I assisted at a confirmation retreat this past Saturday. Maybe it's because I'm a convert and thus was able to bring my full mental faculties to my studies, but I often grossly overestimate how much other Catholics know about the faith. There were some good kids in the group who were serious about learning. Mostly though they struck me as ignorant, superstitious pagans who should not be receiving the sacrament in two weeks.
"All right kids, you're getting confirmed two weeks from today. Has anyone explained to you what confirmation is?" Silence. "Can anyone tell me what confirmation is?" Silence.
"Have you selected a confirmation saint?" They all nodded yes. "All right. You. Who's your saint and why did you choose him?"
"St. Michael, because my grandpa's name is Michael."
"Uh huh. You. Who's your saint?"
"Monica, because my mom's name is Monica."
Before we broke for lunch, two ladies from the Life Center came to lecture on the dangers of premarital sex. They spoke of how it exposes you to diseases, unwanted pregnancy, financial ruin, and low self-esteem. Before that they took a survey of the kids to learn what forms of media they use and how many of those songs, TV shows, movies, and other things influence them to engage in sex, drugs, and rock and roll. "Who wants you to have sex before marriage?" the women asked. The kids named things like Hollywood, rap moguls, and the devil. The women said, "In all the years we've been doing this, that's the first time we've ever heard the devil brought up." I don't recall them mentioning once that extramarital sex is sinful. Once they were done I said to the kids, "Everything they said was true but they forgot to mention one thing: fornication is a mortal sin for which you will burn in hell for all eternity if you do not repent, confess and do penance."
Every time I'm in a position to teach either adults or children, I always emphasize that hell exists and it's possible to go there. St. Alphonsus Liguori put it best: "He who prays will be saved. He who does not pray will be damned." It's probable that I am the only man they will ever encounter in the entire course of their Catholic formation who will ever tell them this so I always make sure to paint a vivid picture. How often do you hear Catholic priests preach about salvation and damnation from the pulpit?
If the existence of hell is denied - or never, ever spoken about which practically amounts to the same thing - then the Christian religion is emptied of much of its meaning. If it's not possible to lose the game then what's the point of playing? If Jesus loves us, well, that's cool and all, but why is it necessary to follow him and not someone like Buddha who is much less demanding? If we don't need to be saved from our sins, then what was the crucifixion for? That sort of sentimental syrupy sweetness might be acceptable for women and children, but most men want no part of it.
It's both the cross and Christ. The kids were shocked when I spoke to them that way and began asking me many questions about whether this or that was a sin, and if God could ever forgive them. I said that there is no sin too great and no one's sins were too numerous for God to not forgive them. He will forgive any number of evils of any degree of iniquity so long as we are truly repentant and willing to change our lives. I was pleased that many availed themselves of the opportunity to confess. The pastor of that parish struck me as a good man doing the best he could given what he had to work with.
I'm a fierce critic of the Catholic education establishment, and they deserve to be fiercely criticized in many cases. But I've also learned that priests and lay catechists can do everything well and it still won't stick. If it isn't being reinforced at home - if the parents don't care - then it makes no difference how well or how poorly the teachers are doing their jobs. If the parents look at confirmation as simply graduation from CCD, then their children will walk away from the Church after high school. If God works a miracle of grace, then it's possible a few of them might come back and appear on EWTN to tell the story of how they fell away from the Church in college but came back.
Parents, remember what St. John Vianney once said from the pulpit on Sunday morning in front of all the little families from his backwater parish: if you do not form your own children in the faith, then you'll spend your first few years in hell preparing a warm welcome for your children when they join you there.