July 2008: Four hundred-thousand young pilgrims joined the Holy Father for the closing Mass of the World Youth Day celebrations in Sydney Australia. Somewhere amid the immense crowds stands a slightly older figure. Bishop Terence Drainey, recently installed Bishop of Middlesbrough, would later describe his trip to World Youth day as “an immense privilege” and “a breathtaking experience”.
A few months later Bishop Drainey was back in his diocese for National Youth Sunday. The “Reclaim the Future” materials, produced by the Catholic bishops conference, sparked controversy, suggesting that youngsters perform a drama during the Gospel and a penitential rite which read: “For over-filling our kettles... Lord have mercy.” But while young people across the country were being admonished to save the planet, Bishop Drainey had something different in mind. He recorded a special message which was made available to download online and was played to young people at National Youth Sunday celebrations in his diocese.
In his message Bishop Drainey spoke about his experience at World Youth Day telling the young people of his diocese: “How I wish you could all have been there.” He shared the Pope’s teaching and said in his own words that God “has loved us into existence” and given us the “great gift of freedom so that we might choose the good, the beautiful and the true”. The recording was an innovative way to reach young people, but it was the the end of his message that was the biggest surprise. He offered “a money-back guarantee” and promised that “life will never be the same again”. He told them “this coming Lent I want to meet with you... Together I want to begin to answer Jesus’s challenging question: ‘Who do you say that I am?’” Like many dioceses, Middlesbrough diocese has a priest who is appointed youth officer and is responsible for youth work across the diocese. When the position of youth officer became vacant Bishop Drainey didn’t appoint a new youth officer, effectively making himself the new diocesan youth officer. So this Lent Bishop Drainey is a very busy man indeed. His meetings with young people in York, Hull and Middlesbrough are taking place every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for four weeks: 12 sessions in all. Running a youth event once a week can be hard work, three nights in a row in different cities must be exhausting and demonstrates an enormous commitment to young people in his diocese I went along to the first meeting in Hull, which was attended by around 80 young people. Each of the meetings centre around a Lectio Devina (divine reading) of a part of Mark’s Gospel. This week was the part where Jesus asks his disciples the big question: “Who do you say I am?” This was read by Simon Haswell, a young Catholic from a parish just outside Hull, and was re-read many times throughout the evening. After the reading Bishop Drainey emphasised the importance of listening, saying: “When you listen to the word of God, God is going to communicate to you personally... he’ll speak to you in a way that he won’t speak to anybody else and it’s important that you hear what he has to say.” He talked about Mark himself, saying that “If he’d been born in England I think he would have been a northerner because he’s very, very direct. He doesn’t mess around.” He told the young people about something he calls Mark’s “inside-outside game”, saying “it’s often the people who are outside who are not in the know, who actually are really on the inside and actually know more than the others. It’s the people who are on the inside who are a bit thick and a bit slow and they are really on the outside even though they think they are on the inside.” The young people broke up into discussion groups and afterwards all had a chance to ask the bishop some questions. It was clear from the questions they asked that many of the young people had thought quite deeply about the reading. Bishop Drainey was clear and candid in his answers. The evening ended with the singing of the special “Who do you say I am?” theme song which has been written specially for the event by Hull priest Fr Stephen Maughan. The next morning I still had it stuck in my head.
When he was at Ushaw College Bishop Drainey presided over the founding of a course for foreign priests which was designed to counter British stereotypes such as “drinking tea”. So naturally “Who do you say I am?” ended with everybody having a nice cup of tea and a biscuit. I spoke to several young people and asked what they thought of the event; in classic young-people style they all shrugged their shoulders and said: “It was all right.” But probing further, I found that they really appreciated the effort that the bishop was making. One girl told me simply: “It was great and I learned loads.” When I asked if they intended to be back next week the vote was unanimous: “definitely”.
At a time when many priests and bishops seem to have lost confidence in young people’s interest in God and focus on “safe” issues like climate change and fair trade Bishop Drainey offers another approach, calling young people, inviting them in and teaching them about Jesus, clearly, honestly and frankly. And the young people seem to like it.