For several of the sessions, we were addressed by John Battle, cabinet minister in the Blair goverment who spoke largely about interfaith issues. He was enormously erudite, informed, innovative and rip roaringly funny. We had professor Harlene Hayne of Otago university, talking about the development of the adolescent brain, and the implications for things such as alcohol law reform. It was information that would have been very useful to me 10 years ago, or, even more usefully, 40.
For me, though, the Eureka moment came, as such moments always do, unexpectedly and from an unexpected source. We had a panel discussion on youth ministry, one member of which was Father Mark Chamberlain from Holy Name Catholic parish. Holy Name is, by a massive margin, the largest student church in the city. It is, I would think, the largest church in the city full stop. Many hundreds of young people attend, and a large proportion of them are involved in various forms of parish based Christian ministry. Many of them are Catholics, born and raised in Catholic homes and schools but many of them are not; they are of other denominations, other faiths, or none at all. Many are students at the nearby University, but many others come from all over the city.So what packs 'em in? Not the website, obviously. I have only been once on a Sunday, and it seemed to me to be a fairly standard Catholic Mass with modernish slighly hibrow music. It's not a "fresh expression", not even a little bit, and it defies all the usual church growth parameters for a young person's church -there is not a drum kit or chrome mike stand in sight. No, they come for one reason and one reason only: to participate in the very real sense of God that is present in the community and worship at Holy Name. And this sense of God is mediated, largely, through the parish priest.
Mark is spectacularly busy. he runs this huge parish, he is the University chaplain and he has significant responsibilities within his diocese: that is, he holds down three full time jobs, simultaneously. He also works as a spiritual director, counsellor and social worker and always seems to have an oversupply of houseguests in the Presbytry. He has given up, of late, his clinical psychology practice. Despite the sheer volume of stuff he packs into each day, whenever I meet him I am struck by two things: the sense of calm and stillness he emanates and the fact that when he talks to me he is focussed on me and absolutely present to me. The young people turn up to see him, talk to him and listen to his slightly quirky sermons where he relates in surprising and delightful ways, the events of everyday life and the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The panel talked around the question of why young people come to Holy Name, and then I had my Eureka moment. I asked Mark what his spiritual practice was. He turned his huge blue eyes to me, wide with surprise and looked a bit flummoxed. "What a question!" he said. Me? I do nothing special. Just the usual ordinary stuff. I get up at 5:30 and pray for an hour. I say the daily offices. I participate in the Mass. I try and take from 1-3 off every afternoon to read and refresh myself. I like to go outside late at night and look at the stars and pray. And I find the examen very helpful. But nothing out of the ordinary." Yeah, Mark.Exactly.
Here is a man whose love of Jesus shines through him, not occasionally but consistently. He spends serious amounts of time each day alone with God and it shows. He is as holy a person as I have ever met, and I've met a few, of varying faith persuasions. His life is rooted and grounded in prayer, and it is this which brings young people in their droves into Holy Name church week by week, month by month, year by year. I asked my question of Mark and was immediately humbled and challenged by his reply. We, the church have nothing to give the world but Jesus. If we don't have him we have... simply nothing.
I came back from St. Margarets to face immediately a long running dispute in our diocese in which people seem determined to treat each other with disrespect, discourtesy and unkindness. My heart sank when I saw how yet again we had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and I looked ahead to yet another sleepless night. And then I did the only thing I could think of to try and make it better. I took my prayer stool and sat down. Thanks Mark.