When my nieces were younger, they were more devout than they are now. They’ve lost a good deal of their religious fervor in recent years. Part of that trend may just be developmental, a process of their moving through the necessary stages of spiritual development and personal maturation, including the highly skeptical one specific to adolescence. But I believe something else is also at play: Confirmation classes. Those seem to break the spirit of a lot of Catholic kids these days.
Like all of us raised Roman Catholic, these girls receive each of the sacraments of the church in turn, starting with baptism in their infancy. Between baptism, which is imposed on them, and confirmation, which they are compelled toward, reside the two sacraments of communion and reconciliation (formerly known as penance). Obviously, First Holy Communion is more upbeat than first penance, since that remains a pretty private affair. In contrast, First Communion is a very public celebration. It inevitably occasions gauzy veils, gifts, and countless photographs.
Today I have pictures of all the girls in their communion dresses, photos from years ago. They all shine, dressed from crown to toe in a glorious array of white, lace on their collars, frills on their socks. Their hands are pressed together in prayer and their smiles are positively beaming. It’s not often that you see these things paired, wide smiles and prayerful hands, but it happens during children’s First Communion.
That powerful juxtaposition has made me an absolute sucker for First Communion. There you see all the spiritual genius of childhood embodied; it’s on open display for the rest of us who are likely to have grown jaded with age, spiritually set and religiously complacent. I still happily recall one niece’s delight in cataloguing for me the “twenty-three church-related items” that she received as gifts that day. I also remember, with a complicated mix of melancholy emotion, the Sunday my other niece took issue with what I wore to the celebration at church.
By that time, I had already left the Catholic Church, entered a new one, and enrolled in seminary. I started wearing what I considered a modern, modified clerical dress, clothes that were mostlt black or white or gray. My favorites were the gray variety, in part because it’s the tone most flattering to me. But I also love the whole notion of shades of gray, the smoky pallette of wisdom. I took personal issue with things being cast as black and white, though I regularly wearing those colors in an attempt to look ministerial. For my niece’s First Communion, I opted to wear my very favorite outfit, a light gray dress with matching cardigan.
When I arrived, I instantly saw how much of a misfit I appeared. We were at a big church attached to a bigger Catholic school, and as I looked across the expansive green lawn, my heart sank. Floating across it was a sea of people dressed in jewel tones and bright pastels; the women in their suits all resembled Easter eggs. Light gray was definitely not going to make the cut. The discrepancy in my dress was not lost on my niece, who after the service, told me: “You know, you were the only person here in gray.” She’s ordinarily a careful, considerate kid, but she said this pointedly, in such a way as to suggest that even if she was just a kid, I was not going to get this one past her.
“Yes,” I replied, “I do know that, sweetheart.” It had never been my intention to embarrass her.
The sacrament of First Communion dazzles; the children all sparkle and the religious life seem emblazoned across the stage in Technicolor. If I had that particular First Communion to do over again, I would probably have dressed in purple, a habit I’ve picked up for the holidays. When in Rome… Yet there’s no other analogue to First Communion in the life of a Catholic kid. The sacrament of Confirmation seems an especially pale comparison and it grows dimmer day by day, niece by niece.
In theory, Confirmation allows Catholic adolescents to restate their baptismal vows at the threshold of adulthood, to claim certain religious commitments as their own. Obviously, other religious groups have similar practices. Certain Christian denominations have their own iteration of Confirmation, while Jews have their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, and Unitarian Universalists have their Coming-of-Age Credos. Teens can readily take to religious life if they are authentically inspired to do so. Force them to sign on the dotted line, though, and you run the risk of shaping an oppositional adolescent with misdirected zeal.
The kids in my nieces’ age brackets are all too familiar with the term lock-down; they first learn it, alas, in school. It’s not altogether surprising that they would perceive Confirmation as lock-down on church life. When you’re regularly quizzed on the Cathechism, when you’re orthodoxy is repeatedly challenged, when the sins of the entire world are extensively detailed for you, and when you’re asked to sign in and out of the church for services so your attendance can be tracked, you could start to feel yourself a prisoner of conscience. When adult authorities demand that you declare yourself either in or out of the church, you could quite possibly lose your religion.
What happens when a faith that was once Technicolor fades to dreary black and white? Unfortunately, my nieces don’t want to celebrate Confirmation so much as survive it. I don’t blame them one bit, given the kind of religious instruction that gets drilled into them, the elaborate dogma and the endless doctrine. I saw these spirited girls when they were younger. I watched them pore over the lives of the saints, adore the angels, speculate on major theological questions, and feel themselves beloved children of the Creator. Lately it seems that they want to finish the tour of duty known as The Sacraments so they can be honorably discharged from religious tradition altogether.
Before they sign out and off from religion, though, I’d like for the church universal to make an effort to do right by them. It should show my nieces the whole gorgeous range of shades of gray. In those shadows dwell all the hallmarks of wisdom, including nuance, doubt, and perplexity. Beyond the blinding white of youthful religious zealousness and the blackened despair of adolescent antinomianism is a more steadfast stance, one that comes with spiritual maturity. I wish they could see that stance modeled for them in every Confirmation class. Actions are so much more convincing than words from the most recent encyclical. These girls will remember who in the church was warm, accepting, and encouraging of them, and who was rigid, demanding, and judgmental of them, for many more years to come.
I do not deny that people can attain spiritual maturity outside organized religion as well as inside it, but I do think that religion provides a much more reliable route. Of course, I didn’t belong in Catholic Church, which explains why my personal path took me so far outside of it. I found myself in a faith community that cared little whether I was technically in or technically out; its faith could meet me whether I was coming and going. My hope for my nieces is that they eventually arrive at just such a place themselves, someday, wherever it might be, and that when they find themselves there, they will not be the only ones in gray.