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.”
Image credit: Fr James Bradley/Flickr