As the movement marks its 20th birthday Damian Arnold talks to young people whose lives have been transformed by the initiative

A group of young people, many of whom would not be out of place in a trendy nightclub, are becalmed in front of the Blessed Sacrament exposed on the altar, deep in contemplative prayer, magnetised towards Jesus. The holy rosary is recited and there are priests hearing Confessions all around.

This is not a typical model of Catholic youth ministry in Britain and yet Youth 2000 marks its 20th birthday this year with an abundance of fruits to celebrate since its founder, Ernest Williams, had a vision of young people around the world adoring the Eucharist and founded the lay evangelisation initiative in 1990.

The party will start rocking later this month at Youth 2000’s annual prayer festival at Walsingham, the biggest residential Catholic retreat for young people in Britain. The “rapping friar” Fr Stan Fortuna will be purveying his brand of divinely inspired hip-hop and freestyling lyrical. In between, the friar from the Bronx will be talking about how to be counter-cultural in world where to be Catholic and young is tough. He is the ideal man for the job, having even gained respect and recognition for his from a hip-hop community in the US that is more noted for its materialistic “bling” and lyrics steeped in gun violence and misogyny.

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This is one example of the daring of an organisation with a very simple message that has transformed the lives of thousands of young people: the power and healing of Jesus exposed in the Blessed Sacrament.

The devotion that was popularised by St Francis of Assisi in the 13th century has caused a ripple that has spread outwards to young people in Britain who have been brought back to friendship with Jesus, active involvement in the Church and to evangelisation of their non-Christian and non-practising friends.

“We encourage people to pray silently and deeply before the Blessed Sacrament,” says the Youth 2000 website. “In our day-to-day lives we are surrounded by the TV, music and mobile phones beeping. The silence allows people to focus on deepening their relationship with God – for us to speak to Him, and for Him to speak to us.”

Youth 2000’s mission statement is to give young people aged between 16 and 25 a gateway back to God. The website is written to appeal to a young audience. Praying to Our Lady is a way of being “whisked to God” while praise and worship is a “hymn gym”. The weekly prayer groups convened around the country are places to “chill out not freak out”.

Young people are given the space to let God reveal himself to them. “[The prayer groups] are very hands-off,” says the website. “There’s no pressure for anyone to noticeably participate. You can just sneak in at the back and scope things out for the first week if you like. There is complete freedom to dip in and out.”

God was waiting for me
By Sophie Lawes

Youth 2000 at Walsingham 2009 was one of the most amazing experiences of my life so far. I’m going to tell you of my experience, and the aspects that meant the most to me, a young Catholic in Salisbury.

So many people question why there are not more young people in the parish, why young people stray from the Church: As a young person who stopped going to Mass the minute I left home for university, I completely understand why we might feel that way. I didn’t see why I couldn’t love Jesus and just live my life the way I wanted to.

On Friday, the theme of the day was Confession. Now, I wasn’t planning to go, because I had no plans or desires to change the things I was doing wrong, but as the night went on, I grew hungry for release and to be the person that God wanted me to be.

A lot of the talks were addressed to people who were too scared to go to Confession because of what they had done.

The speaker’s main answer to this dilemma was: “Jesus loves you no matter what.” It reminded me of what my mum used to tell me when I was little, and suddenly I wanted that, far more than I wanted the life I was
leading.

That evening I went to Confession. I found it really hard not to cry when I was confessing my sins.

I felt so bad that I hadn’t tried for Jesus, that I had even tried not to try. It was difficult to comprehend that He would still want me, without reservations.

I just felt so unworthy of God’s love. But the priest kept repeating to me: “I believe, Sophie, that Jesus loves you. Do you know that? Do you know that He will always, always love you?”

I felt that we had grown apart, but really it was only me who had turned my back and covered my ears. And He was standing right behind me, waiting. One of the most powerful things I realised over this weekend, despite being told it all my life, is that God is always there, you just have to accept Him. And the problems people have with accepting Him is the obligation that comes with it.

But I’ve realised that obligation is not a negative thing. In fact, it is a privilege to do what the Father wants, because we know that what He wants is good, is perfect, is love.

It led me in the right direction
By Carl Fisher

Several years ago at the end of August I decided to attend my first Youth 2000 festival at the Shrine to Our Lady in Walsingham. I had been to Walsingham before with my parish and was always the youngest.

On the poster Youth 2000 offered a few days of prayer and the chance to celebrate the Catholic faith with other young people: this intrigued me.

My journey began from Leeds where I was welcomed on to the coach that travelled down the country from Newcastle. This was my first experience of Youth 2000.
The coach was full of young people who were approachable, joyful and wanting to deepen their faith.

I wasn’t sure what to expect over the weekend but I did prepare myself for the worst. On the first night of the Walsingham festival Mass was celebrated reverently and the Blessed Sacrament was exposed and enthroned in the middle of the tent.
The evening continued with prayers and hymns of praise and worship. Everyone in the tent was singing praise to the Lord.

This was a different way of prayer I hadn’t experienced before and grew to understand.

After that evening the rest of the retreat was a whole celebration of prayer and faith. I had many opportunities to be with the Lord in the Eucharist. The talks were inspiring and encouraged me to deepen and carry on the important practice of my faith. Youth 2000 encouraged my faith in the right direction; it led me deeper into my relationship with Our Lord and His Blessed Mother.

I would recommend Youth 2000 to any young person who wants to learn or deepen their faith. It offers a great opportunity to be with other young Catholics join together in prayer and start new friendships.

Since the first retreat in 1990, Youth 2000 has inspired more than 70 vocations to the priesthood and the religious life; many of these priests celebrate Mass at the retreats. Many others have found their vocation to the married life and now bring their children to the retreats.

Youth 2000 has also spread to other countries. In May it marked its anniversary with a gathering in Rome with representatives from the US, France, Germany and Ireland. Each country brings its own charism. France is the latest country to be involved and the fastest-growing. In Germany it has become deeply embedded into diocesan life, and in the US it has been promoted vigorously by the big-bearded Franciscan Friars of Renewal. In Ireland some of the country’s Gypsy community has been evangelised.

In Britain, Youth 2000 organises five retreats a year around the country. These donation-only retreats are noticeable for how many people are going to Confession. One Y2K leader says: “In my parish Confessions were only available for one hour on a Saturday, but on these retreats they were 24/7. I hadn’t been to Confession for about 10 years but it was inspiring to see so many other young people who weren’t scared of going. It’s easier when there are 200 other young people around you going to the sacrament.”

Another says: “I did not realise the importance of Confession until I came to a Youth 2000 retreat. Then I realised that I needed to seek forgiveness and that I was in a place of sanctuary where I could find healing.”

Mothers are amazed when their teenage children return home with tales of voluntarily rising in the middle of the night, after sleeping on a hard floor, to be with Jesus, kept exposed in the Eucharist through the night.

For many the experience of praying the rosary for the first time is visceral. “I had never prayed a rosary before Youth 2000,” says one. “But I soon realised it was Our Lady leading me back to Christ.”

But some are confused and have questions. What is Eucharistic Adoration? What is the rosary and why do we pray it? It is the start of a journey of formation.

And having experienced the euphoria of “plugging back into God” the young people walk away with powerful tools to enable them to put Christ at the centre of their everyday lives: prayer and Adoration, the rosary and a network of supportive friends.

At the 1989 World Youth Day, Pope John Paul II said: “You young people have in a special way the task of witnessing today to the faith; the commitment to bring the Gospel of Christ – the Way, the Truth and the Life – into the third Christian Millennium, to build a new civilisation, a civilisation of love, of justice and of peace.”

Fourteen years later and two years before his death, the Pope wrote to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, saying: “The growth of groups such as Youth 2000… are evidence of the desire of many young people to share in the Church’s life… You will find their enthusiasm and generosity exactly what is needed to promote a spirit of renewal not just among themselves but in the entire Christian community.”

The Youth 2000 Prayer Festival – Sanctuary Walsingham is from August 26-30. Visit Youth2000.org

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