I love doing Confirmation retreats. I have led about 45 Confirmation weekend retreats in the past 10 years, both at my home parish and around the country. Most youth ministers loathe them because this is Peak Apathy among kids. They do not want to be Confirmed, they hate that they have to go to classes all year (or two!), and now you’ve just stolen a whole weekend from them. They are annoyed, angry and disengaged.
How to win these people over? The Assistant Director of the New Evangelization for Cincinnati once said, “Why are you so worried about catechesis when these teens don’t even know if they believe in God or not?” So when it comes to the talks, about 90% of my time on our parish’s confirmation retreat is spent on three things: my personal testimony regarding atheism, the quest for happiness in every human heart, and the Gospel of Jesus.
I talk about how I was heavily tempted towards atheism and it took years of study before I could say that God exists and that He intervenes in human history. Then the next question, “Which religion, if any, is the right one?” was answered in my life when I answered another question, “Did Jesus Christ really rise from the dead?” If Jesus rose from the dead, then He’s God and I can trust Him. If not, “then we are the most pitiable people of all” (1 Cor. 15:19). I use reason to show the reliability of the resurrection.
Next I talk about how everyone wants to be happy. All Ancient Greek moralities had this at their core, though they all differed as in what happiness consisted. The Sermon on the Mount started with happiness, or beatitude. Our word “Blessed” in the Greek could also be translated “Happy”. I show how the four popular versions of happiness - wealth, pleasure, power, and honor - are all false. I ask them leading questions, “Have you ever met a rich person who wasn’t happy? Yes? Then riches can’t be happiness.”
The following is also key. I demonstrate how happiness is the greatest good of human life. It is the Ultimate End. Most kids are not taught to think about means-and-ends and the relationship they play in human behavior, but they also seem to have heard the maxim, "The ends do not justify the means." This takes a bit of time setting up, but is worth it. We all have means that we chose in order to arrive at specific ends, or goals, that we want. Happiness is the greatest and ultimate and final End of all our striving, willing, and desiring.
No one thinks “I want to get happy enough so that I'll finally be rich.” As if happiness could be the means to the end of riches (or pleasure, etc.). We chose the means (pleasure, wealth, power, honor) because we think it will make us happy. From a strictly rational argument I talk about how these four things cannot constitute authentic happiness, the final good of every person. The heart needs more, and they start to see the horizon of my argument.
Then I show them a man who had no honor (“despised and rejected by men”), had no wealth (“the Son of Man has no place to lay his head”), who had no pleasure (“he was pierced for our faults and crushed for our infirmities”), and who had no power (“The chief priests answered: ‘We have no king but Caesar.’”), and tell them that He alone is our happiness.
In the midst of so many adults who are using them to advance careers and agendas, there is a God who is fundamentally for them (2 Cor 1:19). I tell them that God is infinitely perfect in himself (Cf. Catechism #1) so that God does not need them, but rather that he wants them. Humans need each other because we are limited, yet too often this need for one another devolves into using one another. But since God is entirely and infinitely self-sufficient for His own happiness, then this means that God will never use you or I and discard us when finished. We can trust in Him precisely because His motives are entirely for us. This is the very heart of love!
If our desire for happiness and our awareness that nothing this world offers can truly satisfy our hearts, then that means only something greater than this world can make us happy. So if we can believe that God exists and wills our good, and if Jesus truly did historically rise from the dead, then that means union with Jesus is my happiness.
The only thing separating me from union with God is my sin, which is precisely what Jesus Christ died and rose to destroy. Jesus reconciled the world to God on the cross. Once a Confirmandi sees this with the eyes of faith, the rest of the Confirmation year is changed. He has moved from hostility to openness to God. Their classes build upon this new perspective.
God love you!