Confirmation Class Made Meaningful
At the same time he was studying advanced theology as part of his coursework at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Deacon James Smith, C.PP.S., was helping to teach basic theology to a class of seventh graders preparing for their confirmation at Old St. Patrick Parish, also in Chicago.
The religious education program at Old St. Pat’s, as it’s known, “is a little different than at most parishes,” said Deacon Smith, who has been helping with the confirmation classes for five years. “It’s a partnership between the parish and families.” Parents and students alike take part in religious formation called PARTNERS; families receive a 20- to 30-page packet of materials and activities that are done in the home, along with weekly classroom sessions for the students with the confirmation prep team.
Old St. Pat’s is a large urban parish in downtown Chicago, with over 4,000 households. (A historical note: it’s the city’s second oldest parish and its church survived the great fire, making the church the oldest public building in Chicago.) In addition to the confirmation classes, Deacon Smith has also helped out with the parish’s RCIA program, which sees as many as 70 participants each year. He’s also volunteered at a food pantry and tutored students at a Cristo Rey high school.
At Old St. Pat’s, there are 53 students divided between two confirmation classes. As with most parishes, there is a constant need for volunteers to help out with religious education at all levels. Deacon Smith could have had his pick, but he chose to help with middle schoolers. And that, perhaps, is where the mercy comes in.
“I like being around kids that age. The things they do that can be annoying to other people—they don’t bother me,” he said. “Their awkwardness is endearing. They really are changing every day, trying to figure out who they are. We get to see them as they begin to ask the really big questions, to really take steps on their own as they figure out what they believe.
“The cute and adorable things that you hear from second-graders, they’re mostly repeating what they’ve heard from mom and dad. In seventh grade, students are starting to gain some individuality, stepping outside the shadow of their parents. They’re forming their own relationships, trying out their own ideas, and getting an identity of their own. Which is pretty cool.”
The kids of Old St. Pat’s, many of whom are from families of comfortable means, are achievers. They may see religious education as another hoop to jump through, another area where they are driven to do well on tests—or an effort that is irrelevant. The challenge of religious ed teachers, Deacon Smith said, is to engage the students so they see classes as worthwhile, without adding to the pressures to perform that they already feel in other areas of their lives.
Sometimes the cure for that is donuts, which can sometimes be enough to coax kids to participate and learn. “My second year of teaching at the parish, I would buy Dunkin Donuts for the kids on some Sundays,” Deacon Smith said. “I would never let them know when they were coming, but I wanted to entice them to come to class. Other teachers now jokingly say that they hate me because I started bringing donuts to class—and now they have to.”
The program is spread out over two school years, with traditional classroom sessions coming first for the seventh graders, who are confirmed in November of their eighth-grade year. It begins with book work: what does confirmation mean, what are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, what are the beatitudes, what are the corporal works of mercy?
Deacon Smith said teachers try to make the classes as engaging as possible. “I brought in paints and canvases, and we made handprints on the canvas. We talked about the laying-on of hands at confirmation and compared chrism oil to the paint. We then gave the prints away as gifts to religious ed teachers.”
Later in the course, the students are encouraged to engage their heart and soul, entering into small-group discussions on faith and their future in the Church. It’s topped off with a retreat, similar to the Kairos experience at Saint Joseph’s College, of which James is an alumnus. The retreat is led by a lively and gifted youth minister, and Deacon Smith jokingly said the teachers are always a little jealous that the retreat leader gets most of the credit for bringing the students’ faith to life.
Despite any challenges in the classroom or at the donut shop, it’s a rewarding ministry, Deacon Smith said—though he may not ever see it come to fruition. “It’s definitely the agrarian model of planting seeds and not seeing them sprout yet.”
Deacon Smith, who was ordained to the diaconate on May 25 during the provincial assembly, will see this year’s class being confirmed: he’s already asked the pastor at his diaconate assignment, Fr. Tom Hemm, C.PP.S., for that November weekend off.
“I feel privileged to help with confirmation,” he said. “Seeing them at the end of this program, and getting to shove them off from the dock and saying a silent prayer for them, ‘Please make it,’ that’s rewarding.”
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