"YOUTH is a secret society to which we used to belong" — the remark was made by the poet Charles Causley when we were talking, on one occasion, about his work as a teacher of primary school children in Launceston, Cornwall. He was trying to show me how difficult it is to enter into the world of the young; occasionally one is invited into it, at times you stumble into it, more frequently we find ourselves as onlookers observing the rituals, trying to understand the rhymes and songs.
Over the past five years the diocese of Westminster has provided an opportunity for a group of priests to enter into the world of the young, to hear about their enthusiasm and their difficulties. The priests bring with them to this encounter the accumulated wisdom and experience of living and sharing their faith with the people in their parishes.
The exchange takes place during the annual Young Adults Pilgrimage to Lourdes, and the experience has been mutually beneficial.
The inspiration for the enterprise came from Cardinal Hume, who invited the young people of the diocese to go with him to Lourdes where they would have an opportunity to discover or deepen their faith. Each day would be given over to a particular topic and a speaker would be invited to talk on "discovering" the church, the mass, other people, oneself, and so on. Opportunities for discussion and questions would be provided, and each day there would be the chance to share fully in the deliberation of the mass.
How has it worked? What is it like to be in the company of 200-300 young people for a week? Speaking from the vantage point of solid middle age, at times it's like being swept up in a glorious cavalry charge. The joy, enthusiasm, energy, openness, generosity and love are almost overwhelming but after a while you begin to see things with their eyes, see how things could be in the church and in the world.
Being in their company, it is possible to rediscover the joy of being alive, the appeal of Our Lord and his teaching, the excitement of sharing new insights at 2 am in the morning, the emotion of kneeling at Our Lady's Shrine when the dawn comes up.
Again and again, as I listened to their stories, I was amazed at how much living they had done, how it had shaped their outlook and I wondered at their willingness to share these experiences with us.
Let me give some examples. There was Patrick whose family had been accused of involvement with the IRA and unjustly imprisoned. "I think I have a lot to tell people," he said, and went on to describe, without bitterness, life in prison and how we could help those inside.
I think of Lam, a refugee from Vietnam, who had spent 14 days at sea with his family, four of those days without water, in order to find freedom and a new life. And Cathy, whose fiancé had been killed while working on one of London's building sites. These were some of the experiences they brought to our liturgy and discussion groups and which so deeply affected the priests who were there to share the pilgrimage with them.
And how did we respond? Well, if going on pilgrimage with the young is like being caught up in a cavalry charge, it's also important to remember the value of the infantry who have something to match their enthusiasm and generosity. It hasP got something to do with perseverance, loving yourself enough to cope with failure while still preserving the ideal.
And so we talked about our efforts to pray, admitted that we were frequently dry, sometimes bored at mass; acknowledged that we found it difficult to cope with our sexuality. In return we were reminded by the young that they often found us closed, not interested in them, unwilling to listen to their views.
We were reminded time after time during the week that what matters is to be ourselves, to share our humanity. I noticed this when the cardinal led us in the Stations of the Cross and showed us how we share in the sufferings of Christ through our hurts, losses, rejections and bereavement. It came out again when Fr Jude, a newly-ordained priest, described how he had been led by God from unbelief to the faith and ordination as a priest, experiencing brokenness and bewilderment on the way.
"We (priests) minister out of weakness," he said. We were learning how to become fully human and we were teaching each other. It was made very clear that young people were able to relate to priests who stood alongside them, sharing their (broken but redeemed) humanity.
I suppose this account could give the impression of tension and division. Not at all. By being ourselves we were able to celebrate the eucharist with more meaning, acknowledge our failures in our service of penance.
It gave me a glimpse of what the church could be; a community where evangelisation begins at home, where we build up each other's faith, share our burdens and offer a sign of hope to the world. The vision of the second Vatican Council, in fact.
INFORMATION about next year's YAP can be obtained from: Fr Vladimir Feltzman, Archbishop's House, A mbrosden Avenue, London SWIP 1QJ.