June 22, 2018

Archbishop Thompson’s engaging approach stresses ‘tremendous, transformative effect’ of confirmation

In the St. Louis School cafeteria in Batesville, Archbishop Charles C. Thompson stands on a chair to help the youths of five Batesville Deanery parishes practice their responses prior to the Mass in which they received the sacrament of reconciliation on April 21. (Waltz Photography, LLC)

In the St. Louis School cafeteria in Batesville, Archbishop Charles C. Thompson stands on a chair to help the youths of five Batesville Deanery parishes practice their responses prior to the Mass in which they received the sacrament of reconciliation on April 21. (Waltz Photography, LLC)

By Natalie Hoefer

Nearly 50 teenagers rose from their chairs in the former gym and faced the stage where Archbishop Charles C. Thompson stood.

“Now I want to hear you say it loud and strong,” he called out over a microphone to the youths gathered in the Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara Catholic Center’s assembly hall in Indianapolis.

“I do,” they responded in a hesitant chorus.

“It’s going to have to be louder than that,” the archbishop encouraged. “You want your parents and grandparents in the back of the church to hear you. Let’s try it again.”

The “I do” was louder this time and grew in volume as the archbishop had the teens repeat the phrase together five times—just as they would do in less than an hour during the rite of confirmation at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis.

This particular scene took place on April 25. But it is not unique. Since last fall, the scene has been—and will continue to be—played out multiple times at the cathedral and in parishes around central and southern Indiana.

With new archbishops come new ideas. And so it is that Archbishop Thompson has begun two practices centered on the sacrament of confirmation: meeting with parish youths immediately before their rite of confirmation, and having them submit letters to him in advance answering specific questions.

“It’s reminding the young people and their families that the sacrament is a part of something bigger than the parish,” he explained of the methods. “That they’re becoming … full members of something much larger—the larger Church.”

‘Enriching for them, inspiring for me’

Archbishop Thompson says he got the letter-writing idea from the late Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly, the former leader of the Louisville archdiocese where Archbishop Thompson was ordained.

He asks each youth to be confirmed to send him a letter answering four questions: what does confirmation mean to you; what is your saint’s name and why did you choose it; who is your sponsor and why did you choose that sponsor; and what did you do for your service hours.

“Four simple questions, and I get anything from a paragraph to three pages,” Archbishop Thompson said with a grin.

The letter-writing is not intended as busy work, he assured.

“What I’ve found in my own life when I have to give a homily or a talk, is that … when you articulate [the message] by writing, sometimes you look at what you wrote and you say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that was in me.’

“I want to hear what [the youths] have to say, but I also want them to have an opportunity to hear what’s there inside them. Most take it very seriously. I think the ones who do, it’s enriching for them, and it’s certainly inspiring for me.”

‘In the state of mind to be confirmed’

Archbishop Thompson also believes that what the youths have to say will be inspiring to those gathered at the confirmation Mass, too. That’s why he reads aloud a few answers to each question during his homily at confirmation Masses, keeping each responder’s identity anonymous.

“I tell the young people that, ‘The people who’ve gone before you, they like to hear your faith,’ ” he explained. “They’ve given their blood, sweat and tears to the parish, for the Church, for the mission of Jesus, and they want to know that that wasn’t in vain, that there are those coming after them who will carry out this mission.”

Among those confirmed on April 25 was Erin Rooney, a member of Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ Parish in Indianapolis. She said she found writing the letter to the archbishop beneficial.

“It really brought it down to why we are here,” she said. “We’ve been asked these questions before, but having this assignment from the archbishop really put your mind in that area. I think it helped, especially knowing the archbishop was reading them.”

Her fellow parishioner, Alex Payne, agreed.

“Instead of viewing this as just a process, it helped me think about what [the sacrament] really means,” he said.

Youths from Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Indianapolis were confirmed during the same Mass. Our Lady of Lourdes parishioner Christopher DiGiusto was present to witness his son Seamus receive the sacrament.

“I thought that [reading answers from the letters] was a great way to involve the kids in every aspect of the Mass and show them that he was listening,” he said. “I was really impressed that [Archbishop Thompson] was interested individually in each of the kids.”

‘A chance to interact’

Engaging with youths is something Archbishop Thompson has long enjoyed.

“Most of my priesthood before I became a bishop, I was always a chaplain to a high school, and a lot of the parishes had large schools,” he said. “So in a lot of ways this interaction with [youths preparing for the rite of] confirmation is my way of keeping connected to that experience. I enjoy the energy and the freshness in perspective of the young people.”

He experiences that energy and connection personally through the pre-confirmation Mass meeting he initiated. The meetings take him to parishes throughout central and southern Indiana.

The meetings also offer “a chance to interact with [the youths] so they can experience the bishop in a normal way,” he said, “so they can have a conversation with a bishop, so he’s not somebody way out there that you never get close to. … And I try to make them laugh and smile a little bit.”

Archbishop Thompson also uses the meeting as an opportunity to walk the teens and their sponsors through what to expect during the Mass and the rite of confirmation, an effort Our Lady of Lourdes parishioner Ava Frank appreciated before receiving the sacrament on April 25.

“It was really helpful,” she said. “I didn’t really know what I was doing or where I was supposed to go. Going through the [rite] was a good review.”

For most of the meeting, the archbishop weaves in and among the teens. But to practice the “I do” response he stands on a stage, or even on a chair.

“I’m short,” he said with a grin. “So I want them to see my face.”

‘Members of the larger Church’

It is not vanity that motivates his desire for the youths to see him. Rather, it is the third reason why the archbishop instituted the meeting: catechesis.

“I have them practice the [‘I do’] answers to the profession of faith because I want them to take [the profession of faith] seriously, and I want them to see me so they know I take it seriously,” he explained. “It’s easy to make a profession of faith when your family and Church [members] are around you. But it’s not so easy to live that faith when you’re out on your own.

“Even though it’s just five simple ‘I do’s,’ it is profound. I think sometimes culturally we tend to equate simplicity with not being too important or too profound. In our Church, some of the most profound things we do may seem very simple, but they have a tremendous, transformative effect.”

During the meeting, Archbishop Thompson also explains that of the 24 Catholic liturgical traditions, only the Latin rite separates confirmation from baptism. The reasons are two-fold, he told the youths.

The first reason, he said, was for bishops to stay connected with their flock as the Church spread and local priests were commissioned to administer the other sacraments.

The second reason was “so that the bishop’s presence would remind those being confirmed of their bond beyond the parish to the universal Church,” he explained.

Archbishop Thompson later told The Criterion that the same is true of him.

“I hope my presence to confer the sacrament helps the young people and their families [realize] that the sacrament is part of something bigger than the parish, that they’re becoming not just full members of their particular parish, but full members of something much larger—the larger Church,” he said.

Teens, parents, sponsors and priests alike have expressed appreciation for the pre-confirmation Mass meetings, which Father Rick Ginther, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, called “very pastoral.”

“He connects very well with the students,” he said after the April 25 confirmation Mass. “His ability to be so comfortable with them has got to be endearing to them. When he’s energetic, he’s very energetic, but when he’s serious, he’s very serious.”

Sue Lynch, both grandparent and sponsor of Seamus DiGiusto, agreed.

“He relates to the young people very well,” she said. “He’s very open, has a good sense of humor, but didn’t take things lightly. He made everyone feel relaxed, … and he made it more personal so that when they go up to get confirmed, hopefully it will be a more personal experience.”

It seemed to be so for Erin, who said it was “really nice to get to know [Archbishop Thompson] a little bit, his sense of humor.”

‘Three or four confirmations a week’

As the season for confirmations comes to an end in an archdiocese that consists of 39 counties and 11 deaneries, Archbishop Thompson has had time to review the process.

“I’m trying to do all the confirmations, but the schedule doesn’t always work out,” he said, noting there were three or four confirmation Masses he was unable to celebrate.

During the spring months, the archbishop was “doing three or four confirmations a week, which gets a little overwhelming with all the other stuff I have to do,” he said. “We may try to spread them out more during the fall and winter so I can do as many as possible.”

Through his continued involvement in the confirmation process, Archbishop Thompson said he hopes to help youths and families understand the importance of the sacrament and its profound effect.

He capsulized that impact at the close of his homily on April 25:

“I’ll make you this one guarantee: If you dare to embrace the gifts of the Holy Spirit in your lives; if you dare to live your life to the full, to leave your mark on the world; if you dare be bold like those first Apostles—not that it will be easy, not that there won’t be challenges, not that you will be popular—but in the end you will have no regrets, and you will realize just how much better you are for it, as well as the world.” †

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