#YG2019 – an inspiring witness to faith by BCYS “alumni”

8th November 2019

The Brentwood Catholic Youth Service has been arranging events, pilgrimages and retreats for young people for over 40 years, and this weekend the “generations” of the youth service met in a wonderful and inspiring encounter.


The occasion was the annual “Youth Gather”, first held in the 1980s in response to Pope John Paul IIs visit to England, and his plea that we should be an “Easter people” full of joy and hope as we proclaimed our faith. In the early days the Youth Gather attracted speakers such as Cardinal Hume, and over the years speakers such as John Pridmore, Mgr John Armitage and Sr Catherine Holum have been regular guests.


The benefit of such longevity is that the BCYS now have a group of “alumni” who are in varied and interesting jobs, and who are living the challenges and joys of what it means to be a Catholic in the workplace.


This year, as over 130 young people, supported by 30 young leaders, gathered for #YG19, they spent time with five “alumni” who shared their stories. First to speak was Matt; his story included being part of the original Bishops’ Conference Intern scheme, as well as spending a year volunteering at the Diocesan Youth Retreat House, Walsingham House, now located at Abbotswick. Matt spoke about times of being away from Church, and about being unsure which direction to take; for a while he worked in the city, in a job where, as he put it, “I literally did not know why I was getting out of bed in the morning.” He took the brave decision to resign that job and, in reflection and prayer, he discovered that he could make a late career change to become a teacher. “It was the best decision I ever made,” he said, and then he spoke powerfully about the challenges of always being fair, kind and Christ-like in the classroom; for Matt, his teaching is an expression of how he lives faith.


Luke’s journey was very different; after being quite close to the Church, including being very active in his parish, he became a police officer and initially there were some wild years. Then, after being part of the BCYS group that participated in Pope Benedict XVIs visit to the UK, and a powerful moment of Confession, Luke began to consider more and more how his faith strengthened and informed his life as a police officer.


Luke works in a role which means that he carries a gun every day; the young people asked him if he has ever used it (he hasn’t, although he has drawn it on a few occasions), and how he reconciled carrying a gun with his Catholic faith. He said, “I have thought a lot about this. Every time I go to the armoury, pick up the gun for the shift, and load it, I say a prayer: I pray that it will stay in the holster. But I know that if I do ever have to use it then it will be because there is no other option, and because I am protecting someone else’s life, or my own. I am at peace with that.” Luke also spoke very powerfully about his job: “As a police officer you see death, you see a lot of sadness, and you see real evil. Often non-Catholic colleagues, angry and frustrated after a particularly difficult situation, will say, ‘where is your God now?’ And this has caused me to think deeply about my faith, to read and try to understand more. I cannot give deep theological answers, but I can offer kindness and support, and I can pray. I trust in God and it changes my life, and the way I work.”


In July 2018 Luke married our next “alumnus”, Clodagh; Clodagh is an RE Teacher and Senior Practitioner at a school in North London. She spoke about the challenges and struggles of teaching, in relation to faith, and in particular the specific challenges and joys of being an RE Teacher. “I am in a job where I get to speak about my faith, every day, and I am passionate about it. I want to help our school to have a magnificent Catholic ethos, including when we are presenting the new PHSE curriculum, full of challenging and important topics.”


Recently Clodagh was challenged about whether it was not all just a bit easy, really, to live your Catholic faith as an RE Teacher. She thought about it, and reflected that people put different standards on RE Teachers than other teachers – if she was out at a party with, say, a history and art teacher, no-one would comment on what they were drinking, but there would often be comments about what “the RE teacher” was having to drink! Such challenges made her realise even more that her job also meant she was a witness to faith.


Clodagh and Luke also spoke about what it means to live as a young, Catholic married couple. In their first year of marriage they faced the pressures of bereavement and illness, as well as the professional pressures of Luke’s shift work, and Clodagh changing jobs. They said that the one thing they made sure that they did, every week, was attend Mass together. Ideally they followed this with a meal and some social time. Their love for each other shone through in what they said, and yet the young people could also see the realities of married life for busy young professionals; it was an excellent witness of faith.


Olivia works at the Home Office; she had also worked in other city workplaces, and often with colleagues who were not Catholic and did not understand the faith. She told the story of a year when Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day, and she asked to leave work for an hour to go to Mass and receive ashes. Her bosses had literally no idea what she was talking about, and, as she said, “They clearly thought I was off on a hot date!” She realised that she didn’t know enough about the customs of the Catholic Church: “I needed to be able to explain better why it is that we do what we do!” Working in the Home Office has also brought challenges about implementing policies on refugees, and border controls, and Olivia had different insights about this after joining Home Office operations where people were saved from situations of human trafficking and other appalling circumstances. She summed it all up by saying, “I would never have planned to be in the job I have, and never expected it, but I feel like I am in exactly the right place.”


Chris was the last to speak to the group. Like Matt and Olivia he had worked for a year at Walsingham House and, like Matt, had been part of the original Catholic Bishops’ Intern scheme; Chris worked with the press team in the Diocese of Westminster, and continued to work for the Diocese after that. He now works in the press team at HMRC, and eloquently described the huge transition from working within the Church to working in an environment where he became the “Catholic correspondent” – the “go to” person for Catholic questions. He remembered being asked on Good Friday – “Why is it called ‘good’, if that is the day Jesus died?” He realised how much his year at Walsingham House, and his time in Westminster Diocese, had helped to deepen his Catholic faith and knowledge, and he could see the difference he was making as someone his colleagues could ask about faith. To give context to his work, he also showed a short video featuring many stacks of £50 notes – illicit money seized by HMRC, and about which he sent stories and features to the press.


The testimonies of the “alumni” gripped the young people – here were people in real jobs, facing real challenges, often in a world far from “church” and yet where they were able to bring and live their Catholic faith, albeit with challenges and struggles.


Following the tradition of the earliest Youth Gathers, the weekend also included times of prayer and reflection – including a wonderful hour of stillness, where Adoration and Reconciliation were offered alongside Christian Meditation, prayer with the Psalms, and Lectio Divina. Other sessions during the weekend included outward bound activities such as the “leap of faith”, assault courses and a climbing wall. On Sunday morning, in the beautiful surroundings of Mersea Island, the young people appreciated nature through sessions focussed on LaudatoSi, and photography, along with art, drama and music, all culminating in the celebration of Mass where the parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee was a springboard into thinking about our attitudes of mercy, humility and the way we approach other people.


Despite the fact the clocks went backwards on the Saturday evening, there was not a lot of sleep during the weekend! However, it was undoubtedly a weekend full of joy, inspired by Christ, and a wonderful testimony to what it means to live faith. Two or three decades from now the young people who were at #YG19 will themselves be “alumni” – we look forward to hearing their stories!


Fr Dominic is Episcopal Vicar for Pastoral Formation in the Diocese of Brentwood. To know more about the work of the BCYS please visit www.bcys.net. To support our work please go to www.bcys.net/donate