By Celine Klosterman
IOWA CITY — How can Catholics enhance confirmation preparation to make it a more formative experience in the lives of young people?
Mike Carotta, an author and speaker who has worked with adolescents for more than 30 years, tried to help catechists answer that question during a workshop at St. Patrick Church on May 4. He gave about 40 people an overview of the Confirmation Prep Project, an effort that Carotta and several national catechetical organizations have undertaken to help Catholics improve confirmation programs.
Twelve dioceses currently take part in the initiative, which offers parishes eight enhancement options to work on and provides access to a national online network of parishes working on the same goals.
Early in his presentation, Carotta listed three dimensions of teens’ spirituality:
• vertical, in which Catholics “invest in the transcendent God above;”
• horizontal, in which students express their faith through social justice and their treatment of others; and
• inward, in which youths use their faith to find peace and self-acceptance.
“Are you emphasizing one dimension over the other two?” Carotta asked catechists. “Do we evaluate students based on our favorite dimension?”
Expanding on Catholic youths’ spirituality, he described them as “beige” — wanting to blend in with people of other faith backgrounds. Catholic students tend to be inarticulate about what Catholicism means to them, he said. And more students describe themselves as “somewhat” engaged with their religion than as “all in” or unengaged.
Catechists may tend to focus on the “all-in” or unengaged teens, Carotta said. “But if we do either of those things, the biggest group of kids gets the crumbs of our attention and creativity.” Focus on moving the “somewhats” forward, he suggested.
Most Catholic young people are on a trajectory in the other direction, according to statistics that researchers Christian Smith and Patricia Snell share in their book “Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults.” They studied Catholics over a five-year span from high school to after high school. During that time, the percentage of young Catholics who said they were strongly affiliated dropped from 24 percent to 18 percent; the number of those uninterested in learning more about their faith rose from 28 percent to 35 percent, and weekly Mass attendance dropped from 41 percent to 15 percent.
Of the 69 percent of young adults who claimed they’d made a personal commitment to God, 85 percent said they’d done so by the time they were 14 years old. “If you’re in junior high ministry, the stakes are high,” Carotta said.
That’s one reason Catholics need confirmation programs that are not only functional and informative, but inspirational and transformative, he said later.
He voiced concern that the Church tends to focus on “conversions” rather than “awakenings.” The former implies an emphasis on sinners in need of repentance and can make confirmation students feel they’re viewed harshly, he said. “But if we saw youths as simply asleep, how would that change our tone of voice?”
An awakening can trigger a conversion, he added.
Guiding students toward an awakening may help them embrace a lifelong journey as Jesus’ disciples. Promoting discipleship as the expectation for life after confirmation is the enhancement that all catechists should apply to their confirmation programs, Carotta said. Confirmation teams also should choose one or more of the following seven enhancements:
• Recognizing and describing the presence and effect of the Holy Spirit
• Evaluating and owning one’s Catholic identity
• Developing a spiritual growth plan
• Engaging in challenging moral and theological reflection
• Gaining skills and knowledge to articulate the nature of one’s faith, experiences of grace and grasp of the Tradition
• Completing formational exercises outside of confirmation sessions
• Experiencing the parish as a mentoring environment.
Catechists are with confirmation candidates for a relatively brief time, but can offer students options for deepening their faith on their own. Those options may include reading a Gospel, visiting a cathedral or serving at a soup kitchen. If youths don’t follow through on their commitments, require them to explain why, Carotta said.
He encouraged workshop attendees to evaluate their confirmation team, theme, tools and techniques. He also asked catechists to consider what their confirmation program currently focuses on and what kind of experience they’d like students to have. Are the answers to those two questions compatible?
Before attending the workshop, many catechists surveyed candidates on their experience of this year’s confirmation program. Confirmation teams will do so again next year after implementing their chosen enhancements. They’ll meet with Carotta in January 2014 to discuss their progress.
Parishes participating in the Confirmation Prep Project can share ideas with and seek advice from representatives of other parishes at www.adolescentcatechesis.org.
Sister Peggy Duffy, SSND, director of religious education for parishes in Fort Madison and Montrose, looks forward to collaborating with catechists from other parishes in her area. Carotta’s presentation “offered a lot of food for thought,” she said.
“He’s magnificent; he has such a wealth of knowledge,” said Michelle Montgomery, youth minister for parishes in Oxford and Cosgrove. She plans to use information Carotta shared on the three dimensions of spirituality with students and explain to youths the need for all three. His talk “really hit me at home.”
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