Faith and Young People Today

Talk Delivered by Ms. Trish O’Brien, Director of Youth Ministry, Tuam Archdiocese. Talk given at Novena in Knock, August, 2014.

Good afternoon everyone. My name is Trish O’Brien and for the past year I have been working as the Youth Director for the Archdiocese of Tuam.

“You couldn’t write it!” is an expression that we often use. Well that same expression “You couldn’t write it!” could accurately fit my last year. My job description was to help young people in their search for God by supporting their parishes and the diocese in facilitating opportunities for them to engage with their faith. I was confident that this year was going to be a year of endless possibilities for young people and for all of us to have an opportunity to share in the faith lives of our youth. I wasn’t disappointed.

Looking back over my year I can say I have lived a privileged twelve months. My work has brought me face to face with the tick tock of lived faith in the world our young people inhabit. Although I did not find them praying the rosary on a daily basis or attending weekly mass in huge numbers, what I did find was young people living out their faith in who they are every day of the week.

There is a story about the many ways God reveals himself to us. I would like to share this story with you because for me it speaks about how young people have chosen to live out the faith they have inherited. The story goes …

There once was a man who started to search for God. He began by whispering “God speak to me”. And the meadowlark sang. But the man did not hear.
So the man yelled, “God, speak to me!”
And the thunder rolled across the sky.
But the man did not listen.
The man looked around and said, “God, let me see you.”
And a star shone brightly.
But the man did not notice.
And the man shouted, “God, show me a miracle!”
And a life was born.
But the man did not know.
So, the man cried out in despair.
“Touch me God, and let me know that you are here!”
Whereupon God reached down and touched the man.
But the man brushed the butterfly away and walked on.

There is a saying that goes “You will only climb as high as the ladder you use”. And so in many ways this story became my ladder, the ladder I would use to climb up and into the world of Youth Ministry. From this vantage point I heard the meadow lark sing in the form of youth choirs not least the newly formed diocesan youth choir and the ever increasing circle of TeenSpirit youth choirs the length and breadth of the country. I heard God speaking in the voices of the young people who visited nursing homes, residential centres and travelled with the Irish Children’s Pilgrimage Trust. I saw the face of God in the help given by young people towards other young people as they journeyed together in pilgrimage, as they worked collaboratively to get various projects up and running in their communities. I witnessed miracles of self-confidence, determination and faith as the outstretched hand of God was held in trust. I observed the healing touch of God as youth ministers washed each other’s feet in service of the Lord and of each other. God is all around us he is present in each of us he is there in the faces and life stories of all whom we have the pleasure to meet. Let us choose to see His presence in the metaphorical butterflies that touch all our lives.

Our young people have an almost natural ability to understand this. All they need in preparation for that is a little guidance and the inheritance of your faith story.

Since September I have met with young people who are engaging in all kinds of faith experiences. They are helping the elderly, the vulnerable both here and abroad, they are volunteering to work in charity shops, as part of Faith & Light groups, helping out with the children’s liturgy, cleaning graves, filling holy water fonts in churches, taking part in liturgical celebrations at weekly masses and also at the liturgical high points during the year, teaching children about the importance of friendship and making good decisions, travelling on pilgrimages both at home and away – the list of what they do in faith is almost endless. But what has given me a real sense of this same faith being lived out is when they come together to celebrate that faith. The atmosphere created by them is uplifting, positive and vibrant.

Over this past year the Archdiocese of Tuam had a number of occasions to gather young people. We gathered them to journey as pilgrims on the ancient Tóchar Pádraig – during which time they sunk knee deep in mud, they sang, they laughed, they talked to people they had not met before, they ate together and prayed together all the while keeping the prayer of the pilgrim to the fore front of their minds quite simply saying “Thanks be to God” for all that was good in their lives. They had experienced moments of transformation as they saw with new eyes the presence of God in nature and in each other.

The young people of this diocese gathered twice here in Knock during this Year of Faith to share their faith story and hear the faith story of others. Both occasions met with huge success – with many young people merrily singing the words of the hymn “Lady of Knock” all the way home on the bus. Those occasions also saw the publication of their work in the Irish Catholic written by one of the young people, Luke, who spoke of his experience as fulfilling, rewarding and challenging.

We climbed with them as some of them made their first accent to the summit of Croagh Patrick and joined with them as they led the congregation in song during mass on the little church at the top. Frozen, hungry but happy and united in faith. Two girls even brought a birthday cake with them to the summit of the mountain to celebrate their friend’s special day and their first pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick – faith and daily life so very closely intertwined.

We ventured further as set our sights on the Camino de Compostela in May, determined to carry all we needed for our week long pilgrimage on our backs. We witnessed the miracle of friendship, conversation, nature in all their glory as we began to open our eyes to the presence of God as one of our pilgrims put it we had to “Stop and smell the flowers”. I would even go so far as to say we were changed, changed by the power of simplicity, realising it is what we usually take for granted that we should value most – a lesson that all of us took away with us. In the absence of hair straighteners and ipods we became ourselves – a real gift to each other.

Meanwhile back home new adults were beginning to take up the flame of faith in the form of training as youth ministers. They too had been inspired by what young people had and could achieve once their energy and genuine desire to do good for others was channelled. 27 adults began their Youth Ministry Studies and remain committed to that programme for two years so that they can be part of the dynamic approach that we see when we share in the faith life of our young people.

When you get the opportunity as I have to witness what is happening in the lived faith of our young people it is simply awesome. Young people are busy people who do so much for others, this has become so integral to their lifestyles that they have woven their faith into the very fabric of their daily lives. Happy they are to have inherited such a faith – a faith not just of prayers said but of faith practiced in daily life – the Eucharist of Sunday lived out in the six remaining days of the week.

We see examples of it all over the place if we are just prepared to look. WYD being one such occasion where over 3million young people gathered from all around the world to celebrate their faith with many more gathering in their own cities to be part of that WYD experience also, Making noise then and, now with the encouragement of Pope Francis continuing to make noise, so as to bring the Church out into the streets. Happy are they who hunger and thirst for this noise, so many will be spiritually satisfied by it. We see the faith that young people have inherited nationally in programmes such as Peer 4 Peer, TeenSpirit, Youth Alpha and youth choirs and the JPII awards – a programme that has seen an increase from 500 participants to 2,500 participants since 2008. But most of all we see what faith young people have inherited in the way they carry out Christ’s greatest commandment – to love one another.

Over this past year I like you learned of the faith and courage of one such young person who perhaps taught many of us just how that commandment could be lived out no matter what path life had laid out for you. His name was Donal Walsh a 16 year old boy who knew far too soon and too well exactly what it meant to appreciate life, to love God and love your neighbour. Donal spoke on many occasions over the course of the year about the sanctity of life and truly loving the gift of life that God had given him.

I would like to share some of what he said with you. In one of his interviews he said: “I’ve grown fully in both body and mind by climbing God’s mountains. I live in a part of the world that is surrounded by mountains. I can’t turn my head without finding a hill or mountain and I suppose those were God’s plans for me, to have me grow up around mountains and grow climbing a few too. And that’s exactly what I’ve done, I may have grown up in body around them but I’ve fully grown and matured in mind climbing his mountains.

He’s had me fight cancer three times, face countless deaths and losses in my life, he’s had my childhood dreams taken off me but at the end of the day, he’s made me a man.

I am always called brave, heroic, kind, genuine, honourable and so many other kind compliments, but I have to try and explain to everyone why I seem to reject them. I have never fought for anyone but myself, therefore I cannot be brave or heroic, I’ve only been kind because my religion has taught me so.

What impact could I ever make on the world if I was fake or how could I ever be honourable if I was not honoured to be here.

I am me. There is no other way of putting it, little old Donal Walsh from Tralee, one body, one mind with a few other cobwebs and tales thrown in.

I’ve climbed God’s mountains, faced many struggles for my life and dealt with so much loss. And as much as I’d love to go around to every fool on this planet and open their eyes to the mountains that surround them in life, I can’t. But maybe if I shout from mine they’ll pay attention.”

And that’s it isn’t it? Seeing our lives holistically using who we are and what we have so that we can honour the God who has created us and so be of service to those around us. This is the faith our young people have inherited. To be the peacemakers, the merciful, to call for justice for those who have no voice, and to know no other way – to be pure of heart, genuine or as Donal puts it “to be honourable”.

Happy are we to witness the faith our young people have today. A faith that questions and so is thought through, a faith that is active in everyday life. A faith that looks for the face and voice of God in the people God has created a faith that points to the divine by acting upon the brokenness of humanity through acts of kindness and compassion. A faith that shows the face of God in the smiles shared freely with others and that responds all the more when acknowledged. It is the faith of the present day and holds the key to the faith of tomorrow – a faith filled with hope and promise that God’s love will continue to be felt by all people everywhere.

If I may I would like to finish with words that young people have written when reflecting on their faith experiences over the past year. They sum up what faith means for them and how it has slotted into their lives. Adam aged 16 said “It shed light on my preconceived ideas of practicing your faith and it does not always have to be done through prayer. Prayer is very important but helping others without seeking benefits is just as gratifying”

Colm remarked, “I often think about how the Eucharistic Congress changed my life as it brought me closer to God and I am grateful that it did”

Having finished the school musical Seán aged 16 said “The week after the musical we brought the dvd to the nursing home. It was amazing the joy a copy of the musical brought to them. After the residents watched it they asked us to sing a few songs and do a few of the dances. We were happy to oblige and I was delighted to see how happy it made them. It showed me how a small gesture could change their day”

Lucas recalled that “By being a baptised member of the Christian Church I realised that trying to bring so much good into the world can be so easy and right at your fingertips”

Éanna reflected “Sometime I will be that elderly person and I wonder what young people will be able to teach me then”

And finally Mark struck me with his profound reflection by saying “Overall I have thoroughly enjoyed this faith experience. It has shown me the importance of religious faith in my life and it has also given me the time to reflect on myself as a Christian and help me to strengthen my faith. I have also learned about the importance of helping others for the greater good. I now feel that I have a stronger belief in God and his power. This has encouraged me to pray more frequently and not to be afraid to ask for God’s help when I need it”

Faith and heritage isn’t it all there for our young people? Are they not immersing themselves in it already? As I said at the beginning “You couldn’t write it!” Let us not ignore the butterflies of God all around us. Instead may we open our eyes wide and see the living out of our faith heritage in the lives of our young people today.

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