A Confirming Slap

Deacon Greg talks about a recent confirmation where he expected the Bishop to slap the confirmands on the cheek as they did “back in the day.”

Read a snip:

Generations of Catholics came into the church that way, with a dab of oil and a sting of flesh. At the time, the Sisters of St. Joseph—no slouches in the slapping department, by the way—taught us that the touch of episcopal palm to young cheek was a harbinger of things to come. “It is a sign,” they intoned, “of the sufferings we must endure as Christians.” In other words: get used to it. There’s more where that came from.
For an 11- or 12-year-old, it sounded ominous. And it made us look at our vocations as young Catholics with seriousness and a certain amount of dread. How long until we had to face the lions?

Flash forward forty years. Earlier this month, I was serving as deacon at our parish confirmation in Queens. The bishop anointed each of the kids as they came forward and then—I braced for the slap, waited for it—he extended a palm . . . and shook their hands. And he smiled as he did it.
He shook their hands?!

He could have been selling them a used car.

Ok, that last part made me chuckle.

But a confirmation slap does not.

Truth be told, one never was supposed to receive a slap at confirmation but rather touching someone’s cheek is a sign of endearment. It’s a way to say to someone “You are dear to me.” I can see a Father doing this to his beloved daughter or a son to his aging mother. At the Easter Vigil, our pastor, Father Jack, does exactly that to each confirmand.

And now I do this to our students.

At the closing mass on campus each year we invite our graduating seniors and graduate students up to the front of the church and we send them forth for the final time. We’ve ritualized this by asking all the campus ministers to come forward and lay hands on them. After I do so, I touch each one of their cheeks in this endearing way.

The guys, I must say, I do give a little harder tap on the cheek. And they love it. Zach, one of my favorites invited me to a pre-graduation dinner at his family’s home and he ritualized the evening with his own pre-written grace where he thanked everyone for supporting him through college. When he got to me he said this:

“Thanks for that closing ritual at mass. I cried and got slapped in the face and I loved every second of it.”

Playful might be the word I’m describing. A kind of double tap. But what happens isn’t the kind of slap that’s painful or leaves one feeling ashen.

But it does leave a mark.

Not on their face but on their hearts.

Imagine your bishop holding your cheek in the palm of his hand. Saying “I love you, God loves you. Now go and do likewise.”

That’s the kind of slap we need. One that makes us awaken to the fact that we are beloved by God, not one that makes us fearful and afraid.

I will concede the good Deacon the following point:

We need more than a handshake from our Bishop.

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5 Comments

  1. I like Deacon Greg’s blog (most of the time), but a lot of the comments really make me worry for the Church. Symbols have meaning, and I really worry about what a slap (even symbolic) says about our bishops, when they have enough of a credibility problem these days, especially when the protection of our children is a concern.

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  2. When I was preparing for Confirmation, my parents told me that I would get slapped by the Bishop (not a hard slap though) because Confirmation is a time when you have to show your strength in the faith and they had gotten one too. The Bishop touched my cheek the way Fr. Jack does and then shook hands. So I thought that touching the cheeks was a mild form of a slap. The last few years I’ve been observing Fr. Jack at Easter vigil and I’ve been thinking that he’s giving the candidates the same “mild slap” that I got rather than an endearment!

    Thanks for the enlightenment Mike!!

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  3. I love it Mike. And I also agree with you. The touching of the face is such an intimate and memorable moment, we are going to shake thousands of hands in our lives, but not too many people touch our faces. With good reason when you think about it, but for confirmation? That is one of the moment important moments in your journey in faith, and I will be honest I don’t even remember what the bishop did to congratulate me. But you have better be careful Mike, your going to be “slapping” a lot of law students who may not take the gesture as endearing. We need less than a punch, more than a handshake… a face pinch!

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  4. I have to say that whole ceremony of sending forth was so touching it brought me to tears. You could see the caring on Mike’s face when we prayed over the graduates and then touched their faces. It was a beautiful moment and the music was perfect too! Thanks Mike for letting me share this moment with you. It’s one of my favorite moments as a minister’s wife.

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