Over 47 years of priesthood I have seen various attempts made to bring our youth to Christ and Christ to them. I have also watched attempts fall away to nothing because of the attraction of the world and because of the inability to sustain the effort to keep movements going.
Failures have been due to a lack of faith in the reality of the action of God: 'Without me you can do nothing.' Human effort on its own is pointless.
It is among the highest joys of a priest's life, that one now experiences in the young people of this little parish, to stand among them on Sundays after Mass and sense the bond they have, the mutual trust they share, and their genuine enjoyment of each other's qualities.
Somewhat foolishly, people credit the priest with the success, foolishly, because it has not been through any frantic activity and clever organisation on his part that these fruits have been produced.
Memories flood back of efforts made to bring young people together by running dances for them, or trips to the Snowies, the beaches, the Blue Mountains. While some good fruits were derived from these activities, they were not produced by the activities themselves, but by the goodness of some of the people involved and their practice of the Faith. There must be a vine before there are branches.
The foundation of the bond and the fruitfulness of the young people of our community resides in their shared devotion to Our Lord and His Mother. This manifests itself in and is produced by the fact that most of the boys and young men are altar servers, and, with the girls, many are members of the Legion of Mary.
Out of forty-five altar servers, seven are senior men, the thirty-eight being young men, teenagers and boys as young as eight years. It is normal to process into the 9.30am Sunday Mass behind twenty-five servers at least. Then, out of the five praesidia of the Legion, three are junior, comprising around thirty members. They have become known, and higher councils of the Legion have asked them to go on extension work, even across diocesan boundaries.
They have done this twice recently, once in a Broken Bay beach parish, where their efforts helped to form a new praesidium among the young surfies. Just over ten percent of practising parishioners are active members of the Legion. The choir also is increasing because of young people joining it. (And our church music is traditional!)
The youth are well represented in the weekly Friday all-night adoration, and a year ago asked their parish priest 'would it be all right' if the youth group undertook a monthly all night vigil'? Would it!
And how it lifts the parish to have them conducting their vigil themselves, some still in primary school, taking their turns in the pulpit to lead Stations of the Cross, Scripture readings, rosary, litanies - some of which I never knew existed, e.g., the Litany of St John Vianney (our patron saint).
They have searched out their material from the Church's ancient, ever new, devotional practices. It is regrettable that the ageing priest is not able to stay with them all night.
Two of them were splendid apostles and organisers for World Youth Day 2008, fulfilling their duties with confident efficiency. One has gone off to study for the priesthood, and there are splendid marriages shining on the horizon.
Of course the Lord in the Eucharist is the source of all this true beauty of young life. And because of their enjoyment of each other, they go off for outings and gather for barbecues, never a concern to their parents or pastor as to their behaviour.
Memories again come back of the time, long ago, when I had to sack a sizeable number of male members of a youth group for sneaking off late at night - the priest being fast asleep - to a hotel, during a skiing trip to the Snowies; and the time, in another parish, when the boys left the girls stranded in the city while they went to a pub to fill in time while waiting for the movie to start.
No such problems now. The children of the parish have a future of wholesome companionship waiting for them. This has been happening for some years, and what a blessing it is. This is peer pressure as it should be when the pressure is to imitate Christ.
Things of God
None of this should be surprising, not if we really believe what Our Lord said: 'Seek first the kingdom of God, and all the rest will be given you besides.' And there are no 'yes, buts.' The cynical will laugh, or smile pessimistically, but we here thank Our Lord for fulfilling in hearts so young his promise on that Sacred Night: 'My joy will be in you, and your joy be made full!'
Although the things of God are seen more clearly over the years with the exercise of the Faith, may He forbid us from thinking that this, the core of life, is not to be expected in the young.
'Deo gratias' for the Catholic child: beyond the excitement of running fast, peddling madly on the bike, catching waves, bowing to loud applause, or receiving prizes, the central, ineffable joy was knowing it was not a piece of bread the priest was holding aloft, and that His Mother was always at your side.
Fr John W. O'Neill, PP, STB, Mb, ASA, is the parish priest of St Vianney's Church, Doonside, in the Parramatta Diocese, NSW.