THE garden was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. Six hundred young people and their leaders were gathered in a candlelit vigil before the Blessed Sacrament as part of this summer’s Youth Pilgrimage to the Shrine of our Lady of Walsingham. They had just walked the ancient “Holy Mile” from the Roman Catholic national shrine, reciting the rosary, and then, in the stillness of the twilight, fell silent to adore the Lord under the form of bread.
The engagement of young pilgrims with the traditional elements of Catholic devotion at the Youth Pilgrimage reflects a hunger to be part of a vision that tells them that there is more to them, and to the world, than they might at first have thought. The gift of Catholic mission among the young is one rooted in participation in the sacramental life of the Church.
It recognises the sacraments not as a slightly awkward series of things that the Church has to do, while the real energy is going on somewhere else, but as the God-given entry into a landscape that is alive to God’s presence and purpose.
Those planning the Walsingham Youth Pilgrimage give a good deal of thought and attention to the way in which that sacramental life is presented to these young pilgrims. There is a vitality and an energy of delivery which would be beyond the possibility of most parishes churches Sunday by Sunday, and the setting of worship in a Big Top with a vibrant team of musicians does much to engage the imagination and attention of the teenager. It remains the single most important mission event to young Anglo-Catholics in the Church of England. What Catholic mission at a parish level can emulate is its commitment to mission through participation.
In the sacraments, the young participate on the same level as those of us who are older. They are treated as adults, and are extended the same respect, trust, and honour. For most Anglo-Catholic parishes, young people contribute to the parish mass as musicians, servers, and readers. Having a part to play in liturgical worship makes the experience of coming to church far more effective and engaging for most young people. “The candle holds the child, not the child the candle,” as the old Anglo-Catholic aphorism puts it.
Alongside this, good Catholic mission to the young provides opportunities for authentic conversations where they can talk about what is going on in their hearts and lives. One of the striking features of going on pilgrimage to Walsingham is the opportunity to make a sacramental confession. After a thought-provoking act of worship, this year’s youth pilgrims were invited to do just that, and experienced priests were available for them to talk to.
The number of teenagers who wanted to make a confession was remarkable. They knew they didn’t have to pretend that they were better than they are, or something that they were not. This was a context in which what they said would go no further, and they need have no anxiety about admitting fear or failure. They knew they would not be judged or censured, just challenged to grow. They left with a sense of being honoured, that radical forgiveness is possible, and that we are not defined by our faults but by our infinite potential.
This sort of Catholic mission transforms lives. It offers the same opportunities to talk to teenagers about growing spiritually and maturing in their faith as it does to adults, as it opens up the depths of sacramental life. But, for this mission through participation to happen, there needs to be a way into the life of the Church for young people in the first place.
In many parishes, the church school provides opportunities for initial contact, and other schools, such as those of the Woodard Foundation, have the disciplines of Catholic liturgical practice at the heart of their life. Increasingly, though, Anglo-Catholic parishes are using more imaginative ways to connect with young people.
Many teenagers crave a community to belong to, a place where they can feel safe, where they are taken seriously, and where they can make a contribution. In many contexts, the youth group is a natural first step into the life of the Church. I heard recently of a church where the youth group joins with some of the older members of the congregation to volunteer at the parish’s night-shelter, and the friendships that have formed through volunteering were the bridges into the worshipping community.
The young pilgrims at Walsingham this August caught a vision of Catholic life that unlocked for them new possibilities for growth and development. The challenge for the Catholic movement is to consistently offer this gift to them afresh.
The Revd Philip Barnes is the Priest-in-Charge of St Stephen’s, Gloucester Road, South Kesington, in London.