Late on Easter afternoon, driving east on the Thruway, I stopped for coffee. The woman at the counter asked me, "How was your Easter?" A gracious, well-intended expression of hospitality, but ... was? How was my Easter? ... and this on Easter Day! I said, "My Easter is great, thank you, and it will be for the next 50 days. I pray it will be for you, too." I never miss a teachable moment, in this case, an opportunity to make a simple reference to the Great 50 Days, the season from Easter to Pentecost when the Church basks in the radiance of the Risen Lord and longs for a new coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
The Great 50 Days of Easter are also special because this is the high season for the celebration of the sacrament of confirmation. As we bishops like to say, we're back on the Chrism Trail. And we love it! Even at the end of busy office days of meetings and appointments, I never regret driving out to our parishes to confirm our wonderful young people. In fact, I look forward to it. It is such a moment of celebration for our teens, our families, our parishes ... and for me, too.
I always tell the confirmandi and their families that confirmation day is a moment of great hope for the Church. Why? Because, to the extent that the newly confirmed take seriously the full identity of Jesus' disciple that is theirs as they complete their Christian initiation and go on to live faithful Catholic lives, to that extent the work of Christ here in Western New York - and wherever they may go in years ahead - will be more effectively accomplished. Confirmation seals us with the gift of the Holy Spirit, strengthens us with courage to bear witness to Christ, and sends us out on mission. As a song often sung at confirmation puts it, "Go make a difference! We can make a difference!"
The Holy Spirit's coming in confirmation is a sure thing. The sacrament affects that coming and guarantees it. In confirmation, as in baptism and holy orders, a person is changed in the depth of her/his very being. Our relationship with Jesus is deepened. Alleluia for that!
But there is more to think about here. The young people we confirm need the strong support and example of the entire faith community, beginning with their own families and parishes, if they are to remain loyal to Jesus Christ and His gospel in a secular and relativistic culture that is too often apathetic toward, or even dismissive, of that gospel.
I follow carefully the trends about young people's faith commitment and involvement in the life of the Church. While we all know youth whose faith is alive and strong (happily, I encounter them all the time), there are still far too many for whom reception of confirmation is nothing more than a sort of "graduation" from religious practice. Sometimes, sadly, their parents see it that way, too. Major studies bear this out. In the recent National Study of Youth and Religion, for example, it was Catholic teens who scored most poorly on major indicators of religiosity when compared to teens from other Christian communities.
We need to do a much more effective job with adolescent faith formation. The National Initiative for Adolescent Catechesis identifies five critical elements that need to top our agenda. All five must be integrated and are together fundamental to effective catechesis with our teens. They are:
• Empowering parents and faith-filled families
• Creating vibrant, youth-friendly parishes
• Forming fruitful partnerships
• Engaging in comprehensive ministry to youth with intentional and systematic faith formation
• Developing an environment of inclusion, trust and acceptance
Our diocesan Division of Evangelization and Catechesis is fully committed to this agenda and has effective resources available for parish use. We offer dynamic initiatives and programs at the diocesan level. It is the family and the parish, though, that make the critical difference. I am so grateful to those parents (and grandparents), clergy and lay pastoral leaders, catechists, sponsors, youth ministers, Catholic high school faculty and staff, and all those who take up this challenge with joy and enthusiasm. I know it is not always easy. Thank you.
So it is Easter. Christ is truly risen. The paschal candle glows during our liturgies. And we prepare to sing "Come, Holy Spirit" as the Great 50 Days count down to the glorious Solemnity of Pentecost.
My prayer as we set out again on the Chrism Trail to confirm our young Church is that faith-filled Catholic adults will accompany our Confirmation candidates along their Emmaus road so that they may recognize the loving embrace of the Risen One ... and then wait with them for that Pentecost moment when, in the sacrament, tongues of fire will rest on them and they will be empowered to "make bold proclamation as the Spirit prompt(s) them" (Acts 2). Faithful weekly participation in the Eucharist nourishes and energizes our teens, indeed all of us, to take up this mission with conviction, confidence and joy.
The purpose of Confirmation is that the confirmed themselves become evangelizers, bearers of Christ and His good news to the world ... and then, one day, be welcomed into heaven, the heart's deepest longing. Let's pray hard about that one.
Happy Easter! Come, Holy Spirit!