Graham Draper reports on a Youth Event at the Roman Catholic Shrine in Walsingham
I awoke, cold and stiff in my sleeping bag, to see warm sunlight filtering through the canvas above me. I was one of around 1500 young people waking up in a field just outside Walsingham to another day at Youth 2000, the largest Catholic youth event in the UK. The morning was brisk and moist, but this did nothing to dampen the spirits of the other young people queuing to have a shower and brush their teeth before the morning prayer session. Also in the queue were a young seminarian from Newcastle, a Phd student in neuroscience, and a recent graduate of UCL’s medical school. Other people I met that day included a young man who had been a barber for several years, a physiotherapist, and someone working as a shop assistant. Over the weekend I met people from all walks of life, from all over the UK (and beyond), and from all kinds of backgrounds; this event was truly catholic.
Walking into the largest tent on the site, I was immediately confronted with one of the most characteristic sights of Youth 2000—a group of young people kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament. Round the clock adoration is one of the hallmarks of the event, with individuals volunteering to spend a number of hours praying in front of the monstrance. The nights were cold and invariably filled with rain, and yet every hour people would make their way quietly to the main tent to silently adore the son of the living God. There were already a number of priests hearing confessions; later one of them told me he was hearing confessions continuously for over three hours. For some penitents it would be their second confession that week, for others their first confession in years.
The subject of the first talk that day, also held in the main tent, was on the encounter with Christ. A young lady, who left her job in a major pharmaceutical company to do missionary work with young people, talked passionately about what was clearly the most important thing in her life: ‘If Jesus is who he says he is, it changes everything,’ she said, looking directly at the monstrance. Her talk was far from anodyne: I doubt any Christian could listen to her without being challenged to seek a closer relationship with Jesus of Nazareth.
The Mass began at midday, and the main tent was packed with people singing the antiphon as 20–30 priests processed up to the altar. There was something incredibly moving about seeing so many priests, many of them young, extending their hands and simultaneously uttering the words of consecration.
Later in the day there were a plethora of workshops providing information on a huge variety of topics. One workshop, entitled ‘Questioning atheism,’ was on the arguments of the New Atheists; another workshop unpacked the rich symbolism within the Mass, and explored how this could help active participation in the liturgy; yet another was given by representatives of Life, a charity which helps women who find themselves in crisis pregnancy.
But for me, by far the most beautiful event took place that evening at the healing service. A priest carried a monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament along a line of kneeling people, pausing for a moment before each person so that they could bury their face in the folds of the humeral veil hanging down from the monstrance. This practice is deliberately reminiscent of the woman described in Mark who suffered from a haemorrhage, who simply touched the garments of Christ in order to be healed.
One young person, close to me in the line, pressed the cloths to their lips and then looked straight up at the Blessed Sacrament directly above them. For a moment they gazed, seemingly enraptured and utterly still. I saw in that person’s face a deep wonder and an authentic love that I have rarely witnessed before; it shocked me at the time, and I know that I will never forget the quiet and sincere longing in their gaze.
It is indisputable that the Church is experiencing very dark and difficult times, both in this country and around the world; the heart-rending scandals of abuse, stories of persecution in the Middle East and elsewhere, and increasing secularization in the West make it easy for us to become discouraged and to wonder what hope there is for the future. I have seen the future of the Church in the young people at Youth 2000. Do not be afraid, the Church is alive.
Graham Draper works with the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.