Simon Evans on catechising the young in a changing culture
Do you ever wonder how much of the Christian story will be around in a generation or two’s time? I imagine that, like me, most parish priests wrestle with the challenges involved in passing on the Christian faith to children and young people in a culture that seems to make doing so increasingly difficult. The importance of our success or failure in was highlighted in a recent issue of Together by the Bishop of Burnley, quoting the statistic that nine out of ten Christians come to faith before the age of 19. But how can we nurture the gift of faith in children in a way that will be really lasting, and which will provide them with a resource to which they can turn in years to come as they grow into teenagers and young adults?
It’s tempting simply to provide what amounts to entertainment. Many churches have made this choice and may feel to the visitor as much like nursery schools as places of worship. That may well be a first step for some; but if faith is to become real in the lives of the young, there needs to be something deeper which they can explore and learn to inhabit. Here I share with readers of New Directions some of the ways in which we have tried and struggled to develop a response to this need.
In our parish we have debated on a number of occasions whether or not to go down the road of admitting children to Holy Communion before Confirmation. So far we’ve decided against doing so. We prepare children for Confirmation and First Holy Communion once they reach Year 6 at school, or occasionally Year 5. However, out of our discussions and our attempts to grapple with the challenges of passing on the Christian faith to children as well as adults, the way we organise preparation for Confirmation has gradually evolved in recent years. In the course of this process three significant developments stand out.
The Catechumenal Journey
The candidates for Confirmation are given a distinct identity in the community of faith by being admitted to the catechumenate. Drawing on existing models we’ve devised a simple liturgy of Admission in which the candidates and their sponsors make statements of intent, following which the candidates are anointed with the Oil of the Catechumens and given a candle, lit from the Paschal Candle, which they leave burning as a symbol of their desire for faith. As the Confirmation programme unfolds, there are rites which take place during the Sunday morning masses involving their welcome by the congregation, the giving of the texts of the Lord’s Prayer, Nicene Creed, and the Beatitudes, and finally the Rite of Election to Confirmation. We’ve found over recent years that this pattern gives some shape to the Confirmation course and locates the candidates’ journey within the life of the worshipping community who, in turn, are made aware of their responsibility for nurturing, encouraging, and welcoming new Christians.
Nurturing Eucharistic Christians
We realised a few years ago that all too often in many churches, including ours, Confirmation classes have taken place in a way that is not sufficiently integrated with Eucharistic life and worship. The centre and source of the Church’s life – the celebration of mass – can simply be something that is learnt about rather than learnt from experience and participation. We realised that it is crucial that, above all, we should be nurturing Christians for whom the mass lies at the centre of their lives and faith, and where they feel most naturally at home. Therefore we redesigned the Confirmation programme around the celebration of mass.
In our context this all takes place on a Wednesday evening. During the months of the year when the Confirmation course is running, the normal Wednesday evening mass changes its character. The children’s Confirmation group meets for an hour beforehand and leads into the Mass. The adult Confirmation candidates come to the Mass and stay on afterwards for their meeting. As the course unfolds, we pause at progressive points in the mass to explain and reflect on the different parts of the liturgy during the Eucharistic celebration itself. Some simple unaccompanied singing is often introduced into the liturgy. The mass contains all we need to know about being a Christian if we unpack it and learn from it.
This was one of those occasions when the real meeting happened in the pub after the P.C.C. meeting had finished. A discussion emerged about a feeling that had been gradually growing inside a few of us. We felt that many of the children we’d been preparing for Confirmation in recent years were just not getting the support at home that they needed in taking this step in discipleship in a way that would help them or their families take it seriously. Part of the problem is that so many of the young adults who are today’s parents are simply not sufficiently confident or articulate in the Christian faith to help and support their children. We began to think of redesigning the Confirmation course in a way that would require the participation of at least one of each child’s parents or carers. Soon after, an article appeared in the Tablet describing the impact of Family Catechesis in the Archdiocese of Liverpool: it was more or less precisely the model we had envisaged. When we launched the next year’s Confirmation Course with the requirement of adult involvement I was expecting a revolt, but it never came. Instead we experienced exactly what was described as happening in Liverpool: parents were enjoying sharing the course with their children; they were experiencing the renewal of their own faith, and having significant conversations at home with their children on matters of faith that they would never otherwise have had. At the Confirmation Mass a significant number of parents have made a public reaffirmation of their baptismal faith and become more involved in the church’s life.
This programme, The St Ninian Confirmation Course, which has largely been put together by Fr David Green and his wife, Alison, can now be downloaded from the Internet. For each session of the programme a worksheet is provided for the catechist, as well as for the candidates and those accompanying them so that the discussion can continue at home. There’s also a sheet with readings which can be printed for the Catechumenal Mass associated with each session. We hope that the course, which is free of charge and can be modified and adapted to local contexts, will be a useful resource for parishes in the Catholic tradition, especially as we seek to encourage the renewal and strengthening of Catholic life in the Church of England.
The Revd Simon Evans is Vicar of St Martin’s, Ruislip, in the Diocese of London.