At the end of 2008, Cardinal George Pell brought in the big guns to catechise 22 youth aged 18-32 at the aptly named Benedict XVI Centre to water the seeds of World Youth Day 2008. By all reports, it was a blast. Anthony Barich reports.
Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘cadres’ as “a cell of indoctrinated leaders active in promoting the interests of a revolutionary party”.
And make no mistake, Pope Benedict XVI chose Australia to host World Youth Day 2008 to instigate nothing less than a revolution. Not a revolution of the political sort, but within the hearts and minds of the Western world.
The course at the Benedict XVI Retreat Centre in Grose Vale from November 24-December 20 in the Blue Mountains of NSW was small. It cost $495, and was over in under a month.
Then again, the Church itself started with similar humble beginnings, albeit the price tag, in most cases, was their very lives.
But the Archdiocese of Sydney’s Youth Leaders Formation Course – a month-long live-in retreat of intensive Catholic community, spiritual, intellectual and mission formation – did nothing short of change the lives of the 22 18-32-year-olds who attended.
They are now called to change the lives of others, but not as ‘comrades’ or ‘employees’ of the Church, but in their own daily lives.
Based on the Emmanuel School of Mission which runs a similar intensive nine-month course in Rome, the course outline’s aims were clear. Each candidate will:
o Become a more enthusiastic witness to faith in Jesus Christ for youth, young adults and the wider Australian community,
o Be ready to be an agent for the New Evangelisation, a builder of a culture of life and an architect of a new civilisation founded on love,
o Increase their understanding of many aspects of the Catholic faith: beliefs, sacraments, Christian life and prayer,
o Develop skills in pastoral leadership, particularly in the service of young people,
o Be equipped to help young people to experience the power of the Holy Spirit, especially in the Word of God and the Sacraments.
The attendees, like Perth’s own Elise Keeley, are not youth ministry leaders – though she is active in her local Claremont parish. The aim was to form missionaries in whatever God has called them to be in their lives – wives, husbands, priests, street-cleaners, whatever.
The retreat’s list of lecturers reads like a who’s who of the best Catholic minds Australia has to offer, including The Record’s own columnists Fr John Flader, Cardinal Pell’s director of Adult Education in his Sydney Archdiocese, and Anna Krohn, adjunct lecturer at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne.
Then there was Cardinal Pell’s own private secretary Michael Casey; the prelate’s Auxiliary Bishop Julian Porteous, their Catholic Education Office evangelisation officer Anthony Cleary; Choicez Media founder, JPII Institute graduate and youth sex educator Jonathan Doyle; Fr Dominic Murphy OP, the young Dominican who, along with WYD08 organiser Bishop Anthony Fisher OP, is leading young men back to the Order… the list goes on.
These are people of quality. They left Elise – and, according to organisers all 21 other participants – with no doubt that this was the “best time of our lives”. And that’s saying something, especially after WYD08. The program included a three-day silent retreat. Therese Nichols, 28, was its coordinator – a young person leading other youth who are the Church of today, not tomorrow, as Australia’s bishops keep saying. It was the second such course Therese has run. The first was a three-month preparatory course prior to WYD08 from March-June 2007 run in a similar vein.
Therese is staggered at the results. If the early Church was moved by the Holy Spirit to change the lives of others through the love of the Holy Spirit, then this is nothing less than a renewal of that Spirit.
“The fruits of this post-WYD08 retreat have been so strong,” said Therese, who attended the Emmanuel School of Mission in Rome herself.
“It proves how important formation is and how much we need it. WYD08 was the springboard to continue with formation where people can go to deepen their understanding of the Catholic faith, so that it will be more considered and longer-lasting.”
The mandate is clear. “Not everybody is called to work for the Church,” she says. “We need the knowledge of our faith and to develop personal relationship with Jesus. This retreat waters the seeds and encourages them to go out in whatever area of their lives.”
While she admits 22 is a small number to start with to evangelise a country with up to 20 million, it’s all part of the plan.
“To have more on a course like this would defeat the purpose. It develops a close-knit community, and helps form each heart on an intimate level. In Scripture, when Jesus went out to the Samaritan woman at the well, not speaking to thousands, she went off and told others. The effects of something like this snowballs,” she said.
The $495 price tag was actually very cheap. The Archdiocese of Sydney heavily subsidised it.
Resources are available to other dioceses to run similar programs, as Sydney has the template, and the Emmanuel School of Mission is well-known enough in Church circles as a quality producer of missionaries – that is, Catholics.
The retreat showed that being a Catholic is not just about going to Mass on Sunday, but to seek the Truth in the Gospels in a rational way and manifest it in one’s everyday life. Hence, the retreat covered a range of areas where faith can be more than just a nice feeling.
The retreat dealt with managing conflict, motivation, being called to holiness, the importance of prayer, Catechesis on the nature of Jesus Christ as truly God and truly man, the nature of the Church as the Body of Christ, Scripture, tradition, the sacraments and the life of the parish, relativism (which Benedict XVI has warned against) and how to appreciate the value of living a life in the Truth.
It also covered the Catechism, the place of Mary in Scripture and the Church, the Mass, moral Truths, Apologetics (the best way to explain and defend the Catholic faith), exploring how to live in a sex-saturated world, Theology of the Body made simple, love and marriage, the sanctity of human life and the feminine genius and the masculine spirit.
Discussing Catholic social teaching, lecturers formed the youth to be instruments of justice and peace (rather than focus on ‘social justice’) by teaching them to decipher the plan and desire of God for His people as revealed by the prophets and then by Jesus, and how a life of prayer and a sound spirituality is intrinsically linked to working for peace and justice.
Participants were also exposed to Religious witness by Religious orders, and there was a “Vocations Expo” similar to that on display at WYD08.
Bishop Porteous spoke on being agents of the New Evangelisation that JPII referred to, exploring the variety of forms and media of the New Evangelisaton.
Mike Willesee, the prominent journalist who underwent a dramatic conversion and wrote a book on Eucharistic miracles, addressed the retreat on living as Catholics in public life, and, among other things, exploring the connection and contrast between Catholic values and other values in guiding public life.
Then, as the Emmanuel School’s Rome mission does, participants underwent a two-day parish mission at St Brendan’s at Annandale in conjunction with Credo, Bishop Porteous’ initiative, where they gave testimonies at the local secondary school and spent a day with students.
On the second day they did the remarkable street evangelisation, and – again, Bishop Porteous’ idea – ‘bus stop ministry’, striking up random conversations and inviting people to Mass.
Though admitting that just doing this randomly is “very difficult”, she said participants were strengthened by living in community, and had surprising success, with some retreat members praying with members of the public.
“It always blows me away how open people are on the street,” Therese says. “It’s clear that they’re thirsting for something.