As I left the house last Saturday morning to help Renata, my catechism co-teacher, lead the planned retreat for our first-year confirmation teens at the little house on the edge of town that the church owns, I knew I was not in the right frame of mind. There was neither a sense of calm nor purpose. The source of the disturbance in my peace was Bart.
Bart has come very irregularly to our Thursday evening classes, but his mother is planning to have him "make up" the lessons in writing so that he can be confirmed with his peers next year. The issue is not whether this is an acceptable approach to dealing with missed classes. It actually may be a very acceptable approach because Bart will have to read every word in the lessons and in the accompanying scriptures and respond in writing to the questions that we discuss in class. In class, Bart participates actively, but in a challenging manner. He makes no effort to hide the fact that he does not believe a word that we say. He makes loud declarations from time to time, out of the blue in some cases, that "there is no God." There is hostility in his words, a hostility that disconcerts our largely Hispanic group of teens who share a deep faith with their parents, one that I have found to be typical of rural California Hispanic towns. Bart is one of the English-speaking kids, referred to here as Anglos, with no disrespect intended, and, indeed, Caucasians and Latins blend quite naturally in our community, resulting a considerable number of mixed marriages. Three of my four children have united White and Hispanic (two cases) and White and Black (one case). No, the issue is not an ethnic one; it is a spiritual and religious one.
When I got into the car, I stopped long enough to pray for God to intercede in my mood and for me to find and use the right words with the kids, not only with Bart but especially with him. The group has not bonded as well as groups in the past even though most attend the same high school or maybe because they attend the same high school. They are generally quiet and would prefer lectures to thinking activities. They, in fact, seem to lack either critical or creative thinking skills, and part of our hope for the retreat was not only to bond them spiritually but also to make a dent in the wall blocking them from independent thought.
My hope for post-prayer instant calm was unrealized, and internal irritation caused me to fidget during the short, one-minute drive to the edge of town. (From one side of town to another is at most a two-minute drive.) That one-minute, though, had an impact. I arrived peaceful and calm.
Bart participated, surprisingly, with enthusiasm in the various kinesthetic activities we had the teens do. Somehow, for once, communication with him flowed easily, and he did not push back whenever talk turned to spiritual matters. Of all the teens, he most readily applied spiritual meaning to the physical activities (building a house out of marshmallows and spaghetti, blind walk, etc.), something that was very difficult for most of the kids who wanted to wait for their teachers to tell them the meaning (which I refused to do – I want them to learn how to think). At the end of the day, we could honestly say, “a good time was had by all,” including Bart.
Then, it was time to attend Mass. We cleaned up, packed up, and walked the few minutes it takes to get from the edge of town, through the field, past the parish office and education center, into the mission garden to the church doors. Bart sat in the few in front of me and a little to the left. I had a good view of him. While he behaved himself properly and quietly took communion, Bart, clearly emotionally disengaged from his automatic responses to the liturgy, exuded a level of unhappiness that was difficult to miss.
Renata has talked extensively to Bart’s parents. They know that he described himself as an atheist and publicly states that he has no faith. Nonetheless, his parents want him confirmed, whether he wants to be confirmed or not. They want him to “have options within the church” in the future.
All of this sits uneasily with me. I disagree with Renata. I know the feeling of being forced to attend church when one has no religious beliefs. At least, Bart’s parents do not whip him with raspberry switches as my parents did to me until the day I stood up in church, having been asked to speak at Youth Sunday, and declared that parents in the congregation should consider raising their children in an honest atheist environment rather than in a dishonest Christian home where all kinds of improper things went on, such as Deacon X sleeping with the wife of Mr. Y and the like and then pretending it was all okay because they came to church. I managed in a very short few minutes to reveal most of the town’s secrets; whether they were really secrets or simply part of a conspiracy of silence, I would not have known and still do not know. The result, though, came swiftly. My family was expelled from the church, and I was delighted. No more being forced to spend Sundays there, no more switchings in order to make that happen.
Oh, I understand Bart very well. Except for gender, he might be me in a younger generation. That is why when he has his atheistic and anti-theistic outbursts and the other teens tell him, “You can’t say that here,” I respond, “this is precisely the place he should say it because here is the best place to talk about it.” I have shared my conversion story with the teens, and I can tell that it flustered Bart but has not changed his mind, let alone his heart. That is why I also know that neither Renata nor I are going to “convince” him that God exists and loves him just as he is. No, God will be the one to change him, in time, at the right time, in the right way, as God always does.
I had been contemplating talking to Fr. Ed about the situation, but he has been in Ireland due to his mother’s recent death there. Unexpectedly, I ran into Sr. Maria after Mass, and, grateful for her willing ear, shared my concerns about Bart with her, about the “rightness” of someone being forced into confirmation by parents. She agreed with me. If Bart is truly an atheist (or agnostic) next year at this time, he should not be confirmed. She felt certain that Fr. Ed would not confirm him if he knew the situation but suggested that we wait until he was nearing the end of the second-year confirmation class to see if he has a change of heart.
I don't believe removing Bart from the catechism classes is the right approach even though he acts out and tries to force his atheistic viewpoint on the other teens. I assume he does the same in school if the topic comes up. At least, in catechism class, I can be a countervailing force since I have gone through what he is going through. At least, in catechism class, Bart, and any others who wish, can put forth their doubts so that we can respond to them and discuss them and so that other teens in the class can share their faith. It is better to share them and in the ensuing discussion have those doubts dissipate than to store them permanently without any response except one’s own thinking, and class may be the only place that this happens for some of the teens. And at least, in catechism class, Bart experiences prayer at the beginning and end (and sometimes during) of each session, reading & discussion of scripture, and a spiritual way of interpreting his daily experiences. That he brings up daily experiences for interpretation, albeit always in a sardonic manner, tells me that the Holy Spirit has gripped him though he may not know it – yet.
I would love to know how readers would handle this.
(Picture is of the kids as they head to church after the retreat; one can see the mountains that surround San Ignatio on all sides.)