By C. DANIELS DUBOSE | Published August 24, 2018
ROSWELL—On a sunny Saturday morning in July, a caravan of SUVs and minivans formed at St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell. One by one teenagers slowly exited the vehicles. Some had Starbucks cups in hand; others had notepads; all had cell phones. Once inside, they grabbed donuts and pieces of fruit for breakfast and stood in small groups, sleepy-eyed yet chatty, unsure yet energized.
They were about to break a longstanding tradition.
For too long confirmation preparation consisted of a classroom setting where students were given information to memorize. And the St. Peter Chanel religious education team was ready to flip that paradigm on its head.
Welcome to “Hear My Voice”—the parish’s inaugural daylong confirmation conference on July 21 focused on engaging nearly 300 ninth- and 10th-graders as they prepared for the sacrament of confirmation. From 9 a.m.-7 p.m., the teens moved throughout the parish in clusters, listening to speakers from across the archdiocese discuss topics ranging from “Respecting Life—Especially Our Own,” led by Susan Baker, youth ministry coordinator at St. Philip Benizi Church, Jonesboro; to “Catholic, Christian, Whatever” led by Father Llane Briese and “Loving on Purpose” led by Carla Heinsch of St. Benedict Church, Johns Creek.
Seeking proof for faith
The teens asked questions, ate meals together, played human foosball and even attended Mass. Before each session, cell phones were secured in plastic Ziploc bags and placed in bins. The goal: full participation as their instructors delivered proof.
“One of things we’re finding (not just Catholics but Christians) is that this is a generation that seeks proof, in all areas,” said Rosemary Potts, St. Peter Chanel’s director of religious education. “One of the main reasons they leave the Christian faith is there’s not proof … (they) know about symbols of baptism and how to receive communion—what they don’t know is how it’s relevant in their life.”
Phoenix Borrego, 14 and a freshman at River Ridge High School, Woodstock, can relate. Last week another student’s Instagram post, asking how one can ‘call yourself a Christian and like LGBTQ people,’ was making the rounds among Borrego’s peers.
“I made an Instagram post … basically saying ‘if you want to call yourself a Catholic or a Christian you shouldn’t treat others with hate … you should love your neighbor as much as you love yourself,’’’ Borrego said. “I decided to make that post for the people who follow that page and follow my page. So they would feel comfort.”
Still, Borrego admitted she was conflicted about the church’s official stance. But on Saturday afternoon, during a session titled “LGBTQ and C?” Father Desmond Drummer erased the discord.
“What he was saying was exactly the same thing I was saying,” Borrego explained. “It was nice to know I was right about how God wants us to treat (that community).”
This is the affirmation Msgr. Peter Rau envisioned when he and Potts started planning the all-day, interactive conference. After a spring session with this year’s class, Rau was concerned he and the parish staff weren’t listening enough.
“I told them ‘tell me what questions you have about church—your issues—because you are going to be the disciples going into the world,” Msgr. Rau said. “They gave me 150 questions, and they weren’t frivolous. They ranged from Scripture (understand they are rubbing shoulders with non-Catholics); misinterpretations; justice issues; sexuality (especially how it relates to church and LGBT community). This is the world they are in now.”
These questions laid the groundwork for “Hear My Voice.”
“Special and unique” for each teen
On this Saturday morning, the teens sat silently in the sanctuary for their opening keynote, “Why Am I Here,” delivered by Rob Montepare from Prince of Peace Church in Flowery Branch.
“There’s something special, unique and specific for each of us here,” Montepare proclaimed. “We trust so many things, we have no idea where they came from (Instagram photos, the Starbucks barista, the Uber driver). We have all these things around us that say ‘Trust in the Lord,’ yet it’s the hardest thing to do.”
As Montepare prayed, some teens bowed their heads; others stared at the large crucifix hanging in front of the sanctuary. A vocalist sang, “I lean not on my own understanding, my life is in the hands of the maker of heaven.”
Quietly the teens dispersed into their morning sessions. Parent and volunteer Inga Dolezar stood by watching with eager excitement. Dolezar’s son Koen, 14, was a conference participant.
“This is fantastic,” Dolezar said. “I am beyond excited the kids get to have topics addressed that they won’t ask about in a group setting but want to know about.”
For Dolezar, questions about gay marriage, science versus religion, and “why we’re Catholic” find their way into daily conversations. And while Dolezar does her best to be real with her sons, holding open dialogue supported by facts, she admitted: “it’s nice to have a different voice.”
Her son Koen’s favorite session was “Infinity Wars” led by Father Bryan Small. The session included pop culture references to help explain that the creation story was “more of a representation and the author used divine inspiration,” Koen said. “So it could be both science and religion and not either or. (Those were) new insights.”
Dolezar has a goddaughter studying for confirmation at a different parish. She sees her disengagement from instruction that’s mostly memorization instead of exploration. Taking a new approach rather than a traditional one was another reason Dolezar’s excitement hadn’t waned, even days after the conference.
“The speakers … were not sidestepping the hard issues. It’s the whole reason they were there,” she added the following week. “There are ways to talk about seven sins, the LGBT community; how science works with our religion that sidesteps … They tackled it instead of trying to wiggle around it.”
Tradition broken. Mission accomplished.