Report by Isaac Withers
This August bank holiday, an estimated 1,200 young Catholics descended on Walsingham for the annual Youth 2000 Prayer Festival. Coach loads of teenagers and young adults from all over the UK, Glasgow, London, Leeds and a strong Welsh contingent from Cardiff and Newport, pitched their tents and took part in the biggest Catholic youth event in Britain.
Over these five days, the retreatants attended talks from renowned speakers such as John Pridmore (a former London gangster), workshops on everything from the meaning of the mass to Mary, and were brought to prayer by contemporary worship. For both people struggling with their faith and those who feel deeply grounded in it already, this retreat with its theme The Journey, emphasised that Christ calls us all closer to him no matter where we are.
For those unfamiliar with the work of Youth 2000, it’s a movement unique in both its design and its charism. A fruit of the New Evangelisation this year celebrating its 25th anniversary, what defines this organisation is that it is led by young people for young people and due to that it has sown the seed of countless vocations in this country. The majority of the team are volunteers and the retreats themselves run on donation only so that students can affordably find their faith. But, the most noticeable thing about these five days was not that so many young people spent it in the midst of each other, but in the presence of Christ.
It is hard to pin down exactly what it is that has caused Youth 2000 to span a quarter of a century now, but its emphasis on Eucharistic adoration has to be one of the main reasons. From the Thursday to the Monday of the retreat, the Eucharist was always present at the centre of the goings on, atop a structure of wood and candles inspired by the burning bush. Also striking is that confession is constantly available throughout the retreat and daily mass. This sacramental focus is very much the technique that Youth 2000 uses to ignite perhaps a once dormant faith in young people. This approach is not often used by other youth movements, and it doesn’t sound like it would appeal to your average teenager, but it’s in the sacraments that we tangibly experience God’s love, and it was the sacraments that were what filled the testimonies shared by the retreatants on the final night.
Even if you attended this event assured in your faith already, the pure show of force at this prayer festival is always an encouragement. With a sea of a thousand faces adoring and praising Christ, it’s hard not to see parallels with how we will be in heaven. As Fr Stephen Wang, Youth 2000’s chaplain put it, ‘The fact is it ‘works’. I don’t mean there is some kind of magic formula that can guarantee you a profound spiritual experience or a radical conversion. I just mean that when the Catholic faith is lived joyfully and presented with real integrity, then it touches people. When you see the ‘wholeness’ of the Christian faith- teaching, sacraments, community, mission- and when you see the way this transforms the lives of ordinary young people, you can’t help being changed yourself.’