Asort of bagatelle week of holiday, visiting friends and doing all those things you can’t do when you have to be within 20 minutes of the hospital and summoned by a bleeper. It is so blissful to be free of that for a while, to have no appointments, no deadlines, not even for what time you must say Mass.
I spend an uncharacteristically relaxed Sunday morning in London, walking round the Victoria and Albert Museum with my five-year-old nephew. His mother has just bought him a long-promised Darth Vader costume from the Science Museum and though he agrees to wait until he gets home to unpack it, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. As we pause for a cup of coffee he begs to be allowed just to try the lightsabre. By the time we finish he is in the full face-mask, suit and black cape. As we go round the museum it strikes me that he produces the same reaction and looks from people as I habitually experience walking round in a clerical collar. It is a sobering thought. He often speaks very sweetly of the day when he grows up and becomes a priest and we can live together in the same presbytery. If he is still of the same mind when he grows up (and I am not so fondly foolish as to think that he necessarily will be), at present rates there will so few priests and England will be so post-Christian that walking round dressed as Darth Vader is probably quite a good way of acclimatising to just how strange it will feel. Mind you, truth is stranger than fiction, and I did hear recently of a school chaplain who, presumably in the mistaken belief that it would somehow be of help to the children, decided to substitute, “The Force be with you”, as the greeting at Mass. Fathers, don’t go there!
On Monday evening I travel down to the Reading Oratory Prep School. What a beautiful place this is, set in lovely grounds near the river at Pangbourne. I am the guest of a summer school for Catholic children that takes place there. Founded by a Catholic teacher some years ago, the school originally aimed to teach liberal arts and science from the school curriculum, but with a Catholic understanding. Increasingly, because of the dearth of effective catechesis in schools, it has been given an greater focus on teaching the faith. I am to say Mass, hear confessions and give some talks on Scripture – my “Everything you need to know to understand the Old Testament” course, a sort of Cardinal Martini meets Rolf Harris approach to the subject. Other classes include ones on history, music and an introduction to the thought of St Thomas Aquinas.
It is a delightful experience. I had wondered whether there might not be a slightly hothouse atmosphere about it, but the boys and girls aged between 14 and 18 are receptive, positive and like other youngsters of that age, except that piety appears to be the norm; their interaction seems more charitable and good humoured. In each class the children appear genuinely interested and engaged. After a fairly intensive day of Mass, lessons, sports and rosary we end with a keenly fought quiz, and I am on the road home again with a sense of having participated in something very wholesome and beautifully subversive of the current shibboleths about “what young people want” in the Church. There is a crying need for a catechesis that is intellectually rigorous and challenging but that also includes what one might call a “liturgy of life” – a teaching that speaks to the questions the young have, and that encourages them to centre their lives on prayer and the sacraments. Please God, the days of sitting round in circles writing your sins on bits of paper and setting fire to them or making pipe cleaner models of what you think God looks like (I do not exaggerate – this happens) are numbered.
This is one of the reasons why I am so looking forward to World Youth Day. It will be great to see bishops exercising their roles as chief catechists. I am sure that it is an opportunity they must relish themselves. I have a week back in the parish and then we head off for Germany.
I have a whole lot of instructions from the youth service about things I must take – including a sort of army survival bag for the all-night vigil and badges to swap with other pilgrims. I wonder if Gamarelli’s, the Roman clerical outfitters, do a line in World Youth Day bivouac bags? I must ask them.
And with such random thoughts as these, Pastor Iuventus marches into his fourth year at the head of this column.