The new mission territory for the Church is the children of parents who were raised Catholic. We know only too well that people are leaving the Catholic Church in droves, and according to one recent study, the typical age of disaffiliation is now thirteen. There is a long tradition of “lapsed Catholics,” many of whom are quite famous, but the growing trend in disaffiliation is concerning in a different way. My hunch is that lapsed Catholics have rejected something, whereas those who disaffiliate typically do not.
James Joyce rejected a way of life he had been formed in, and his Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man presents the artist as the new priest because Joyce understood the Catholic form—he bore the marks of his Catholic upbringing. Those who disaffiliate might disagree with some ideas but, for the most part, just move away from a “faith” that never had any real claim on them, nor ever really appeared as a coherent way of life.
Today, the children of parents who were raised Catholic tend to disaffiliate, not lapse. It is not so much a rejection as vague disinterest. Despite a lot of public worry, we have not responded with the urgency and diligence this crisis deserves. Yes, it is a crisis for the Church who is losing members, but even more it is a crisis for those who disaffiliate because they are flitting away from the Good News that gives life.
I previously spoke of the need to break the habit of offloading the responsibility for parish life. Here I speak of a correlative need: the need to break the twin habits of under-resourcing and outsourcing the responsibility for forming people in the Catholic faith. I point toward prioritizing a thick formation into a way of life––one imbued with mystery and manners, doctrine and habits, gifts and responsibilities. What must be rejected are all those perfunctory consumer-provider models of faith formation, which often have a drop-off and pick-up feel to them. That is a telltale sign of a faith and a religious identity not worth caring about.
We like to look for programs and strategies that will solve our problems. If we could “just press play” on the right thing, that would do it. For this problem, though, there are no shortcuts. We cannot outsource this responsibility. The only way to hand on a faith worth caring about is to become people who are confident in this faith and competent in passing it on. The key, in other words, is not to locate or create some magical resource but to become the living resources, or what I refer to (and will explain momentarily) as “a source of goodness.”
Formation in the Christian faith is lifelong rather than episodic, and yet the periods of formation for sacramental initiation into the Church hold a privileged place for establishing the basis of Christian identity. What I present below takes the end of sacramental initiation as the occasion toward which we might reimagine how to form people in the Christian faith and for life in the Church. This means that my primary focus is upon the preparation for receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation for teenagers and young adults, and, by association, the formation of adults in the RCIA.
Pushing Back Against More of the Same
In today’s world, most things feel like just “one more thing to do.” Many of us often encounter preparation for confirmation or, perhaps to a lesser extent, RCIA formation in just that way. It can easily feel like just one more class to take, one more set of requirements to fulfill, one more thing to complete. Rather than a sacrament of initiation, confirmation comes off like the sacrament of inconvenience.
I know this from experience. A few years ago, our eldest son was starting a new school for seventh grade after he chose to move on from our parish school at the close of the previous year. Soon thereafter when I read the letter from our parish about enrolling him in the religious education program for the first time now that he was no longer in Catholic school, I did not see it as an important sacramental formation opportunity. My immediate reaction was indeed something like, “good grief: one more thing to do.”
Our son’s outlook was no more favorable. He had long disliked his religion class in school not because he is unreligious but because the textbook-based curriculum oscillated between triviality and banality. In his words, it was “boring” and “easy,” and everything was “obvious.” Needless to say, he was less than eager to go back for more of the same, except now it would be worse because class was on Sunday morning . . . early Sunday morning. It was not hard to figure out that my son’s peers and their parents shared similar feelings. I think we could all agree that reluctance and disinterest are not the ideal conditions for welcoming the Holy Spirit.
Fortunately, a friend and fellow parishioner had come upon the same problem the previous year, and rather than complain he decided to initiate something new. He approached our pastor and offered to lead a “formation group”—one that would meet at his home. He wanted to create a better setting, build stronger community, foster more conversation, and include families in the process. Our pastor thought it was a great idea; besides, pastors are not accustomed to turning down capable volunteer catechists.
Here is the unsurprising but crucial thing I discerned from my subsequent conversations with my friend: if you want something different, you have to do something different. As parents, Bill and his wife Courtney opened their home as a place to form their son and other young people in faith, preparing them for the sacrament of confirmation. My wife and I followed their lead and then built on what they started. Not only did we open our home as the environment for the formation of our son and his peers but I also cast aside the textbook approach and designed a new way for reflecting on and practicing the faith with them. At minimum, this new approach aims to avoid being “boring,” “easy,” and “obvious,” and in its fullness seeks to prepare each candidate to respond to their full initiation in the Church by becoming a source of goodness for others.
The framework for this approach is provided by the four marks or pillars of Church life that were already established in the earliest Christian communities. I drew attention to the biblical foundation of these pillars from Acts 2:42–47 in my previous essay, so here I focus only on the final line of that passage: “And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” In other words, as they lived “the Way,” these early Christians contributed not just to their own well-being but also to the well-being of others. By conforming their lives to the good gift they had received, they became a source of goodness for others.
In this we can see something of the connection between baptism and confirmation. If in baptism one is severed from the life of sin and immersed in the life of the Triune God, then confirmation is the sacramental mission to give what you have received. This is the great dignity of the Christian: to partake in God’s life so fully as to become an agent of communicating that life to others.
To share this new approach to guiding people toward full initiation in the Church, I took what we developed in the group at our parish and published two books under the title Turn to the Lord: the first for the use of those who lead such groups in their own communities, and the second for the parents, godparents and sponsors, and mentors of those involved in such formation (or, alternatively, for anyone looking for a reintroduction to the fullness of the Catholic faith). What I offer here is drawn from that work, all of which serves the catechetical end of forming people to become sources of goodness.
First: The Formators
To form newer Christians to become sources of goodness, more of us “adult Catholics” must claim our mature Christian identity––meaning that we must become sources of goodness for them. A perennial problem, though, is that we in the Church have become dependent on textbooks and third-party programs to run religious education in Catholic schools and parishes alike. I think this is because no matter how passionate any of us might be about the faith, most of us feel unqualified to teach it or form others in it. To build up the lay, non-professional faithful to take a leading role in forming younger or less experienced disciples in the faith, we must provide these leaders with a clear, holistic, and substantive presentation of the faith, along with appropriate guidance for how to teach the faith to others. This is the contribution I hope to make with Turn to the Lord: Forming Disciples for Lifelong Conversion.
The distinctive context for this approach is neither a program nor an activity, but what I have come to call a “Catholic Formation Group.” Far from a theoretical undertaking, this approach to formation developed in a concrete faith community with real families and a dozen teenagers preparing for confirmation, one of whom is our son. With the blessing of our pastor and the support of our DRE, the first Catholic Formation Group was formed at our parish. The full membership of the group included both the young people preparing for the sacrament and their parents and other family members, and sometimes their sponsors. Rather than setting up the year of preparation for the sacrament as something the young people had to “come get,” the setup of the Catholic Formation Group is to establish a stable community of more and less experienced disciples who are being formed together. In his recent apostolic letter instituting the ministry of the catechist, Pope Francis says that:
Every catechist must be a witness to the faith, a teacher and mystagogue, a companion and pedagogue, who teaches for the Church. Only through prayer, study, and direct participation in the life of the community can they grow in this identity and the integrity and responsibility it entails.
The approach of the Catholic Formation Group both equips and empowers a wider community of catechists from among parents and mentors, while also establishing a smaller community within the parish (or school) where the prayer, study, and direct participation in communal life necessary for reaching Christian maturity may be practiced, together.
Second: the Habits
A Catholic Formation group invests in basic, simple Catholic things, but all of these things are specifically chosen. The goal is to develop habits upon which a mature Catholic identity may build. In a world that is increasingly fast-paced and adverse to silence and reflection, we need to invest in the practices of prayer and journaling. In a media environment where fleeting soundbites are how we communicate with each other, we need to invest in face-to-face conversation. In a religious milieu where Scripture is at most appealed to for proof-texting or as a repository of moral platitudes, we need to invest in slowly acquiring a scriptural imagination.
And in a cultural moment where everything seems subject to change, we need to invest in the foundational realities of the Christian faith that provide us a solid ground on which to stand: the person of Christ, the sacraments, and the meaning of life as communion. With this in mind, the regular pattern for weekly Catholic Formation Group meetings includes the following:
- Opening prayer: typically the Angelus which the members of the group eventually commit to memory and are encouraged to pray throughout the week.
- Prayer journaling: the primary objective of which is simply to give time for writing directly to the Lord, with a secondary objective of building up the habit of silence and reflection.
- Meal with conversation: the practices of eating together with others and of sharing face-to-face conversations have become rarer and rarer, so to recover the good of these practices group members eat together and talk about non-frivolous things that actually matter, usually with prompts to guide them.
- Testimonials: when exploring the question of “Who is Jesus?” over multiple sessions at the center of the yearlong formation, the complementary question of “Who is Jesus for me?” is also taken up; first, parents offer brief testimonies responding to that question for the benefit of the group, and later the young people preparing for the sacrament do the same.
- Lesson: conducted through scriptural immersion, explication of doctrine, and discussion (I share more about the content below).
- Closing prayer: drawn from the riches of the tradition, this spans from offering petitions and the Lord’s prayer to practicing specific prayers of saints and other traditional and devotional prayers.
The first Christians who shared in and offered to others “the Way” of Christ engaged specific, regular practices: they studied the teachings of the apostles, they shared in a common life, they broke bread together, and they committed themselves to the prayers. The basic structure of a Catholic Formation Group follows that pattern. It is an environment where more mature disciples continue to grow in their practice of the faith while sharing that way with those who are being added to their number—in this case: young people preparing for confirmation.
Third: The Content
Catholicism is about the whole but we often pass it on as a bunch of pieces. What is missing in much of religious instruction, faith formation, and sacramental preparation is the coherence factor. We get bogged down in the tedium of “topics,” while the coherence factor has to do with the beauty of the whole. Losing the coherence factor is like studying all the different rules of baseball without learning to appreciate the game itself. Or again, it is like focusing so much on each individual amendment to the Constitution that we fail to see the genius of the document in toto. The whole of the Catholic faith points to the wholeness of the life Christ offers us. When the content of the faith is chopped up or fragmented, the beauty of the whole is lost.
Christianity is ineluctably ordered to life with and for others. There is no concept of the “individual” in Christianity, only members. “We, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Rom 12:15). Moreover, in Christian terms, there is no such thing as “my life” and “your life,” but only “my life which I share with you, and your life which you share with me, in Christ.” We are branches of the same vine (John 15:1–11).
The life of Christ is not something you “get.” It is not a possession and it does not terminate at the individual, as consumer. The life of Christ is sharing in his body, one among many members. To share in that body means to become an instrument for sharing that life with and for others. This is not one lesson among others but rather the mystical reality of those who become members through the sacramental mediation of the Church. But though this is not reducible to a single lesson, it must nevertheless be taught. Teaching this mystery is part of the catechetical ministry of the Church, so that Christians may know their dignity and claim their mission.
To become a source of goodness, those who are being formed in the Christian faith must be taught that this is what they are to become. This first paragraph of the Catechism makes an astonishing claim, which changes the meaning and horizons of human life:
God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life . . . In his Son and through him, [God] invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life.
But it is not enough to just tell people this is what Catholics believe; we must help them to grow in wonder at this mystery and learn to see this drama unfolding in their own lives as they become fully initiated members of the Church. I have found that the best way to teach this drama is to move both narratively and biblically, so as to reveal the beauty of Catholic doctrine and the awesome nature of our sacramental initiation, healing, and mission.
A particularly apt starting point is the narrative of St. Paul because his conversion and ongoing transformation into a source of goodness leads us to the person of Christ. Rather than just saying that Paul’s life changed, we study how he changed in great detail, moving beyond the overly tidy assumptions about what happened on the road to Damascus. Paul’s conversion concerned a change in his mind, his heart, and his lips––breaking from an old way and starting out on a new way. But that “about-turn” was just the beginning. Over time and with great struggle, Paul was thoroughly transformed as a man whose memory is conformed to grace (2 Cor 12:7–10), whose heart is enlarged to make space for the good of others (Phil 1:3–9), and whose lips proclaim “as of first importance” the saving mysteries of Christ (1 Cor 15:3–10). In both his teaching and his witness, Paul testifies to the “power and wisdom” of Christ (1 Cor 1:24), as he leads us to contemplate the mystery of Christ’s identity and mission. We are prompted to ask the decisive question of the Gospel: “Who is Jesus Christ?” and to match that with the urgent question of our own personal discipleship: “Who is Jesus Christ for me?” If we were to think of the content of this teaching as a full-year curriculum, the journey from Paul to Christ (and into Advent) would be the first semester.
The second semester, then, builds from the contemplation of Christ through the study of creation in order to discover who and what human beings are created to be. Only in view of our original goodness and dignity can we properly account for the tragedy of sin and sin’s effects. In other words, this order of treatment allows us to see, in Christ, what we have fallen from, what we are being restored to, and how our healing leads to the growth of sanctification. The recovery from sin takes place through the Spirit, with whom we cooperate to grow in virtue—specifically the virtue of chastity of the eyes, ears, and tongue. This presentation of chastity is about becoming ever more capable of attentiveness and intimacy, as has already been glimpsed in the transformation of the mind, lips, and heart of St. Paul. Growth into the life of Christ depends on grace but never without the strengthening of virtue.
The point, in the end, is to become ever more fit to hear the word of God and act on it, and thus participants in the universal call to holiness, which the Church as Mother nurtures us to become. This work of Christ through his Church is conducted principally through the sacraments, by which we are united to Christ as members (sacraments of initiation), restored and reclaimed amid the breaks in our communion (sacraments of healing), and ordered to the salvation of others and building up the good of the whole body (sacraments of mission).
The drama of the Christian life is vast but coherent, and it must be presented upon the decisive keynote. The keynote is communion, because communion is at the heart of Catholicism, because Christ is at the heart of the faith. Christ brings us into communion with God and unity with one another—that’s the Catholic whole.
By the end of this teaching, those being formed for the Christian life will see their own formation as anything but the mere accumulation of knowledge or even as just preparing for something they will “get.” They are instead inclined to see themselves as preparing to respond to the gift they will receive by becoming a source of goodness for others. That is the link between Christian identity and mission.
Fourth: The Setting
The first time I taught a confirmation class we met in a school classroom. I was not a school teacher; I was a volunteer catechist—in fact, I was a sophomore in college working alongside another sophomore. It was very clear to us that the classroom where we met was not our own; we were just borrowing it. Come Monday morning, no one should have been able to tell that we had been there the day before. Needless to say, neither we nor our students ever felt at home.
My current parish is fortunate enough to have a parish center with good meeting spaces. When our religious education program meets on Sunday mornings, every room is filled. The catechists do not feel like squatters as I did during my first year teaching confirmation. All the same, no one would say they feel “at home” in the space. It is a meeting space; at best, a parish classroom. It is hard to allow young people to feel like this is something other than just another morning at school.
Considering the physical spaces used for faith formation endeavors, as well as how people are instructed to conduct themselves in those spaces, is not some ancillary concern. These spaces and the habits formed therein are indeed part of the message. In fact, they are often among the most powerful parts. In laying out this approach to Catholic formation, therefore, I draw attention to the space itself where formation activities take place. It is not just about the physical space but indeed about the kind of environment that is fostered. Following my friend’s lead, my proposal to bring formation into a family home is a significant––though not absolutely necessary––dimension of this overall approach.
If we want people to feel at home in the mission of the Church, then why not use a home to form them for it? When you have guests over for dinner, you open your home and use it intentionally. When you celebrate Christmas at home, you use your home intentionally. When you put your house on the market, you prepare it intentionally. The same can be true of opening a home for the purposes of religious formation: use it intentionally.
The intentional uses of a home for this particular purpose include the following: a place to pray, a place to reflect, a place to study and learn, a place to eat together, and a place to welcome families. With the exception of meeting for Eucharistic Adoration and the like, our Catholic Formation Group always meets at our home. When the young people arrive, they just hang out for a while, shooting hoops or chatting. We have a basement in our house, where I put some tables together to use as our primary meeting space. When we break for personal journaling time, the young people scatter a little bit to have some privacy. When they eat together in smaller groups (lunch every time), they sit at the dining room table or the kitchen table. Their parents are able to join in the lessons, mingle in the kitchen, and chat over a light meal, while siblings who often come can play together inside or outside. A home is a natural setting for all these activities. Moving from one kind of space to another, all for different aspects of one complete formation session each week, establishes an atmosphere of integration.
Since a primary aim of this period of formation is the further integration of faith into each person’s everyday life, the setting of a home establishes the conditions for reinforcing that very message. The environment embodies the message. While I would not go so far as to say that this approach only works if it is done in a home, I am confident in claiming that hosting a Catholic Formation Group in a home is ideal.
This way of reconceiving faith formation and sacramental preparation moves us beyond the consumeristic approach to ministry and education, where the parish or the school (and the ministers and teachers therein) are solely relied upon to provide the instruction and formation for emerging disciples. The time has come to help ministers and teachers draw forth and support the leadership of a great many. In the Church, we do not leave evangelization and catechesis to “the professionals,” because each of us, by virtue of our baptism and as sealed through our confirmation, is directly and personally responsible for the mission of Jesus Christ.
If we want to form Catholics who are committed, courageous, and charitable, then we need to form them better to receive and respond to the gifts of Christ through the Holy Spirit. We need to do better than we have been doing; we need something different. By “we,” I mean the Church. We need to form those who are being fully initiated in the Church to become agents of renewal who live lives that inspire other people to believe and to offer their lives to the love of Christ. We need Catholics to be witnesses to the Gospel.
Taking as the end of Christian formation the ongoing transformation into what I have called a “source of goodness” reestablishes the crucial link between the identity and the mission of the Christian. What we have recently dubbed “missionary discipleship” is in essence just a way of describing Christian maturity. The point of evangelization and the attendant ministry of catechesis is about far more, therefore, than stemming the tide of disaffiliating young people or even adding to the number of members in the communion of the Church. The real point is to form members capable of and willing to sacrifice for the good of others. This is the heart of what I call “Evangelization Extended,” and to that I will turn my attention in the forthcoming third essay in this series.
EDITORIAL NOTE: Portions of this essay are adapted from the book––Turn to the Lord: Forming Disciples for Lifelong Conversion––and its companion––Turn to the Lord: An Invitation to Lifelong Conversion––published by Liturgical Press and used here with the permission of the publisher.
 Robert McCarty and John Vitek, Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics (Winona, MN: Saint Mary’s, 2018); cf. Nicolette Manglos-Weber and Christian Smith, “Understanding Former Young Catholics: Findings from a National Study of American Emerging Adults,” National Survey of Youth and Religion and Justin Bartkus and Christian Smith, A Report on American Catholic Religious Parenting.
 See, for example, Jennifer L. Roberts, “The Power of Patience: Teaching Students the Value of Deceleration and Immersive Attention,” Harvard Magazine.
 For more on the importance of the art of conversation, see Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation (New York: Penguin, 2016); along with Sherry Turkle, Alone Together (New York: Basic, 2012).
 See Pope St. Leo the Great,
 The content of this paragraph is treated in full in chapters 1–12 of my Turn to the Lord: Forming Disciples for Lifelong Conversion (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2021). The same content appears in the corresponding chapters of the shorter companion volume, which is a volume without the teaching guides that is part 2 of the larger volume. The shorter, one-part volume is Turn to the Lord: An Invitation to Lifelong Conversion (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2021).
 See Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988), especially 16–17, 34, 53, 77.
 See Austin Flannery, ed., “Lumen Gentium: Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” in Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations (Northport, New York: Costello, 1996), 42, 62, 64.
 Everything named in this paragraph is presented in chapters 13–25 of DeLorenzo, Turn to the Lord, 2021.
 See Flannery, “Lumen Gentium,” 1.