Youths ready to be confirmed in Christ

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A few songs into the praise and worship concert and moments after Father Gregory S. Thompson hit a low note on his guitar, smartphone flashlights began to wave rock-concert style in the Bishop O'Connell High School auditorium in Arlington.

Points of light radiating outward was an image of what the daylong confirmation retreat challenged the seventh- and eighth-grade participants to be: lights in the darkness.

Confirmation is about "God choosing you to do amazing things; He wants you to change the world," said Brian Kissinger, youth minister at St. Mary of Sorrows Church in Fairfax and one of two retreat speakers.

The evening concert that had youths clapping and cheering was only one of the unique elements of the Jan. 17 event, which drew nearly 200 teens from five diocesan parishes.

Typically each parish hosts its own confirmation retreat, but Father Thompson, O'Connell chaplain, wanted to offer another option.

The primary purpose was to "bring students closer to Christ and to prepare them for confirmation," he said, but it also was an effort to serve diocesan parishes. The largest contingent of retreatants - 109 - hailed from St. Anthony in Falls Church, with a number from St. Raymond of Peñafort in Springfield, Holy Spirit in Annandale, St. Ann in Arlington and St. Mary of Sorrows. Some came from Catholic schools, but most were public school students.

"Every parish has different resources, and if we can do something to help them out, wonderful," said Father Thompson.

The multiparish retreat also was an opportunity to introduce students to the spirituality that permeates O'Connell and to bring teens from different parishes together "to help build the diocesan community," Father Thompson said.

Those goals seemed promising in Yara Rios, an eighth-grader at Corpus Christi School in Falls Church. She said it was "very cool" meeting people from other schools, and although she'd already been considering attending O'Connell, the day solidified her decision.

After morning icebreakers, youths listened to a talk on the apostles and martyrs, one on the Gospels, and one on confirmation and how to be an evangelist. O'Connell graduate Madeline Bernero, St. Mary of Sorrows director of religious education, was the second speaker at the retreat.

Bernero said illuminating the lives of the martyrs and saints gives teenagers' concrete examples of lived faith. For Catholics, "the saints are our heroes, and all they did was to say 'yes' to God every day, in small and ordinary ways," she said.

Following each talk, students broke into groups to discuss the main themes. A large number of Hispanic teens attended the retreat, and one group was led in Spanish.

The day's lineup included adoration, confession and a recitation of the rosary, Mass celebrated by Father Thompson and a pizza dinner.

During his homily, Father Thompson shared his message using everyday examples teens could connect with, referencing "The Lego Movie" and a character named "the Special."

"Each one of you is a 'Special,'" said Father Thompson. "Maybe that sounds trite or bland or boring, but each one of you has a special role to play. … Each one of you has gifts, talents and abilities that are unique to you.

"You might say, 'I'm young, I don't have a whole lot (to offer).' But just because you're 13 or 14, doesn't mean that you're not called."

Christ needed the apostles to continue His mission, and He needs you, Father Thompson said. In a world with so much suffering and violence, "what if everybody knew that God loved them? Especially after your confirmation, go out and tell your friends, your families, that they are loved."

In his talk prior to Mass, Kissinger told the teens that people sometimes think confirmation is when you decide to be Catholic. That's not the case, he said. "It's not about telling God you're on His side; it's about God telling you He's on your side."

To evangelize is a key responsibility of the confirmed, said Kissinger. And it's a simple, but far from easy, task: "You must speak truth with your words and love with your life."

Reflecting on his presentation during the pizza dinner, Kissinger said many teens see confirmation as graduation from faith formation. But his prayer is that they will walk off the O'Connell campus knowing the sacrament is "God equipping them with the Holy Spirit so they can go out and make disciples."

Father Thompson said he'd consider hosting the retreat again next year, but his first hope is that this year's participants are prepared to receive the third sacrament of initiation.

Between bites of pizza, St. Ann eighth-grader Senam Adedze said she was looking forward to confirmation. A lot of times after retreats your initial enthusiasm fizzles, she said. But today felt different. "I'm ready to put into practice what's been preached."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015