Death by Confirmation

In this Catholic rite of passage, becoming a man permanently alters a boy’s relationship to his father.

“I remember we were sitting around the kitchen in my parent’s house. There was me, Father Kelly, my father, and my mother.  I was in the fifth grade and the meeting was to determine my worthiness to participate in the sacrament of confirmation. We’d been there for a while and my old man must have gone through a pack of cigarettes because I remember the room being filled with a blue haze of smoke by this point. And the water glasses, I remember them being soaked with sweat, so much so they bled onto my mom’s red & white tablecloth. All eyes were on me. It seemed the fate of my eternal soul rested on my answer.”

Confirmation is one of seven sacraments Catholics go through in their lifetime. It’s a reaffirmation of the vows taken when baptized because the child is an infant at the time of baptism and incapable of understanding or articulating what is required at the moment—a pledge of loyalty and devotion to God and the church. So at the time of baptism we have godparents stand with the infant in their arms and perform the ritual on the child’s behalf. It is later on, during the period of adolescence, that the church asks the young man or woman to stand on their own and repeat the pledge and in doing so he or she by taking or reaffirming the pledge of baptism becomes an adult in the eyes of the church.

“The priest told me I had to renounce my old man as my father and replace him with Jesus Christ. He said that the love of Jesus was greater than the love of any parent and I had to return such love in kind.  I had to say, in front of my father, that I loved Jesus more than I loved him.“

Now, that’s a hell of a pledge to ask a kid to make, but it is a fine illustration of an initiation ceremony being used as a rite of passage. Rites of passage are situations or events that mark an individual’s passing from one stage of life into another. While they are very personal—generally requiring an individual to go through some sort of process or ordeal—they also contain a community or societal component. At the completion of the rite the individual is expected to take on a new role. For example, one of the main functions of puberty rites “has been always that of switching the response systems of adolescents from dependency to responsibility.”

“Father Kelly asked me if my father would die for me like Jesus did. I answered that he would and he told me I was wrong. I told him that he would and I was right.  Father Kelly got more specific and started talking about the crucifixion and asking me if I thought that my old man would die on the cross for my sins like Jesus did. I didn’t hesitate to answer because I knew my old man and I knew he would.”


Rites of passage are personal experiences designed to either introduce someone into a society or culture or, if the person is already a member, mark a change in the role that they are to play or the status they are to hold. Certain requirements must be met. The individual must be challenged, sometimes forcibly, to leave his current role. The rite should change the person in some way. Successfully transitioned, the individual returns to society in their new role. Joseph Campbell identified these phases as Departure, Initiation, and Return and used them to map out the hero’s journey (The Monomyth) in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell was building on the work of the French ethnographer Arnold Van Gannep, who labeled the phases as Separation, Transition, and Reincorporation.

“I cried. At first I cried tears of rage and defiance toward the priest but by the end my tears turned to those of heartbreak when I betrayed my old man. I did it with his blessing but that didn’t make it hurt any less.”

Finally, rites of passage must have meaning for the individual in order for them and society to fully benefit. Part of Billy’s struggle—and many people like him for that matter—is that he was participating in a ritual that had lost its meaning, at least for him. There was disconnect between Billy, the priest, and the ritual, and because of that Billy never crossed the intended threshold.

“Confirmation meant nothing to me. The church meant nothing to me. I’ve thought of myself as either an atheist or agnostic most of my life. The church never made me feel different in good way. All I remember from that time is selling out my father. To this day I am convinced he would die for me and I wonder if, on that night, I should have died for him.”


Read more of Jeff Swain’s column, Man on the Run, on The Good Life.

Image credit:  Fr James Bradley/Flickr

About Jeff Swain

Jeff Swain claims to be an expert on nothing. He's just a humble seeker, looking to find out what it's all about. Aside from searching for the meaning of life, Jeff likes to run marathons. You can follow along with his life and adventures on his blog, Twitter, and Facebook.


  1. I don’t know if I even buy this story; the understanding of the meaning of the Sacrament of Confirmation is really weak. If it did happen like this at all, it’s definitely unfortunate, but if it did, apparently no one involved understood what the sacramental gift of Confirmation contains.

  2. Bad priests hurt so many people and are ruining the Church. Terrible. I’m glad my confirmation didn’t go that way. Your Fr. Kelley was a bully and there’s a reason why confirmation happens when you are 14 and not 18. If they wait until you are 18 they know “kids” won’t allow them to talk to them in a condescending manner.

  3. Oh Boy – having been dragged up in an Irish Catholic Family – and knowing the joys of the Confirmation Abuse Sessions, I have to say that my stomach was churning as I read. GOD did I recognise the figure of Father Kelly and the control issue and abuse that comes from being an empowered socially accepted control freak let loose in the name of God!

    Billy was abused emotionally and socially – his father was abused in front of him – and his mother was made to collude with the abuse of both of them… and all because they had been indoctrinated in and raised in a supposed religious group that allows a certain group called priests to exercise massive social, emotional, financial and religious authority and power with litteral impunity.

    Behaviour was controlled and manipulated – as was the Information provided by the abuser Fr Kelly was warped and designed to control the thinking and responses of all concerned and to emotionally manipulate them through Bullying so that FR Kelly won and others were under his control.

    When I was 12 the Confirmation Abuse Sessions started and I would not play ball. They continued until I was 18 and the way my family were encouraged to abuse and attack me to make me fall in line Is something I never have forgotten – and never will.

    The one thing it did teach me and which has been on of the most important life lessons – power will seek to control by abuse if necessary, and anyone who is willing to abuse in any way in the name of their god is only one of two things – proof that their god is evil – if they claim to be made in the likeness of their god, just how ugly their god is!

    It is odd, but when you make those two points to such devout individuals they have a real issue with what they are portraying and how what they do makes you wrong and evil. I like being Confirmed over and over in my understanding of how some like to be loved and how they love others – I just chose not to love that way, and by God I never will!

  4. Drew Tatusko says:

    That’s a hard thing for any kid to take. It takes Jesus’ command to leave your family and follow him and couches it in the Western Christian fetish with death and piety. Many have sought some middle ground between death and piety on the one hand and life and Dionysian pleasure on the other. Those attempts have been met with mediocre results leading to a loss of commitment to the religious organization.

    I rejected both the Catholic focus on death along with the Calvinist take on death and became an agnostic. But that craving for “something more” persisted. I tried on Buddhism and a few other things. After a series of life incidents I found a home in Eastern Orthodoxy where the focus really is on love and life. We renounce sin, not our families.

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