By Tony DeGol
Pope Francis once said, “The Holy Spirit is a great worker, and He works in us, always.”
Appropriately enough, the grace of the Spirit seems to be working in young people preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation amid a pandemic.
As always, the process includes a series of retreats for candidates between 9th and 11th grades.
“It’s a developing, spiritual contact with themselves, with their prayer life, with the Church, so that by the time the 11th grade Confirmation celebration comes, they truly have spiritually grown and – with their sponsor – have been led into a mature understanding of what it’s going to mean to be a full member of the Catholic Church,” noted Jeanne Thompson, diocesan coordinator of the Sacramental Preparation ministry.
Parishes can sponsor their own retreats, but the diocese also offers regional retreats as an alternative.
Because of COVID-19, Thompson realized months ago that in-person gatherings this fall and winter would not be possible, so she and the facilitator, Community of Anawim Sister Suzanne Thibault, began the process of transforming the usual in-person retreats into Zoom retreats.
Sister Suzanne is Thompson’s sibling and the director of the Bethany Youth Retreat Center in Frenchville in the Diocese of Erie.
After years of working together on the in-person retreats, the virtual retreats are providing an opportunity for the duo to spiritually enrich the students in a new format.
Eleventh graders, for instance, would normally have a 10-12 hour in-person retreat, Thompson explained. This year, however, a very similar experience is occurring over five Zoom sessions that are each about 90 minutes long with some work in between each session.
An added bonus of the virtual platform is that sponsors and parents are welcome to participate in the retreats for the first time.
“We’ve had a wonderful response,” Thompson revealed. “If a candidate is in Altoona and his sponsor is in Ohio, they can still spend this time together. It was so neat one night when I heard a teenager say, ‘Hi grandma!’ One night even a grandmother said to her grandson, ‘It’s a shame that we have to get together this way, but I’m glad to see you.’ Just really good stuff.”
Virtual retreats began in late September and happened throughout these fall months. More are planned for December and into 2021, giving candidates the continued opportunity to take what Sister Suzanne calls a “deep dive” into their Catholic faith.
“I’m giving some educational component, some faith development component and on occasion we have break-out rooms where students are able to intermingle and talk about things with other peers and also adults,” Sister explained. “After the Zoom session is over, I send material out to students and sponsors, where my hope is that they’re working on this material separately and then come together in a discussion where they are talking about things of faith, things of God, and then the candidates themselves will be filling out a reflection page and sending that back to me where then I get to put everything together and present my next session.”
Whether in person or virtually, the Sacramental Preparation process is critical for the faith formation of those preparing for the milestone of Confirmation.
“As a religious educator for the past 35 years, I have really appreciated the program that the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese has put together where students of freshman age will connect with a person that will be their sponsor through all three years of this process,” Sister Suzanne admitted. “In the freshman year, it’s an opportunity to take a deep dive into Baptism. Then to look at what the parables are all about. And then, the appreciation of what is the Holy Spirit and how do we recognize the Holy Spirit’s presence in our life. That’s the real question.”
Confirmation, Sister continued, is not a “graduation,” but rather a springboard into the future.
“Our Church is in desperate need of people of all ages to come together in faith,” she added. “We need people who come to the Sacrament of Confirmation with the intentional belief that this is the faith that I want to live. That’s the Confirmation person that the Church desperately needs.”
Thompson could not agree with her sister more, which is why she is so excited about opportunities this season of virtual preparation is presenting.
“So, again, just all around good experiences,” Thompson assured. “And I do want people to know that these spirit-filled times are truly helping our Church to grow even in these extraordinary times.”
[Photo: Confirmation candidates, along with their sponsors and parents, participate in a recent Zoom retreat.]