I sit down to write this blog on the final weekend of my short experiment here in London. It has been wonderful to read the varied and fascinating experiences of Vinny and Richard, my fellow novices, as they reflect on such grace-filled experiments. I experienced a series of similarly touching moments last weekend as I worked in a variety of ‘young persons’ settings.
As part of my work for Jesuit Missions I worked alongside a number of faith-based charities (Columbans, Progressio, Pax Christi and Bosco Volunteer Action) to provide a ‘Deep Learning Day’ to the Year 13 students of Bishop Thomas Grant School, Streatham. I was fortunate to be asked to run a session entitled ‘Pic n Mix Prayer’ in which students were given a range of creative ways in which they could express themselves prayerfully. This involved maps of the world, post-it note prayer walls, recreating the beauty of creation through art, creating bracelets and even blowing bubbles!
To see young people of seventeen or eighteen realise the power of prayer and the transformative effect that it can have on their lives was a privileged experience. It reminded me how vital and life-giving it has become to find a time and space for prayer in our modern world, especially with our young people increasingly bombarded by the information overload that comes with social media at everyone’s fingertips. I was also moved by the staff from the school who expressed an appreciation of the chance to embrace the silence and reflect during a busy working day. With these sentiments I felt that the famous Jesuit charism – being a contemplative in action – was being unlocked by those around me, both students and staff.
On a personal note, this was the first time since leaving the classroom and joining the Society of Jesus that I had returned to a secondary school. It was strange to be present in such an environment and not be a teacher. Nevertheless, it was empowering to be a witness of faith to young people. It was a good test of my own sense of vocation to the priesthood to answer their questions on my life and also their questions on wider issues surrounding our faith. I was deeply impressed by the character, maturity and emotional intelligence of the students – true fruits of a good Catholic education and a credit to Bishop Thomas Grant School.
At the end of the working week I was invited to visit one of London’s Jesuit parishes – St Anselm’s Southall – by Fr Gerard Mitchell SJ. I remain extremely grateful to Fr Gerard for this opportunity as I found the vibrancy and creativity of the entire parish extremely inspiring. On the Friday evening I took part in a re-enactment of a Passover meal, which was the opening of a weekend retreat for a group of confirmation candidates. What a fantastic way of teaching teenagers the traditions and heritage of the Judeo-Christian faiths! As well as the unleavened bread, the bitter and sweet sauces and the ‘grape juice’, I also enjoyed being spoilt by the local parishioners who served up a true Southall dish – chicken curry, daal, rice and naan bread! As Fr Gerard brought the evening to a close with a Jewish hymn/ folk song I couldn’t help but feel privileged to be present at a true example of creative Jesuit ministry which enabled young people to understand the Gospel message more deeply.
Perhaps the highlight of my entire time here in London came the following night, when I took part in the St Anselm’s Young Adult Group evening ‘Light After Eight’. The darkened church was illuminated by innumerable candles and the Blessed Sacrament was exposed. The parish choir soulfully sang a selection Lenten hymns. But this was not just an evening of adoration. Working in pairs, us young adult volunteers went out into the streets of Southall and spoke to members of the local community. Carrying lanterns we invited whoever we met to come with us to Church to light a candle, say a prayer and stay for as long or as little as they wished. I have to admit that when I was introduced to the idea I felt wary about the potential for rejection or even hostility from those we met. Within seconds of heading onto the streets my doubts and fears were allayed – everyone we spoke to responded respectfully and their reactions ranged from ‘too busy’ bewilderment to genuine intrigue and engagement.
In the half an hour I spent ‘on shift’, my partner and I welcomed several people into church, including a trio of Muslim partygoers on their way to their evening’s revelry and a Sikh lady on her way back from prayers at her temple. The experience on the streets made me realise the power a friendly welcome and a peaceful gesture can have in bringing such diverse communities together. This wasn’t an overt exercise in evangelising, but in unification – and it was very well received. That being said, I was challenged to step out of my comfort zone and discuss my faith fairly overtly to complete strangers, which, a bit like the experiences at Bishop Thomas Grant School, can only help to test this life of vocation I have embarked upon. I would even suggest that it is activities like this that make such novitiate experiments. Overall it was a heart-warming experience that helped strip away the boundaries and hard shells (my own and those of others) that sometimes seem to exist in a mega-city London that, at times can seem cold and dehumanised. Like the other two experiences I have outlined here, a combination of creativity and courage in expressing and sharing my faith were present throughout and are the lasting learning I have taken from the last week.