The Confirmation name

Detail, illustration by Herb Schnabel

Like most of my brothers before me, I was destined to be called on for many of the typical “sponsorship” duties we had in our parishes.

St. Columbkille Parish was one of the largest and most Irish of the plethora of Catholic church/school complexes in our large diocese. I don’t exaggerate when I say that we had a big school, which had classes with an average of 60 kids in each one. There were even some classes that had classes which merged, and then no one really knew if they were in classroom 3 or classroom 3A, or if they were not in any special room at all.

Anyway, because our school was one of those humongous populations, our parish had confirmation every year, not every other year.  

This was something we took for granted. But in addition to the regulars who had been Columbkillians since the world grew grass on it, we always had new students due to the constant influx of new kids in the sixth grade and higher. We had to accommodate older kids who had moved into our parish and adults who found out they should be confirmed and took up five or six rows in the back of the church.

I remember my confirmation. My sponsor was a young GI named Tim Mulroney who was recently discharged after going to Europe to fight Adolf Hitler. He was a really neat sponsor and always willing to be involved in anything that required a substitute father, such as the father/son Communion breakfast.

My sponsor was a young GI named Tim Mulroney.

Now, as I was growing older and was out of school, I was fair game for being a sponsor for this annual ritual. I was really not overloaded with stuff and could easily schedule the few evening “instruction” sessions, a few sessions with the current confirm-kid who had contacted me first, and at least one evening with the whole family because Monsignor was adamant on having his sponsors being involved with the rest of the parish — or he would know the reason why!

I had a total of eight kids who counted as my own confirmation list. I certainly didn’t mind doing it because I was single, had a police schedule which (if I asked a good two weeks or — better yet — a month in advance) was not difficult to juggle, and — as my own personal “courtship” schedule grew more and more important, I could work out being a good sponsor who was still available.

I had a few advantages over some of my fellow sponsors, and those may have swelled my head a little, but I was just as happy to serve my parish and its kids in this way.

I had a couple of experiences that were unique, however. When Timmy and Tommy O’Donnell were young sixth graders, the parish powers approved their request for having a single person (me) serve as a sponsor for each of them. They even picked the same confirmation name, “Sean” or “St. Sean,” for the occasion! 

I rarely wore my police uniform when I acted as a sponsor, although the police department told us we could as long as we used the full-dress uniform. I generally wore a sport coat and dark-colored slacks. I was still living at home, sharing a bed with my next older brother, and counting on him to make sure he checked my wardrobe to see that it was clean and pressed to those razor-sharp lines Mama was famous for. 

I rarely wore my police uniform when I acted as a sponsor.

Two or three centuries of nonstop confirmation activities slowed down as kids began to look for younger, wiser, and more able-bodied persons to offer them better ways than those of an older and almost-gray-haired sponsor. That was OK with me, and I still liked going over to a friend’s house to congratulate the sons of my own classmates. I usually picked out a nice gift and spent a pleasant half hour or so gabbing with the kid’s parents, who were my real friends anyway.

Then I met an unexpected challenge. It popped up out of the blue and presented a situation I might have blown off had I been wiser and more up-to-date. In fact, the parents of the kid involved were both longtime friends of my family.

This boy’s name was Joe, and he was a chip off the old Irish block. He was the “spitting image” of his father who was one of my best friends when we were growing up. His shock of red hair reminded me of Regan O’Farrell’s flaming top. Our Kevin was a couple of years older than I was, but he was senior enough in his fire department that he could juggle his schedule to coach the parish team, and I enjoyed stopping in at their games if I was free. I liked seeing my third older brother still doing his job like a pro.

This boy’s name was Joe, and he was a chip off the old Irish block.

I didn’t see any problem accepting the invitation of Joe’s family to sponsor their only son as he put his foot in the ring and joined the rest of his friends in the still-gigantic group of young men and women preparing for confirmation at the city’s largest parish. 

We had three or four large classes that were held in the school auditorium. They provided mostly general information and provided the theological basis of confirmation.  A young senior assistant pastor of my own parish was the clergyman in charge of getting these kids and their sponsors into fine fettle for taking on the battle dress and power worn by their ancient models and armed with the power of God’s own servants who would guide their charges.

One late afternoon as the autumn breezes began to let us know that Cleveland was telling us we had all best be aware of the change of seasons, I had finished my shift and went into the parish gym to see who was practicing this late in the afternoon. I knew the regular team was high in the ranks of the local CYO teams so it didn’t surprise me to see Kevin putting the team through their paces to get ready for the tournament a couple of weeks away.

“Hi, Sergeant!” A couple of kids waved and Kevin pointed to the team to shower up and get ready to go home. Joe’s red hair made him stand out, and he waved at me since we were going to have one more meeting before the confirmation.

“Go get ’em, Joe!” I called back.  It was a pleasure to wave at the kid who actually reminded me of myself a dozen years ago.

Kevin plopped on one of the bleacher benches, wiped the perspiration from his forehead, and told us what a pleasure it was to coach this year’s CYO team.  

Kevin glanced around to be sure none of the kids were within hearing distance, and then my big brother turned a bit serious and leaned toward me.

“You’re sponsor for Joe, aren’t you?”  Kevin said.

I nodded. “Is something wrong with my being his sponsor?” I asked.  

“Just a bit concerned about him,” Kevin said as we watched the team kids coming out of the locker room.

“What’s the problem?” I asked Kev.

“Have you talked about a confirmation name?” Kev asked.

I admitted that we hadn’t. I told Kevin I was going to talk about that later that very evening because it was our last parent/sponsor/confirmand kid meeting.

“Well,” Kevin said, looking a bit serious, saying I should get that over with.

Illustration by Herb Schnabel

That evening I enjoyed a good, fast supper at Joe’s house and then we headed over to the school where our last meeting was to be held.

We walked briskly to the school because fall breezes were picking up.

“Got your confirmation name all set, Joe?” I said lightly.

“Yessir!” Joe answered.  

We joined the stream of boys and girls with their sponsors. Because of my job as policeman, I was pretty well-known by most of the kids and their sponsors. The auditorium was crowded but not uncomfortable. Mrs. Lawler, the chairwoman, talked at length about the things we were going to do. It was “old stuff,” so I was not surprised to see some of the boys around us getting “antsy.”  

Because of my job as policeman, I was pretty well-known.

Finally, Mrs. Lawler made sure all of the kids had received a 3-by-5 index card with a space for their names and below that a space for their confirmation names.  

Each kid had been given a little yellow pencil when we had entered the auditorium, and I checked to see if Joe’s was still sharp. He nodded and held his pencil up.

Following the instructions from Mrs. Lawler, the boys bent to the task of writing on their cards. I glanced at Joe’s card and got a quick glance at what looked like “David” or “Daniel” as Joe quickly passed his card to the end of the row where one of the eighth graders grabbed it and moved on to the next row.

We hustled out of the auditorium, and most of us made a short stop at the Standard Drug Store where the soda fountain ice-cream cones were sold for a nickel because of the festive evening. When I got home, Danny asked me what name Joe had chosen.  

“Gee, I forgot to ask him!” I blundered.

The weekend was busy, and I saw little of my young friend. I was glad I had arranged my shift to free me up to pick up Joe at the appointed time. We hurried to the auditorium and got in line to enter the church. The parents and some guests were getting into their places while we fidgeted as Mrs. Lawler passed down the aisles nodding to each boy or girl and handing the name card to each one. I still hadn’t seen Joe’s card.

Joe had asked me to wear my full dress uniform for the event, so I wore my “blues” along with a couple of my fellow officers who were also obliging their charges. 

Joe had his card carefully tucked in his shirt pocket as we walked slowly together. Soon we were all in our places. The parents and guests of the kids were squirming to make room and the big old pipe organ tooted like the pope was waiting to enter the church. Father O’Phelan — still the senior assistant pastor, a position held for at least 200 or 300 years — motioned us all to stand and twirled his finger in a half-circle so we knew he wanted us to face the center aisle.  

The massive organ thundered and shook the floor, doing its annual job of making all of the parishioners in the church look upward to see if the vaulted ceiling was about to fall in on us.

The archbishop usually reserved our confirmation (and a few others which had more than 7 million kids) for his own personal attention.

Ecce sacerdos magnus qui in diebus suis placuit Deo!”  the boys choir thundered out in their attempt to outdo last year’s entrance.

After the grand entrance and the preliminaries, the actual confirmation took place.

Ecce sacerdos magnus qui in diebus suis placuit Deo!

Now, there is no real protocol for what name someone picks. But St. Columbkille liked to hover in the mystery of letting the world know that the Holy Ghost was still in charge here!

The basics were simple: Have your name card tucked between your prayerfully folded fingers; kneel in front of the archbishop; Father O’Phelan takes the kid’s card and passes it directly to the archbishop; kneeling kid gets oiled on the face and stuff; archbishop calls kid by his new name and bops him on the left cheek; kid gets up and sponsor gets a nice look from the archbishop and tries to turn on the step without tripping and follows the kid back to his seat.

The boys of St. Columbkille usually chose good, very well-known confirmation names. Irish names were common, the male sponsors beamed, and the archbishop smacked the kid hard enough to make him grin.

Until Joe handed his card to the archbishop. 

The prelate said: “Dymp WHAT?”

There was a visible pause. The archbishop looked at Joe, and Joe smiled back.

“Who’s this Dymphna?”

I shrugged and looked like I didn’t even know my own name.

Joe: “She’s a saint, Mr. Bishop, Sir …”

Archbishop: “You don’t say …”

For a full couple of minutes, Joe educated the archbishop on the saint he found in some book about saints for all heavenly jobs. He told the archbishop that St. Dymphna was someone who was supposed to look after people who were sometimes a bit unpredictable or who liked to play practical jokes.

Joe educated the archbishop on the saint he found in some book about saints.

Both descriptions sort of sounded a lot like Joe.

Suddenly the archbishop started to laugh silently, and Father O’Phelan thought he needed a glass of water, which the archbishop waved off.

“I felt if I used her name, I could get some pointers and stay out of trouble,” Joe said.

The archbishop rose to his feet and put his hands under Joe’s elbows virtually lifting him up and turning him around toward me — me, standing behind him with my mouth wide open.

“I should have guessed his choice when I saw he had a sergeant at his side!” the archbishop said, provoking a smattering of applause.

Well, Dymphna and I met his folks outside the church and then spent a pleasant half hour ducking pats on the back from old friends doing their duties as sponsors.

Believe it or not, each year I get a Christmas card from Cleveland. I can predict the signature on the inside: Merry Christmas to my best friend!  From DYMPHNA!

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