31 May 2024, The Tablet

When the children aren’t the only ones learning important lessons during Confirmation classes

When the children aren’t the only ones learning important lessons during Confirmation classes

Sometimes when children start laughing or messing about... it might just be the Holy Spirit taking a hand.
tiziano casalta / Alamy

We will soon be finishing our parish Confirmation programme. The Bishop will visit, there will be the Confirmation Mass and our Confirmation group will no longer meet on Friday evenings. It has felt like quite a long road every now and again, but overwhelmingly at the moment, I feel that it has in fact been too brief, that there are lots of other topics we should have introduced, that there is so much more that we should have done. One of the picking-up parents last night said to me, “I can’t believe it’s going to be next week!” I know exactly what she means. We feel as if we’ve been doing it for ages, and yet it’s so soon.

We started out last autumn as a disparate group, most of whom didn’t know each other. The previous year’s group, already distorted in size and shape by the aftermath of Covid, had been run by teachers and chaplains from and partly through the local Catholic schools. None of those people was available any longer, one maternity leave, one leaving the district and various other factors, and the schools had decided that this should be a parish responsibility. Or possibly the diocese preferred to make it a parish responsibility. I heard both explanations offered and I still have no idea which it was. Sometimes it seems the Church runs a need-to-know system which makes organisations such as the Foreign Office, my only other comparator, look like a novice.

I was roped in because I had been a catechist for the First Communion group decades before. I hadn’t volunteered in answer to the appeal at Mass because I thought I was too old and the teenagers would need someone nearer to their own age, but someone I knew in the parish office shopped me. Another catechist was a new arrival in the parish, same age as me, who had done Confirmation preparation in his previous parish but one. Another was a young mother, another a junior doctor. We were all judiciously told that we were not in charge, so as not to frighten us with too much responsibility, and assured of lots of clerical help and support – there were two assistant priests who were going to be available, plus an occasional visitor, and the parish priest was of course the final authority. The parish had recently had all its personnel changed. The situation was urgent, and you would have had to be very hard-hearted to refuse to help.

This was all happening in the same year that we had done the parish consultation over the Synod, and I am fascinated to think how different the process might be if the Synod process were to take root. It would have taken longer, and there was no time. There is never enough time, or enough volunteers. Almost immediately we were reduced to one priest due to diocesan redeployment, and like the junior doctor, he was not able to commit to being there every week. But I wonder whether a more synodal approach would have enabled more discussion and more joint decisions. As it was, the assistant priest had absolute authority over the programme in all respects except for the content of the delegated sessions, simply by virtue of being a priest.

Of course someone has to take the final decisions over tricky questions, but there could definitely have been more meaningful discussions. It seems to me that this is a real difficulty which will take a long time to resolve. The habit of deference is very hard to shift, and when you are working as a volunteer, you do not feel able to argue as forcefully as you otherwise might. Of course there were areas where some of us had more learned expertise or lived experience, but we were not the people who made the decisions. At an early stage the parish clergy had together decided that we would not work with a prepared textbook or programme, but act ourselves, in our capacity as catechists, as a resource for the children. I still think that this could work, but I feel we needed to have discussed much more at an earlier stage what needed to be included, and every final decision should not have been made by the same person. The value of using a varied group as your resource – different attitudes, different experiences, angles and approaches – is much less if all your conclusions must follow one narrow path.

I don’t just want to teach the children pieties. I want to arm them for, and forewarn them about, some of the things that they will have to cope with; or at least make sure that they know where to look for answers and help in the years to come. We can only give a grounding, but it needs to be a solid one; not the frills of religion but the bedrock.

Another consequence of not having a textbook or a prepared programme is having to create all your own teaching materials, which is a serious burden, and there are things I feel we should have covered but didn’t. I felt we needed to do more on the basics, like the list of sacraments, because some children knew much more than others about the Church’s teaching, but more emphasis and time was devoted to the details of going to Confession. When I taught the First Communion programme, twenty-odd years ago, I complained a lot about the quality of the book, and indeed we then added material that we had to create ourselves, but it was reassuring overall to feel that we weren’t missing any major areas. It’s far harder with any Confirmation programme, because there is so much to pass on, and previous experience is so varied. We had two baptisms of participants mid-programme. Another problem is that, because the Church is worried that this will be the last opportunity for education in the faith, the Confirmation programmes on offer are incredibly lengthy and detailed, and you simply cannot cover them in the time available, so you are expecting the children to do a lot of home study; some will, some won’t. Even keeping a scrapbook is more than some can or will make time for.

Practical lessons I have learned over the last seven months include that name badges are essential in such a situation, and cannot be optional. We had 25 children once a week for an hour and a half; that’s not enough time to learn all their names, especially without mugshot crib sheets. Ideally, I’d like to see people wear name badges at Mass too, or at least at any parish function; there are people I have known for years at my church but I have no idea what their name is, and if you’re British, you don’t ask. But synodality could mean name badges at a grass roots level, and it might help, especially if parishes are being combined. “I have called you by your name” – we know how important this is, and we don’t do it.

Engagement is crucial on both sides, but it’s difficult, because you don’t want to put people off in the beginning. It has been a bigger time commitment than I expected. If there were more catechists, each would have less to do, but if you tell people what’s involved, sometimes they just can’t manage it. The children need to know that this is their own commitment, not just their parents’.

We had far too wide an age range to deal with, from eleven-year-olds up to seventeen, and too big a group to be able to operate entirely informally. It’s meant to be a grown-up sacrament; giving it to young children makes it less relevant to the older ones, and makes teaching it almost impossible. We divided our group into two for the session on relationships and why they matter, to keep any discussion age-appropriate, but then what happens to the younger ones when they reach the age of the older ones? Confirmation Part Two? This seems unlikely.

We divided our sessions in half with a squash and biscuit break in the middle. This worked very well, giving the catechists a break as well as the children, and I discovered that it was worth seeking out slightly unusual biscuits, from the local value and poundstretcher-type shops, because the children enjoyed not knowing what to expect. And the teenage appetite for biscuits is limited only by the number of packets you bring on a given evening.

You don’t need much technology, though a little helps. It depends on each catechist’s personal style – some of us wanted to show video clips and play music, some of us preferred to talk. I like to bring props where appropriate – particularly useful with the Christmas and the saints sessions. Flip charts are still useful, and blissfully easy to operate even in a room where the wifi doesn’t work. We tried to spend part of the sessions in smaller groups to encourage discussion, and it did help, but there are some children who won’t speak even in a smaller group and wear their name badges inside their coats, if at all. The girls tend to be readier to speak than the boys, so you have to be careful not to concentrate only on the people you know will speak to you.

If I end up doing it again next year, there are certain things I want to establish early on. If the children are going to be expected to supply readers or planners for any parish event, such as the Stations of the Cross during Lent, or an Advent service, the catechists need to know at the beginning of the programme, so that proper preparation can be timetabled. There should be open discussion about how the sessions are divided up, to prevent any topic, other than Confirmation, obviously, getting too much emphasis. No one style of spirituality or version of Catholicism should be offered as the only approved version. It’s hard for teenagers to discuss matters of faith; it’s something most adults run away from. Managing expectations is crucial, ours as well as theirs. Sometimes when children start laughing or messing about, it’s embarrassment rather than original sin. And sometimes it might just be the Holy Spirit taking a hand.


Kate Keefe composes musical settings for the Mass and writes about the psalms. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.


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