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Making confirmation stick

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When Maris Mattingly was a freshman in high school, her parish priest asked her to prepare a boy with special needs for his first holy Communion. Then a religious sister asked her to teach a group of first-graders. Until she retired in 2015, Mattingly was involved in religious education on and off for decades, including several years as the high school confirmation instructor at All Saints Church in Manassas. 

“I know that my faith grew in doing that, and I hope that theirs did also,” she said. Mattingly credits her strong faith to the example of her parents. “My father was a baseball fanatic (and so my siblings and I) all were because of him. My parents practiced their faith,” and so we did too, she said. Her godparents also guided her in the faith, but learned from her as well. 

“When I was baptized, and my godfather was a brand new Catholic and (my mother) thought we would learn together and she was right,” said Mattingly. Whenever Mattingly came back from Sunday school, her godfather would ask about the lesson. 

So when she became the teacher, Mattingly knew it was imperative to include the adults. In addition to classes with just the high schoolers, Mattingly would have parent-only classes or parent and student classes.

“I would tell the parents, nothing I say will have any importance compared to what you do,” she said. “I believed it was about the affirmation — you can do it, and the church can help. Teenagers are so enthusiastic, willing to try anything and they want the truth but they don’t always know what it is. Parents want to do the right thing, but they don’t always know, either.”

Every year, parents were invited on the confirmation field trip to the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America in Washington, where they all could visit a replica of the tomb of Christ and the grotto at Lourdes. 

Confirmandi were assigned a family service project of their choice. The families got tested to be bone marrow donors or bought a cow for a village in India or baked cookies for soldiers overseas. “They didn't have to move mountains, just put their faith into action,” she said. 

As with Mattingly, Jim McHugh, a confirmation teacher at St. Mary of Sorrows Church in Fairfax, began teaching religious education at the behest of someone else. “When my daughter was in second grade, she was learning how to read,” and she began to read the church bulletin, he said. One week there was a request for religious education teachers. “So she looked at me with her big hazel eyes and said, ‘Daddy, you could do that.’ That’s how I got started.” 

He too likes to include the parents by emailing them the weekly lessons. “I like passing on the faith. I know I’m teaching the parents as much as I’m teaching the kids,” he said. “A lot of times, parents thank me for rekindling the faith in themselves.”

Sponsors also have an important role to play, said JoAnn Blaker, a confirmation teacher at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Winchester. “We do emphasize that the sponsor must be a confirmed and practicing Catholic living according to the commandments. We impress upon them that (being) a sponsor is not a gift that you give to someone,” but a responsibility, she said.

“(A sponsor is) looking to be there and to answer their questions and to be a good role model,” said McHugh. “Show them how (faith is) important in your life.” 

After the chrism comes off and the confirmation robes are stored away, the teachers hope that they’ve given students a strong foundation for living out the graces of the sacrament for the rest of their lives. This spring, there will be 44 confirmations in the Diocese of Arlington. 

Blaker and her fellow confirmation teacher, Ed Farinholt, try to connect the confirmands with the many other ministries in the parish, including the youth group and religious education for younger students. They encourage them to go to Sunday Mass, to confession regularly and to visit the church’s adoration chapel.

As in every age, teens today face many challenges to keeping the faith. Farinholt and Blaker cite distractions from technology and peer pressure as threats to Christian living. Mattingly believes the culture has lost a sense that each person is made in the image and likeness of God. But by the end of every year, Mattingly sees the newly confirmed teens more involved in the life of the church. “I think that they took ownership of their faith,” she said. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018