By GRETCHEN PRESSLEY
COLUMBIA — Ashley Kleiner pored over books, searching for a name.
The Rock Bridge High School student spent nearly two weeks at her grandmother's house last winter reading about saints.
St. Theresa of Avila.
St. Therese of Lisieux, the little flower.
St. Veronica Giuliani.
She read about saint after saint, searching for the precise one to be her spiritual role model as she took the next step along the journey of her faith: a spring confirmation at St. Thomas More Newman Center, adjacent to MU.
As children grow in the faith their parents teach them, rituals and ceremonies — whether it's baptism, confirmation, bar mitzvah, the Hindu thread ceremony or others — can give meaning and focus to their religious lives.
For dozens of Columbia Roman Catholic teens, the search for a saint name in preparation for confirmation is one of the first formal religious choices they make. Confirmation marks them as adults in the eyes of the church.
Although choosing a saint name for confirmation is not a church requirement, it's a popular tradition many churches follow.
"Choosing a saint name helps you make the choice whether you want to be Catholic, because you are looking at the lives of so many other Catholics who came before you and seeing how God worked in their lives," Kleiner said, curling her brownish-red hair through her fingers and into a ponytail at the nape of her neck. And to Kleiner, being confirmed means asking God to work in her life.
According to the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, choosing a patron saint dates back to the 15th century. As monks and priests converted non-Christians, new Catholics were asked to forsake their names commemorating non-Christian religious leaders and instead to choose saint names as role models.
Now, Web sites such as catholic.org and AmericanCatholic.org include lengthy lists of names from which Catholic youth can choose.
The saint names become part of the students' formal names within the church, said Beth Fresenburg, youth minister at the Newman Center. During the confirmation ceremony, the candidates are called by their confirmation, or saint, name, and the name appears on the confirmation certificate. It connects students emotionally and physically to the time and place they made the commitments of faith.
"You always have that place to go to," Fresenburg said. "You always have that person. If you are failing miserably at life and just want to end it all, look at what (your saint) did." Saints commonly experienced deprivation, torture and horrific deaths suffered for their faith.
The confirmation training classes encourage students to find saints that inspire them, said Doug Royal, youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Columbia.
"It's like a beacon, just out there," said Royal, who chose St. Paul as his confirmation saint. "All the struggles I went through, I think wow, that guy had it a lot harder. It's reassuring to know that someone else out there persevered."
Royal chose Paul as his spiritual guide because Paul's personality connected with his own. Paul could be "arrogant and crass at times," Royal said, but he kept struggling and pushing forward in his faith.
Allen Greenlief, 17, took a similar approach.
The Rock Bridge High School student was confirmed along with 59 others at Our Lady of Lourdes . Before that, he searched for his hobbies and interests on the Internet and found St. Justin, a philosopher and teacher.
"He struggled with the truth," Greenlief said. "He studied and traveled and wrote a series of books. He found that the only truth was in Jesus — something I can aspire to."
Fresenburg said she never took the search for a saint's name seriously when she was confirmed. She tries to make sure her confirmation candidates do.
"I got confirmed for two reasons, and they were both the wrong reasons," Fresenburg said, noting that for her, confirmation marked both the end of her formal religious education and the party that capped the day.
"Now that I know so much more about my faith, I wish I could do it again," Fresenburg said, shaking her head.
Fresenburg chose St. Elizabeth Ann Seton for her confirmation saint because her first name was similar to Fresenburg's. But the name became more important than she envisioned because both Fresenburg and the saint were teachers.
"She wouldn't have been the saint I would have picked, but ironically, it was put on my heart to pick her, and I can see why now," Fresenburg said.
Teresa Rose, another 17-year-old at Rock Bridge High School and one of Fresenburg's students, had specific virtues she sought for her name.
Rose wanted a virgin, a martyr and someone who had performed a miracle. She got all three in St. Cecilia, who was an early Christian and martyr who survived for five days beyond the Roman empire's attempts to execute her, preaching to those who watched her death.
St. Cecilia is also the patron saint of music. Because music is another source of inspiration for Rose, St. Cecilia seemed the perfect match, which Rose found after only a few hours of searching.
Kleiner's search took longer. After narrowing her choices to three saints, Kleiner said she finally put down her books and started to pray. Suddenly, while in prayer, Kleiner knew St. Margaret Mary Alacoque was the one for her.
Kleiner, who dons a wooden cross necklace, describes St. Margaret Mary Alacoque as a nun who was 4 years old when she decided to join a convent. The saint's extraordinary faith resonated with Kleiner, who last year made the same decision. Kleiner also seeks to model her life as a nun on the prayerful devotion of the saint.
"I hope my saint will continue to be a role model for me and to pray for me throughout my life," Kleiner said.