Scenes From a Confirmation

As is fitting for a soft June afternoon with bright sun and a mild breeze, I have no thoughts today, only bits and pieces of thoughts. I continue to work on a book and find myself happy, tired and thinking about things that happened long ago when the world even then was not young. Also this has been a big week in my home, with my son having a birthday on Monday, being confirmed in the Catholic Church on Tuesday and taking part in closing exercises at school on Wednesday.

However (she said not at all defensively), it is not true that I have nothing to say. It is only true that I have nothing important to say. So go read Mickey Kaus or check Drudge or Romenesko’s MediaNews, or cruise the papers or jump around this splendid site. All I’m going to do is something that a part of me has always wanted to do, and that is a gossip column with boldface names. Only the boldface names don’t belong to the celebrated and famous. But they are very important in my neck of the woods, as we say on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

*   *   *

St Thomas More Church in Manhattan rocked Tuesday night with the strains of a small, well-trained choir singing into adulthood the eighth graders of the Narnia Class of 2001. Standing to the right of a statue of St Joseph, in which the earthly father of Jesus bears a striking resemblance to Douglas Fairbanks Jr., were the confirmation candidates: Robert von Althann, Philippe Arman, Timothy Barr, John Mason Coyne, Christine Culver, Michaela Culver, Henry Delouvrier, James Fouhey, John Gerard, Nicola Johnson, Christopher Latos, Skye Lehman, Nicholas Manice, Gregory Marino, Diana Mellon, Christopher Mixon, Evan O’Brien, Patrick Fionnbharr O’Halloran, Gregory Pasternack, Matt Petrillo, Rudi Pica, Will Rahn, Brett Rehfeld, Jimmy Reinicke, Evan Richards, Lily Salembier, Alexandra Schueler, Chris Skrela, Katrina Sullivan and Giulia Theodoli.

They were confirmed in a ceremony that not only started on time it ended early because Bishop Patrick Sheridan likes both people and homilies to move at a brisk pace. Also there was a beautiful young woman named Jennifer who was confirmed with the kids and who walked proudly with them and didn’t make them feel she was any different. She did her part with great style.

When you are confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church, you take as your own the name of a saint whose life you find moving or inspiring. (Some take this very formally and internalize it; Bobby Kennedy signed his name Robert Francis Xavier Kennedy into early adulthood.) So many of the candidates this year chose unusual names—Clement, Blaise, Augustine, Siobahn, Alejandro. One of the girls took St. Michael the Archangel.

Will Rahn, son of a certain Wall Street Journal columnist, read the intentions during mass—“for the poor of the world, that they might find sustenance”—and Matt Petrillo did a Bible reading. The boys were so tall and dignified in their red graduation-style gowns—14-year-old boys are now often six feet tall—and they repeated with deep voices the words, the prayer actually, said at baptism but voiced at that time for the baby being baptized by his godparents. But Tuesday night they made the vows on their own, with their own voices.

“Do you renounce Satan and all his works?” they were asked.

“I do,” they answered.

I wondered if those in the pews were struck by the starkness of those grave words, and I wondered too how many were thinking: This is like the end of “The Godfather,” when Michael Corleone stands for Connie’s baby at the Baptism while his enemies are rubbed out. Francis Ford Coppola made great artistic use of the extraordinary dialogue of Baptism but may have damaged the ceremony for an entire generation (no, for two) that would be relieved not to be thinking about gangster movies while taking part in the sacraments.

JoMarie Pica, mother of three and wife of Vin, had taught many of the boys in Christian doctrine classes and had readied them for confirmation. Three hours before the ceremony she was in an accident and the front of her SUV was smashed up. She went to the preconfirmation buffet at Natika and Victor von Althann’s anyway, threw back two Advils and a glass of wine and walked into the church with the candidates holding her candle high.

I taught a small class of girls and got to walk in holding a candle too. The writer Sim Johnston, who also lives in the neighborhood and also teaches one of the Christian doctrine classes, was there helping out the boys too. My girls were beautiful and a little nervous, and a few of their sponsors were late—you have to have an adult Catholic who stands up with you, and for you, when you’re confirmed—and Lily worried that her sponsor might not make it. I said don’t worry, I’ll stand in for her if she doesn’t make it. And then I was so relieved for Lily and half-disappointed for myself when her sponsor came to the altar with Lily and stood with her right hand on her shoulder as the bishop made the sign of the cross with holy oil on Lily’s forehead.

Before the ceremony began the bishop stood with us in a little side room. He looked dignified and weighty, holding a tall staff shaped like a shepherd’s crook and wearing a miter, the big pointy hat, or rather the liturgical headdress, that bishops and cardinals sometimes wear. He was in bright red robes. He had thick eyeglasses and gray hair and was in his 70s and as the girls and the boys chirped and shoved and laughed he took a hard look at them and said “Quiet!” in a way that made me mildly ashamed of my inability to whip them into shape. They listened to him for at least eight seconds before becoming themselves again.

*   *   *

I love some of these children. Some of them have been my son’s friends and in my house since preschool—and I want to hug them when I see them. Some are so kindhearted that they bring tears to your eyes. Some of them are deep inside good and mean to do good in the world. A handful of them are brave, too, and have had a lot to put up with in their parents.

But some of them are victims of the self-esteem movement. They have a wholly unearned self-respect. No, an unearned admiration for themselves. And they’ve been given this high sense of themselves by parents and teachers who didn’t and don’t have time for them, and who make it up to them by making them conceited. I’m not sure how this will play out as they hit adulthood. What will happen to them when the world stops telling them what they have been told every day for the first quarter century of their lives, which is: You are wonderful.

Maybe it will make for a supergeneration of strong and confident young adults who think outside the box (apologies to Pete du Pont) and proceed through their lives with serenity and sureness. Maybe life will hit them upside the head when they’re 24 and they get fired from their first job and suddenly they’re destabilized by the shock of not being admired. Maybe it will send them reeling.

I always want to tell them: the only kind of self-respect that lasts is the kind you earn by honestly coming through and achieving. That’s the only way you’ll make a lasting good impression on yourself.

*   *   *

One of the best things about Tuesday night was that the church was almost full, and so many families with many generations were there, and it was a pretty night in June and everyone could have been somewhere else, and yet here they were, making their responses during the mass and making them with strong voices, as if they knew what comes next. Which in a mass is not always so easy. But here we all were, and it always seems a surprise to me, the acting out of such old beliefs in the heart of new-millennium Manhattan by sophisticated mommies and daddies and hip grandmas. It was moving. It was as if the Holy Spirit were saying, “It’s all right, there is a future here.”

When it was over, families fanned out into neighborhood restaurants, and we went to an Italian place called Vico, where they had a vanilla cake for my son, who had taken his confirmation name from St. Jude. The cake had a cross and said “Hey Jude,” and when the waiters brought it to him they sang happy birthday.

The restaurant—smallish, white-walled, with doors and windows open to the street—had some long tables with happy families. The Picas were across the room with an assortment of uncles and aunts, and with a handsome young man named Alex Mendik, who recently lost his well-loved father Bernie, and whom everybody hugged with great affection. At our table was young Miles Pope,,also an eighth-grader, a young conservative intellectual who quotes Aristotle in an appropriate and unshowoffy manner, not an easy thing in a young man.

It was just a happy night. It was like the junior high school graduation scene in “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn” except we weren’t in an ice-cream parlor and it cost roughly 200 times what egg creams for everyone cost Francie Nolan’s mother. But the spirit of Mrs. Nolan, who made Francie so proud by knowing that on a night like this you should leave a tip, prevailed, and my son’s father and my former husband, as flawed and messy modern Catholics say, was generous and charming and had a great debate with the boys about the nature of the modern European Union. My son’s godmother, Peggy Byrne, our Aunt Peggy, merrily made faces as the boys talked about continents and kings.

And then it was going on 11 p.m. and we all kissed goodbye and jumped in cabs or walked home. And I thought: I belong to a community. My son belongs to a community. This is it. It’s a neighborhood community, and a community of faith, a school community and a community of old relationships that last forever.

You can forget that you are part of a community. You don’t even notice it, and then one night you look around and realize that you’re in the middle of it. It’s a good feeling to be part of something so big and so important, and to realize that when we celebrate something like a confirmation, we’re celebrating what we belong to and what we’ve just joined.

So I went and told Jude.