their own stories once they have heard interns’ stories about what they did: When they felt afraid to stop a bully, but knew Jesus would have, for example. Jesus’ Beatitudes are animated in students’ real lives.
We believe scenario-building (and sharing) reinforces each student’s self-knowledge, their comfort with self-examination and their ability to see Jesus and then be Jesus for others each day. Using this approach, everyone shares successes as well as failures. The idea is for students to become more comfortable with self-examination and learn how people just like themselves deal with modern life as real Christians. They begin to consider and critically observe instances in their own lives when some contemporary cultural values contrast with the values and expectations of the Gospel. In the process, Jesus’ decisions and stories become real and absorbable as a part of everyday life, too.
One important application of the students’ growing understanding of their agency involves friendships. These relationships are all-important to young teens. When we discuss relationships, we read the parable of the prodigal son and I Corinthians 13:4-8 (“Love is patient. Love is kind....”). Together we see that God’s unconditional love (agape) helps the beloved become the best version of himself or herself. Students name people who love them with “unconditional love” as well as those “fair-weather” friends who are mostly self-centered. We discuss Christ’s love for each and all of us, willing to sacrifice his life for us.
Gradually, over the months of class, we watch the Holy Spirit transforming our students’ commitment to Jesus, to their Catholic faith and to a healthier sense of themselves in modern, secular society. We know this because we almost never have an absence from class. Every year, we have new confirmands who want to become interns. Some interns have served for several years. Perhaps more important, each year parents offer reports: “Thomas has changed since confirmation class started.” “Teresa treats us differently at home now. Great thanks.”
Anytime our teaching team thinks we are leading our confirmation students, God shows us he is out ahead of us moving along with the younger people. A few years ago, a gifted musician named Anthony chose St. Cecilia as his patron saint. The bishop was a bit surprised, but Anthony said how much he would rely on St. Cecilia for guidance and inspiration with his music. This year, a shy young woman asked if she could choose St. Jude as her patron saint. She said of all the saints she had read about, his commitment to asking God for apparently impossible graces attracted her spirit. She said she wanted his inspiration to ask God for even impossible gifts for other people. We told her St. Jude was a fine choice. One young woman’s love of animals and concern for climate change brought her to choose St. Francis of Assisi. The spiritual gifts of the saint, not the saint’s gender, had directed these choices.

Finally, several years ago, as we reviewed our students’ letters to the bishop explaining why they were requesting to be confirmed, we saw that the letters talked about the real-life Jesus they had met in class and brought to their everyday lives. When we explained that the bishop would ask them questions about their faith during their confirmation Mass, they proposed suggesting some important questions of their own for the bishop to consider asking them. We asked them what they had in mind. They scrambled and produced their first question together: “Can you outline some of the ways contemporary society leads young Catholics away from what Jesus teaches?” We were stunned. To his credit, after a bit of urging, Bishop John O’Hara agreed to pose the question and the students were ready with some powerful responses. Their families at the confirmation Mass were duly impressed, as were we all. The Holy Spirit carried the day!

Each year, we watch the Holy Spirit work through these students. We adults need to actively enter into their world, too, so that the Jesus we know becomes the Jesus they know, too, as they form a unique relationship with him in our shared Catholic Church. As it was so beautifully and directly expressed by one of our students in her letter to the bishop, this younger generation of confirmands is “looking forward to the sacrament of confirmation and to being an even more…involved member of my parish…[to] think more deeply about my new saint’s name and what it means to be Catholic in America in the 21st century. I look forward to what’s next for me as a believer.”

Yes indeed, our youth are seeking to bring their faith into the 21st century, and as their teachers we have a duty to help build that bridge.

The latest from america

The head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication has defended his department's use of expelled Jesuit priest Marko Rupnik’s artwork in its official materials.
Colleen DulleJune 21, 2024
A conversation with Rachel L. Swarns, the author of "The 272: The Families Who were Enslaved and Sold to Build The American Catholic Church"
JesuiticalJune 21, 2024
Spanish Jesuit Luis María Roma, who died in 2019, was recently discovered to have abused hundreds of Indigenous girls while serving as a missionary in rural Bolivia, and to have documented his acts in a diary.
Members of Coro y Orquesta Misional San Xavier perform the opera “San Francisco Xavier” at the Church of San Xavier in the town of San Javier, Bolivia, on April 23. 2024.
The opera ‘San Xavier’ provides a glimpse of how Jesuits evangelized with music—a key dimension of the 1986 film “The Mission.”