“‘In the desert, people of faith are needed who, by the example of their own lives, point out the way to the Promised Land and keep hope alive’ (Benedict XVI). In these situations we are called to be living sources of water from which others can drink. At times, this becomes a heavy cross, but it was from the cross, from his pierced side, that our Lord gave himself to us as a source of living water. Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of hope!” Evangelii Gaudium, 86
Anyone in need of some ENCOURAGEMENT?!
In this new series of posts, “From the Mission Field”, I want to share some of what I can see the Holy Spirit doing through some wonderful people around the country. These are just some people I have come across, whose openness to the Holy Spirit is achieving marvels that most will never hear about.
Here, I ask them about how they evangelise in their corner of the world, what God is doing, and how they face challenges and discouragement. My hope is that it will bring you courage as you evangelise in your own corner of the vineyard…
#1 Salisbury Youth Ministry – Xanthe Dell
So, kicking off with youth ministry… I first met Xanie on a week’s silent retreat in France. She was accompanied by several teenagers (kinda normal for Xanie). Being in silence, we didn’t speak to each other the whole week, but at the end I felt like I knew her as a sister in Christ. I haven’t stopped being impressed by her ever since…
Xanthe is a Deanery youth worker in Salisbury, a role which includes chaplaincy work in a secondary school. She is mum to Daisy (16) and just celebrated three years as a Catholic.
Xanie, we hear amazing things about the youth ministry in Salisbury. What do you have happening?
We have five weekly groups for varying ages, a monthly youth Mass and retreats here, there and everywhere, and seasonal activities.
We’ve also started a mission team, called ‘The Third Hour’. The idea came from a visit we did to Nailsea for a youth Mass. Sadly not too many young people came at that time from the parish, but it did strike me that we seemed to have a complete mobile youth Mass on our minibus (except the priest!). The next thing that prompted us was that convincing our Confirmation group to come on Youth 2000 retreats seemed so difficult. I realised that because they had never experienced any sort of youth retreat, they couldn’t raise enthusiasm to come along. The two slipped together and so we try to take a mini youth retreat to young people in other parishes, in the comfort of their own church. The lovely thing is that it is not just a Salisbury based team now, young people from all over the country come to help out running the programme. There is still some polishing up to do to make it smooth and professional but the impact is powerful.
Has it always been like this? How did it all begin?
Fr Tom (Dubois) started three of the groups: a youth SVP, ‘Source’ for young people aged 10-14, and ‘Upper Room’ once a fortnight for those age 15 and up. It was those very small groups that really became the foundation of the youth ministry. It doesn’t matter how fantastic your programme is or how dynamic you are as a youth leader – you need a few enthusiastic young people to start things off. It is the young people who bring the other young people in.
Where have you seen the Holy Spirit working? What has God done?
I think the most powerful work of the Holy Spirit I see is the transformation of some of these young people through the sacrament of reconciliation. The more they struggle to take themselves into Confession, the more they seem to receive from going – it is truly beautiful to see them emerge unburdened and free and always deeply touches me.
There are times when you see the light of Christ just come alive in them – when you get a text at 1am in the morning because they have just had the most special time of prayer, or have just had a deep conversation with an atheist friend and they are desperate just to share that.
Those times when you think no one is getting it, that everyone seems to be turning their back on their faith, and then 10 young people walk in for a weekday Mass just because they can – that’s amazing. So many graced moments.
One that particularly stands out to me was during a session that I do at the school for girls. The girls had a piece of cord with a crucifix on the end, the idea was to tie a knot in the cord for every worry or burden they were carrying and then to pray a Hail Mary on each of the knots all day, keeping the cord in their pockets. One girl I noticed had run out of cord there were so many knots, I asked her if she really had that many problems or had she just got carried away. She started to tell the saddest story to the group: her father had left, her mother couldn’t keep her older brother out of trouble and he was potentially going to be taken into care. When I looked around I noticed the girls had all started tying another knot in their cords, I looked puzzled but one of them explained that they were going to be praying for this girl’s burden too. I was so touched by the beauty of this unspoken understanding and compassion from mostly unchurched children that it still gives me a lump in my throat.
In your view, what are some of the key ingredients to fruitful youth ministry?
Christ and prayer. It may sound obvious, but I get a lot of pressure from parents to provide table tennis or pizza nights.
While this has its place, Jesus has to be the centre of everything we do here. The moment I push Jesus to one side I’m not serving any purpose other than being a child-sitter. There is the misconception that if you mention Christ, all young people will run in the opposite direction. The reverse is true – if all we do is just whisper his name in an opening and closing prayer, we are saying that this is not going to interest you; what we have is not important or worthwhile. It is now very countercultural to be religious! Shout about it and they will too. When we dilute our faith for young people the flavour that is the desirable part is what we remove.
From the outside, the youth ministry in Salisbury seems to be flourishing. But what are some of the most difficult things about it? What discourages you and how do you deal with discouragement?
The hardest part is when you see young people who have had an intimate encounter with Christ still turn away at times – this breaks my heart, but over time I have come to realize that sometimes God lets them choose: like the Prodigal Son they come back stronger, more focussed, more in awe and with a real first hand knowledge of just how merciful God can be. Even knowing this it still breaks me to see it.
The lack of parental support for their children’s faith is quite often an issue too. While I see so many parents sitting without their children at Mass, praying for them to come back, there are just as many that see swimming or ballet or the Duke of Edinburgh award as far more important than anything that is happening in church. There seems to be a fear that they will become too religious, which surprises and saddens me. There is a huge opportunity for someone to evangelise the parents though!
Is work-life balance important in youth ministry and how do you manage this?
The straight answer is, I don’t! They are merged into one. It is not a job that fits neatly into set hours and days, I am available 24/7 and they know that. If I’m cooking a meal and three young people show up, they join us. Some of the older over 18s have a key to my house and it is not unusual to find them sitting round my table having a cup of tea and a chat or watching a film when I come home. It’s never been abused. It is an open door and that’s the only way I can find it works for me. It wouldn’t work for everyone and I’m blessed to be in a position to give in this way. It’s very difficult to differentiate between work and service. Do I stop being a Christian at 10pm on a Sunday evening even if I’m not being a youth worker? It is something that became too tricky to separate. I know the signs now of burning out and I take myself off to a convent or retreat somewhere and restore and refill.
If you had one piece of advice to a youth minister just setting out, what would it be?
Just one – live what you teach! If you are not going to Mass or Confession or living a moral life, it’s very hard to bring others to do it either. Your own relationship with God should be given more importance than the young people’s. It is always God who does the work through us, we are just a pen in His hand, writing on someone else’s page. We have to pray to be a useful tool and not a hindrance to what He wishes to do in these young people’s lives. When I’m living as I should then I can trust the things that don’t always look so good are all in His hands.
Any final words…?
I once read a youth ministry article asking, ‘would you die for your young people?’ It’s a big ask; far harder and more rewarding I think is to live for them. We are always given the patience and wisdom that we need for that young person at that moment. So many times I have looked to God aghast saying, “Well, you put me here, help me!” and always, always He does.
(Photos courtesy of Salisbury Young Catholics; used with permission.)