On the weekend of 11-14 December 2014, over 250 young adult Catholics attended the Seventh Annual iWitness Retreat held at the Collaroy Centre on Sydney's Northern Beaches.
The roar of the surf in the background and the early summer sunshine lifted the spirits. There was a pervasive happy atmosphere. The main focus of iWitness, since its establishment in 2008 in the wake of World Youth Day, is enriching the participants' spiritual lives through a deepened relationship with Our Lord.
There is daily Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, Morning and Evening prayer of the Divine Office, a candle-lit Rosary in the outdoor amphitheatre, inspirational talks, wide-ranging Group Discussions and easy availability of the Sacrament of Penance. Many priests attended.
New iWitness initiatives
However, this year there were two new initiatives. One was the presence of keynote speaker, Fr Jacques Phillipe, a distinguished Catholic writer and member of the Community of the Beatitudes, one of the exciting new religious movements in the Church. This community was founded in France after World War II. Fr Jacques spoke on "Prayer in Living a Virtuous Life."
The second initiative was the presence of missionaries from the United States who have developed the "Culture Project" to engage with young people. This project was developed by a group of friends in New York and seeks to communicate the messages of human dignity and sexual integrity in other young people worldwide. Culture Project members commit to share community for one year, attend daily Mass and make a daily Holy Hour.
They train for a month to develop their skills in public speaking, mastering the presentations developed by the Culture Project and personal fundraising. This initiative has the enthusiastic approval of Archbishop Charles Chaput OFM (Cap) of Philadelphia, one of the American Catholic Church's most inspirational leaders.
The "Project" is sorely needed. The Western world has experienced a sexual revolution over fifty years which has reduced sexual intercourse to a casual indoor recreation, a pagan "sex without strings and relationships without rings".
The vision of Jesus in the New Testament and the consistent teaching of the Church confront this perversion: marriage is a covenant, a one-flesh union and sex is the seal on this permanent relationship.
The corrosive message of the powerful secular culture and the toxic agenda of the cultural majority did not faze these 250 young Catholic adults who are confident, gifted, well-educated and secure in their faith.
Many are already involved in youth ministry leadership roles in tertiary institutions and parishes. There was a time when practising youthful Catholics felt isolated among the older people in (sometimes) dying parishes. Those days are past.
World Youth Day Sydney in 2008 revealed their numbers and in the years since that seminal event, there have been many retreats, conferences, religious, social and cultural activities tailored to their spiritual needs.
Young practising Catholics need "friends in the faith!"
In addition to Fr Jacques Phillipe and the Culture Project team (Madeleine Vella, Katie Payne, Lamar Edwards, Cristina Barba and David Sao) there were other leading speakers: Fr Anthony Bernard on "The Power of Confession", Fr Tom McFadden OFM (Cap) on "Detachment, Simplicity and Poverty", Eileen Leyne Fraterna on "Virtues, Transformation in Christ", Fr Greg Morgan on "The Cardinal Virtues" and Sr Mary Rachel OP on "Faith, Hope and Charity".
After so many spiritually demanding sessions, there was need for "down time"recreation.
The iWitness team organised vigorous sports in the ten stage "Amazing Pilgrimage" across the vast Collaroy Centre property which allows all to participate, not only those specially gifted in team sports.
In the evening, there was the "iWitness Challenge", an indoor event.
Many priests and other youth ministry leaders attended. The organising team was led by Amy Vierboom and Anne-Marie McLaren and included Luke Streher MC (Immaculata Community) and as Liturgy Co-ordinator, Ronnie Maree, in his third year at the Good Shepherd Seminary, Homebush, Sydney.
Fr Paul Rowse OP, Chaplain of the Australian Catholic Students Association (ACSA), attended with three other Dominican friars: Fr Andrew Fornal OP, Catholic Chaplain at University of Western Sydney, and Brothers Matt Boland OP and William Loh OP.
Meanwhile, the new Rector of the Good Shepherd Seminary, Fr Dan Meagher, graced iWitness with his presence and Fathers Thomas and James represented the Franciscan Capuchin friars with two of their postulants.
Joseph Murphy, a seminarian at the Holy Spirit Seminary, Parramatta, and a talented soccer player, spoke about the Parramatta seminary.
Others present included Sr Mary Rachel OP and two of her community of the Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia, Lachlan McGoldrick, Co-ordinator of Embrace Youth at St Mary's Cathedral, four members of the famous Hill family: Matt, Tom, Robert and Luke, and popular youth leader, Cooper Crimmins, who has returned from working as a Jackaroo on an isolated Northern Territory cattle station.
Over recent years, there has been an explosion of vital young adult Catholic life throughout Australia: Ignite Youth, ACSA, the Young Men of God, Magis, "Reasons for Hope", to name just a few.
The iWitness Retreat is both a feature and a catalyst of this life-giving movement.