Tag Archives: Confirmation catechesis

A walk-through our Confirmation session…

Catechists love hearing about how other catechists or other parishes ‘do things’. In fact, although I’ve never done it, I would love, one day, just to sit in on another parish’s Confirmation programme as an observer.

So, I thought I’d tell you about one of the sessions we did recently. Each week follows roughly the same structure. This was the fifth session of the year (following the evangelisation retreat). The sequence of sessions so far has gone like this:

Made for God; The Dignity of the Human Person; Sin and Mercy; The Forgiveness of Sins (Baptism)

This session was the Forgiveness of Sins (Reconciliation). All of our candidates were prepared for making a good Confession on retreat; many of them had gone again since then. This session was designed to go more deeply into some of the themes. Here’s what we did…

We opened, as we always do, by creating the atmosphere of prayer with one or two songs of praise leading into a Liturgy of the Word (First Reading – Ezekiel 36, about receiving a new heart and a new spirit – followed by the Gospel – John 8, the woman caught in the act of adultery – proclaimed by the priest).

After the Liturgy of the Word, we have a proclamation (more on the proclamation can be seen here), summing up the main message of today’s session: Confession is one of the greatest graces we can receive again and again in our life. It renews the soul, completely unburdens it, and renews it with strength. God is merciful, and he wants us to claim his mercy.  (See YouCat 226). We then showed the video clip from the Passion of the Christ (don’t worry, none of the gory bits) of Jesus saving Mary Magdalene from being stoned to death and offering her new life.

Then comes the ten-minute teaching, the unpacking bit. Here (continuing from the previous week’s session on Baptism) we looked at why we continue to sin (the candidates learned the word ‘concupiscence’, the inclination to sin), seen in this woman (probably Mary Magdalene) who was caught committing adultery and brought before Jesus. To demonstrate this, we used a clean glass of water (again, this continued from the previous week’s session). This is what our soul is like after Baptism. But what happens? We sin. The candidates named some sins, and with each one, poured ketchup, tabasco sauce, and numerous other sauces into the water to make rather a disgusting concoction. This is what happens to our souls through sin – they become murky. The candidates looked up YouCat 226, which was followed by an evangelistic teaching of what happens in Confession – Jesus knows all of the mess in our souls, he knows what we’ve done. When we go to Confession, we meet him personally, tell him all of this, and tell him that we are sorry. It is like we are ‘un-nailing’ Christ from the Cross and receiving the love and mercy he wants to pour out on us.

A Crucifix in our church

Next, the candidates were invited to share with the person next to them what they thought teenagers found the hardest about going to Confession. We went through each of these one by one – telling your sins to someone is embarrassing; some sins are too bad to say; what if he recognises my voice?

This was followed by a young catechist giving his testimony about how he slipped into not going to Confession for years while he was a student, and the amazing experience of coming back to Jesus through this sacrament.

Then, we went into a practical small group activity where the candidates had to put pieces of paper into two lists: one relating to mortal sins, and one relating to venial sins. We talked about the kinds of sin which come under each category. Our emphasis here was on saying everything in Confession, even venial sins. But being aware that serious sins, knowingly and willingly committed, cut us off completely from God.

Finally, another young catechist performed a role play of Confession with the priest, giving examples of sins that a young person might confess, and demonstrating the words of the prayers that the candidates might not be too sure of.

We finished up with a time of prayer in the church: music, an examination of conscience, a Scripture reading, and an opportunity for the candidates to go to Confession.

This is a pretty typical session: we like to break it up with a variety of different activities and it takes one and a half hours.


Weddings, Relationships, Love, Teenagers

The past month has been Wedding Month for me: I feel like I know the Rite of Marriage by heart. My sister and a close friend have both got married, and both were incredibly emotional experiences for me. In both marriages, the couples had not lived together before getting married, and they were truly authentic and beautifully Catholic celebrations of the sacrament. It is such a joy to witness.

So, when my small group in the Confirmation programme started talking about how they couldn’t see why you wouldn’t have sex with your boyfriend if you were in love, I told them the story of my sister’s engagement and beautiful wedding. It is fantastic, and I thank God, that these girls, so early on, will discuss these issues so openly. What a gift! On the other hand, I can see they are pretty hardened already in their mentality and unwilling (so far) to open their minds to see it in a different way.

Last year, we decided that the area of relationships and chastity needed to be brought up earlier in the programme, since this is such a big area to evangelise in the lives of teenagers. So, we brought in a session on the dignity of the human person right at the start – session 2! And, I definitely think it was the right decision. But we have a looong way to go… Please say a prayer for these girls!

Here’s a video I came across recently which is a great contribution to the task of evangelisation in this area:


Another 5 Quick Takes

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One of the highlights last week was our session on relationships and chastity with our Confirmation group. We were really blessed to have two wonderful youth evangelists with us who are very gifted at inspiring young people in these issues. For most of the session, we split into separate girls’ and boys’ groups and were able to have some honest and open conversations and teaching. It was deeply encouraging to see the thoughtful and engaged maturity of our young people, especially encouraging as they will be confirmed next Sunday. One change I would make? We need to address these topics earlier. One session is not really enough. I think next year we may introduce the topic more generally earlier in the year (around the earlier session on human dignity) in order to lay groundwork for a more specific focus later on.

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On the topic of Confirmation preparation, how impressed was I to read this heart-warming account of another Confirmation programme, in Kansas City. I especially love the time at the end where the candidates shared why they are excited about receiving this sacrament. It got me thinking: Oooh, I wonder what our candidates would say? I tentatively raised the question with a group of girls before the session started last Tuesday: “So, girls, who’s excited?” “Oooh, I am!” came one reply as I nodded expectantly. “I have the nicest dress!” “Well, that’s lovely,” I murmured, moving on swiftly. OK, so Kansas City has the holier Confirmation candidates, and I am excited about being there this summer 🙂 But, I did like the idea of asking the young people to share their excitement for the sacrament in a more structured session.

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Speaking of the summer, a good friend of mine is involved in promoting this theology summer school in Knockadoon, Ireland, this summer. It runs in the last week of August and looks GREAT: and I would be there in a flash if it weren’t for a minor youth festival at Walsingham on at the same time 😉 Designed for students of theology, this is a week of in-depth study of St Thomas’ Summa, particularly Questions 1-13 (existence of God, how we can speak about God, etc). Check it out!

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After feeling like I know him like an old friend from watching the DVD series again and again, it was super-exciting to see Fr Robert Barron in real life on Friday evening at St Patrick’s, Soho. He is an extremely engaging speaker, I could have listened to him all night. Sadly all our plans to ambush him for a lunch meeting failed (he had far more important people to see like Nicky Gumbel) but still, I felt very inspired afterwards. His passion for evangelising the culture is infectious, and I wonder what more we can do in this country to evangelise our culture. Unless we seize hold of the moment, our society is slipping further and further away from Christian values, and therefore from human values, every single day. And unless we do something more, who will?

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And finally, speaking of evangelisation, we had the lovely students from St Patrick’s Evangelisation School with us all day on Friday in the parish. We spent the morning looking at the topic of vocation (I focussed on the lay vocation, in particular Christifidelis Laici, while Fr James focussed on the priestly vocation, and how as lay people we can encourage priestly vocations), and after lunch we enjoyed the countryside (Wandsworth Common is pretty rural when you live in Soho) and suitably finished up having a drink in a pub called The Hope! An excellent group of young people who are coming close to the end of their year of formation… To find out more about them, see here.


Christ-centred catechesis

20111224-160339.jpgChristmas is the perfect time to think about how Christ our Saviour needs to be central in our lives (a lifelong work) and therefore, especially, in our catechesis.

We all know that Christ-centred is what our catechesis should be. But, when you’re caught last minute on a Monday evening because another catechist can’t make it to give catechesis on the Four Last Things, do we stop and pray and prepare a Christ-centred session unveiling the realities of death, judgement, heaven and hell? Or do we rush in with a hastily printed out handout, ready to zip over quickly some essential bullet points?

However doctrinally fluent and theologically well-formed we are, we can never dispense with prayer and preparation, if we have a true understanding of catechesis as a work of the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes if my day hasn’t quite gone to plan, and I’ve been consumed with unexpected but essential admin tasks, I am aware that, on my way to a catechetical session where I’m using last year’s class, in an ideal world, I should be better prepared and more thoroughly “geeked-up”. Going into visit the Blessed Sacrament before catechesis is a great habit to be in. Because of the craziness of our lives and the many pressures that edge in on our time, despite all our best intentions, the Lord is constantly working with tired, scattered, disorganised servants of his Word. And in those few moments in front of the Blessed Sacrament, we can offer our scattered work and intentions to him, and ask him to take over, to be active in the hearts of the catechised, and in our own words and actions.

As well as giving priority of place to Christ in our own hearts, our catechesis must also be structured in a way to witness to this. Structure and methodology in themselves teach key principles. If we give priority to Christ in catechesis, we are subtly, and in all things, teaching the catechised: Christ comes first.

Here are just two examples from our Confirmation sessions. We wanted to teach that all Scripture is fulfilled and finds its meaning in Christ. These two sessions were classes on both Scripture and the Person of Christ. In the first, we explored the five Old Testament covenants – the signs, foreshadowings and types which point to and are fulfilled in Christ, which the candidates uncovered themselves. No more were Abraham and Moses ‘nice Bible stories’, but rather hidden heralds of the Messiah. In the second, the candidates acted a scriptural narrative where they played the roles of Old Testament prophets proclaiming – hundreds and even thousands of years in advance – the Saviour. After participating in this scriptural narrative, they explored it in more depth to uncover in what ways the prophecies pointed to Christ.

Later in that session, we were discussing the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus Christ. The candidates had two-sided signs (one side ‘fully God’ and the other side ‘fully man’) to hold up as we stated certain facts about Jesus’ life (e.g. “he performed miracles – does this show he’s fully God or fully man?” FULLY GOD! Woooo!) After this candidates were invited to share any other facts from Jesus’ life to show that he was either fully God or fully man. One boy exclaimed, ‘He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey!’ He was referring to the prophecy from Zephaniah 9:9 they had just heard in the scriptural narrative: Behold, your King is coming to you; he is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey. Yippee! He got it 🙂 Maybe just one of them did, but that was worth it.


Teenagers will be teenagers

Yesterday late afternoon I was on a bus from Chelsea heading back down south over the river. It was the time of day when kids were on their way home from school and I noticed with amusement how I was seated in the front, politely silent, half of the upper deck, while the back half squawked with ear-piercing noise. Yes – wherever you go, whatever kind of teenagers they are, young people are loud.

How very old I feel saying this. But it is true. This week in our Confirmation session we had a pause from the normal catechesis. Each week the candidates have quite an intense hour-and-a-half of catechesis, so this week we felt it would be good for them to stop and reflect on how far they’ve come, what they understand better now, how they are stronger in their faith. They were great at being open about their experience so far (no mean feat for British teenagers), they shared and listened to each other courteously. Then the moment it was time for a break, the mad scramble for drinks and snacks revealed a completely different streak in them: it’s true – there’s nothing you can change about them – teenagers are teenagers.

Catechesis with young people is the hardest that there is, and yet I’ve realised parenting is much, much harder. ‘You must be relieved it’s all over,’ one parent commented to me after the Confirmation Mass last year. ‘For you it’s over,’ she added jokingly, ‘but we’re stuck with them!’ As catechists we may feel hopeless at times in the face of the enormous task of preparing teenagers for Confirmation. If we’re honest, how many of our young people are truly well-disposed to receive the sacrament? It is a problem I struggle with and can’t say I know the answer. All I know is, we must do our absolute best to win their hearts. And what I also know is that, however big the challenge feels for us, it is far greater for the faithful Catholic parent of a teen who wants to stop practising. We have a boy in our group this year who has agreed to come to classes but doesn’t want to be confirmed. I admire his honesty but am praying very much that we will win him over somehow during the course of the year. Most of all though, I admire his Dad’s perseverance and prayer, and know that really I can’t imagine what that struggle must feel like to a parent. Young people and their parents need our prayers!


Peer Ministry

One thing I have learnt through my involvement with Youth 2000 is that nothing works better than young people evangelising young people. This was how my own conversion happened. My parents could have told me any number of things about the Faith in an array of convincing ways, but for me, it was seeing other young people pray in front of the Eucharist that made me realise: “They have something I don’t have.”

This principle is something we are trying to introduce into our Confirmation programme this year. We have five eager young people in their late teens who are helping on the programme. They are great young people. Over the last few years they have received a lot of formation through the great work of our youth coordinator. They have been to Catholic Underground and Youth 2000 events in the parish and over the summer they went to World Youth Day in Madrid. And now they are contributing lots to evangelising the next generation of young people. They have offered to give their testimonies, and they are in charge of creating the all-important “atmosphere” (candles and music) for the prayer times. What a blessing! It shows that investing in youth ministry is more than worth it. As one of our catechists kindly pointed out, I am a “mummy” in the eyes of our thirteen-year-olds, so anything that the young people tell them is far more valuable than what I can teach them. Sad, perhaps, but true!


Effective catechesis

How often do we focus on ‘what we need to teach’ above ‘what is actually being learnt’?

This distinction really struck a chord with me when I stumbled across this excellent resource which for me, as someone who is not a qualified teacher, has given me fresh insight.

Learning Objectives
If we want our candidates to be active learners, the learning objectives need to contain ‘active’ verbs rather than ‘passive’ ones. This supports what I wrote about in my last post – how the GDC promotes the activity of the catechised. So, for example, our Confirmation class last night had the following learning objectives:

Candidates will be able to:
1. Recall the definition of sin.
2. Distinguish between Original Sin and personal sin.
3. Recount the event of the Fall.
4. Explain why we suffer from concupiscence.
5. Analyse the different ways in which Mary and Eve used their freedom.
6. Examine the areas of sin in their own lives.

Assessment
Dees makes the excellent point that as catechists and teachers we are very keen on thinking up ways to teach our key points, but less good at assessing that these objectives have actually been met. He gives some excellent and innovative ways of assessing that the candidates can do these things – rather than the typical worksheet where they answer questions or fill in the blanks.

Teaching Strategies
The final step is to choose teaching strategies that will achieve these learning objectives. Dees provides a vast matrix of many different strategies which correspond to different styles of learning.

The Pedagogy of God
My final remark would be that, within this extremely helpful process for planning effective catechesis, as catechists we mustn’t lose sight that we catechise according to the pedagogy of God. We proclaim the Gospel because this is what God does. Similarly, we must never lose sight of the fact that the Holy Spirit is the interior Teacher – we are his instruments as catechists. Sometimes we might get so hung up on making a session so exciting and active, that we forget that catechesis is a work of God – not our work. If we fill a prayer time, for example, with different prayer ‘activities’ but never allow for silence, we may well be leading candidates away from God, not to Him.

This is expressed well in this video clip below. Lord, make us faithful instruments so that you may form – through our work – young people like these:


The Ecclesial Method

Mgr. Kelly's excellent book - a must-read for all catechists!

The holidays continue! In this week between returning from Germany and heading off for Madrid, I am still reflecting on the many, many things I learnt and received at the St John Bosco Conference. I want to write a bit about the Ecclesial Method for catechesis. I first learnt about it in Methodology as part of my MA. It is a method developed by Mgr Francis D. Kelly and explained in his excellent book.

Every catechist should know the Ecclesial Method 🙂

How do you plan and structure your catechetical session? Because of a lack of solid, readily-usable and attractive sacramental programmes, I’ve heard of many hard-working catechists and parishes who, each year, cobble together their own programmes. That this is done well, is crucial. How do we go about it?

I agree that sound doctrine is indispensable – but how do you present this? Giving teenagers a long talk – however orthodox in its teaching – is not exactly going to float their boat on a week night after school. How the catechesis is received and applied is its whole purpose. If the content of the teaching is beyond reproach, and yet the young people have taken nothing away, we might ask what the point is.

Mgr. Kelly addresses these questions in his book. In the challenge of finding a methodology that is faithful to God and also faithful to the needs and make-up of the human person, this method is an excellent framework to use as your starting-point.

How to form teenagers who love Christ and the Church?

Before the summer, we had training sessions for our new First Communion and Confirmation catechists for next year. In these sessions, we looked at why the Ecclesial Method is an effective method – that is, how it best achieves our goals of understanding and conversion for the young people in our sacramental programmes.

In summary, the Ecclesial Method is very simple. Here are the five steps:

1. Preparation 

2. Proclamation

3. Explanation

4. Application

5. Celebration

What I want to do is outline each step, giving practical examples from catechesis we have given in the parish, to illustrate how this method is an excellent framework for all catechesis we give.

Preparation

The question of how you open your session is paramount. Do you put everyone off with a dodgy icebreaker? Do you leave teenagers standing around awkwardly with some well-intentioned Coke and crisps? Do you open your teaching on the Trinity by asking what your participants ‘think about’ this doctrine of the Church?

Does your catechetical session kick off with an embarrassing icebreaker or two?!

Mgr. Kelly suggests that our guiding principle should be “calculated disengagement”. When people arrive at catechesis, they come from a full range of different situations. We need to help create the conditions in which people can open their heart and mind to God’s Word. How do we do this?

I think the first part of the preparation is with the catechists. If catechists can arrive 15 minutes early to pray together for the participants, this already lays the foundation for the session.

Prayer – opening the heart to God

“Calculated disengagement” can be different for different groups. Teenagers may need a deliberately-created calm, prayerful atmosphere to begin the session with prayer, to encourage them to open their hearts to God, to prepare for their encounter with Him. For example, quiet music, candles, maybe beginning the session in a beautiful setting, like the church. This environment is deliberately different from the environments they have come from: busy homes and timetables, constant noise and numerous demands. It implicitly states: Catechesis is something different – it is not just more learning like the rest of your day – here you are coming to listen to what God wants to tell you. Somehow, we need to encourage them to be still and silent before the Lord. This may take a whole year to achieve, but it is possible: I know of a very successful fortnightly prayer group for teenagers run by a young priest, where they spend an hour together in prayer, much of it in silence. This isn’t possible straight away – we need to work up to it. But with prayer, patience, perseverance, I think it is mostly possible.

Journalling

A high school teacher at the Bosco conference said that she often started her classes with a “journal prompt”, which is another idea for “calculated disengagement” for teenagers. As soon as they arrive, they write down their personal response to a question which invites them to look at God’s work in their lives. We use a similar method in our Confirmation sessions, where the candidates have a notebook called their “Spiritual Plan of Life” and where they write their personal responses to questions during sessions or times of prayer, e.g. What one practical thing can I do to give God first place in my life this week?

“Calculated disengagement” for adults

What does “calculated disengagement” look like for adults? I would suggest it always involves prayer, but it is important to get this right. I have been involved in too many prayer sessions or “liturgies” for adults where we have been invited to engage in methods of prayer more suited to children… or not even children. If intelligent, professional adults are attending catechesis, the last thing we want is for them to be cringing as soon as they step through the door.

In RCIA sessions, we begin with a Liturgy of the Word. We begin by praying to the Holy Spirit (and explain why – the Holy Spirit is the Teacher, who teaches them interiorly), some silence, followed by a first reading, Psalm and Gospel (proclaimed by the priest if he is present) which prepare for the teaching to follow. In a mysterious way, this is very powerful: even if not yet fully understood, proclaiming the Scriptures allows God’s Word to speak unadulterated into people’s hearts.

These are just a few ideas for preparing people to hear the proclamation of God’s Word in catechesis. I’m sure there are many more and would love to hear your views:

  • How do we get teenagers ready to hear what God wants to tell them? 
  • What experiences have you had? What do you think does or does not work?
  • How can we help adults temporarily “disengage” from their preoccupations and hear God’s Word?
  • Icebreakers – do you LOVE or LOATHE them?!
Reply with your thoughts in the comments!

Confirmation Catechesis

This time of year is really quiet in the parish. Families are already spending their weekends outside London. For catechesis, this is a time of preparing catechists and programmes for next year. As with anything, I’ve learnt that good planning in the quiet periods pays off in the busy ones…

Recently the new team of Confirmation catechists reflected on the purpose of Confirmation catechesis. What an important question to ask ourselves – often we dive straight in, all enthusiastic, without considering our goal: what is the purpose of what we’re doing, and how we are going to achieve what the Church asks us to achieve through Confirmation catechesis? So, we turned to the Catechism to ensure we had a clear idea of what the sacrament of Confirmation is about, and what the preparation should aim to achieve.

Are your Confirmation candidates like this...

...or like this?!

 

Often you hear people saying that being confirmed is about young people ratifying the decision that was made on their behalf at their Baptism. I really wanted to ensure that in our group of catechists we eliminated this idea – a sacrament is always about what God does for us, not about what we do. We studied what the Catechism said. Confirmation strengthens baptismal grace; it seals the candidate with the Holy Spirit so that they belong fully to Christ and are enrolled in his service forever; they are strengthened to go out and spread and defend the Faith. Read more at CCC 1285-1321.

So if this is what the sacrament does, what must be the goal of the catechesis? The catechesis needs to form and prepare the candidate so that they are disposed to receive these graces – the grace of the sacrament is effective insofar as the person is spiritually disposed to receive it (this is a different thing from saying that the sacrament doesn’t work if they are not disposed – as we know, sacraments ‘work’ ex opere operato – out of the very fact of their being performed). But the more someone’s heart is open and ready to receive the grace, the more fruitful it will be in their life. How do we form Confirmation candidates so they are as disposed as possible to receive the grace of this sacrament?

The Catechism underlines two goals: that they develop a more intimate union with Christ; and that they develop a more lively sense of the Holy Spirit. (See CCC 1309 below, which all Confirmation catechists should read!)

Preparation for Confirmation should aim at leading the Christian toward a more intimate union with Christ and a more lively familiarity with the Holy Spirit – his actions, his gifts, and his biddings – in order to be more capable of assuming the apostolic responsibilities of Christian life.

This strikes me as being an emphasis on spiritual formation. As I’ve mentioned before, the goal of all catechesis is union with Christ, all understanding should lead to conversion, and this happens through catechesis leading to prayer.

We are trying to develop a programme next year that will be as fruitful as possible in these particular areas: emphasis on spiritual formation, and catechesis that leads to prayer – a living relationship with God.