These days Bishop Callahan and I have the privilege of reading a large number of letters from young adults preparing for the reception of the sacrament of confirmation. You see, one of the requirements – besides attending classes and weekend Mass regularly, fulfilling the required number of service hours and participating in the special retreat with peers – is to write a letter to the confirming bishop, explaining why the candidate wishes to be confirmed.
As you might imagine, a few of the letters are definitely “pro-forma” … just do the darn thing to get it out of the way. Most are thoughtful and some even profound! Depending on the instructions offered by the individual confirmation program directors, the writers may share something about their respective families, perhaps even including some personal heartaches and tragedies. Almost inevitably the letters add information about their school activities, choice of sponsor and saintly patron, individual interests and achievements, as well as outside jobs and hopes for the future. Occasionally we receive suggestions for the homily.
After 30 years of reading these letters … now amounting to a total of more than 60,000 individual requests … I have developed a fairly good sense of when a letter simply says what the young writer thinks we bishops want to read! Those aren’t very much fun to read.
Invariably they all usually include a reference to the long awaited status of finally being considered “an adult in the church,” able to make “my own decisions” … obviously a typical teenage sentiment! That hope leads me to some musings of my own.
The adulthood signaled by the sacrament of confirmation, at least in our pastoral practice of confirming at the age of 16, is intended to be that of spiritual maturity, not mere physical. To receive the Spirit of Christ and to be mature in that relationship with Christ and his church is a big order. I sometimes wonder if the young people truly understand what they are claiming for themselves. I suggest five aspects of the type of spiritual maturity which we hope our candidates possess as they come forward for the anointing.
First, to be spiritually mature, for example, is to be able to live with delayed gratification. Infants and toddlers swing back and forth almost instantaneously from tears to laughter because they are completely invested into the emotion of the moment, but an adult lives with hope and expectation of the future’s joy. We have learned how to wait wisely and well. A spiritual adult can sacrifice the pleasure of the moment for a greater good still to be attained. Perhaps that means that only a truly mature person can plan for the future. This type of self denial represents an excellent form of penance.
Secondly, someone who is spiritually mature knows how to live with disappointment without becoming bitter or angry or resentful. That is called “bearing one’s cross” … accepting the one thing we would change in life at the moment but can’t … and learning to live with the reality, whatever it may be.
Thirdly, maturity for a Christian, therefore, will always entail the experience of the paschal mystery, of dying and rising as part of daily life. Endings and new beginnings are essential for personal growth.
Fourthly, children grow from total dependence upon their parents and elders to a new found sense of independence. They take responsibility for areas of their own lives, and it takes a mature parent to know how to let go carefully so that the young person makes decisions and learns how to live with mistakes and consequences. The sign, however, of true spiritual maturity is interdependence and a spirit of willing cooperation with others. Without that aspect we remain self-centered children forever.
Finally, it seems to me that true spiritual maturity will include the ability to see God at work in everything … in the good times and in the more difficult ones … in the successes and failures of life … in the things we do together as well as in the projects we might claim for ourselves.
They say that “growing older is a necessity, but growing wiser is a choice.”
Letters which boldly proclaim the arrival of adulthood through the sacrament may not understand the consequences and perhaps even the expectations which follow from that new status in the church. It means sharing the mission of Christ and reaching out to the poor and needy. Sometimes I even smile to myself as I read the letter, and say, “I wish it were that easy! Spiritual maturity is a life-time process.