THE Westminster Young Adults Pilgrimage (YAP) to Lourdes is without doubt among the most significant of recent ventures in the life of the Church in this country. Disillusionment among young people regarding the institutional Church in general, and their absence of involvement in the local parish church in particular, belies the fact that despite fine sounding sermons and lofty liturgical principles, the local Church often fails to offer its would-be faithful a genuine experience of Church.
And a genuine knowledge of Church is to a large extent an experience of a pilgrim people. The Young Adults Pilgrimage to Lourdes offers just such an experience.
The 22 hour coach/boat journey is an integral part of the whole adventure. The first lesson in this introduction to the Catholic Church is that the cardinal and bishops accompanying us on the
pilgrimage do actually accompany us. Rumours of the hierarchy flying out to Lourdes in style while the rest of us sit and ache on the cramped (albeit modern) coaches proved groundless. It was a curiously refreshing experience to notice that the cardinal, bishops and clergy were looking just as washed-out as the rest of us at the various coachstops.
Another important lesson came from a look at the people who were embarking on the pilgrimage. YAP is not made up of fanatical young Christians desperately trying to exude the kind of naive enthusiasm which often is held to characterise a certain kind of "committed Christian". Rather, the Young Adult Pilgrimage attracts many who have drifted away from the Church, or who have never had much contact with religion. It appeals too to young people who are practising Catholics and feel the need to question and re examine a faith which they have taken largely for granted.
Essentially YAP offers an experience of the kind of Church heralded by Vatican II. Young people become directly aware during the week that the life of the Church depends upon them. The "success" of the various liturgies which were celebrated depended entirely on the attitudes of all who were present. The liturgies in Lourdes did not involve complex symbolism or liturgical innovations. They were informal, simple and reverential.
"Informality" and "reverence" are not incompatible qualities — as the young pilgrims found out. The celebrations were marked by that "noble simplicity" which the Vatican fathers encouraged us to adopt in our worship.
What was it then that fed the attitudes of those of us who took part in these celebrations? Much, I think, stemmed from the talks which marked the focal point of each day during the week. There was a talk on the meaning of Christian faith by Fr Ian Petit; a talk on the efforts and rewards involved in living out personal relationships in the light of the Christian faith by Margaret Vincent from the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council; the cardinal's talk was an encouraging reflection on the struggles involved in prayer; and Fr David Wilson spoke of his experience of living alongside "the lowly" in the form of the handicapped people in his L'Arche community in France. All the talks were marked by a frankness and honesty which was deeply touching.
Individual silent reflection on the talks was an extremely important part of the pilgrimage for many of the young pilgrims. It was for many a novel experience — not altogether easy — but it was during such times of silence that the pilgrimage really began to have some impact. Perhaps this highlights another need which local churches are failing to meet. This desire for silence may account for a growing interest in the Christian meditation groups which are forming in many parts of this country.
For myself, the most moving event during the week was the open discussion on the talk given by Margaret Vincent. Both she and Kathleen O'Gorman (Director of Educational Services for the Westminster Diocese) spoke in a very personal way of their experiences as wives and mothers in trying to live out truly human Christian relationships. Their sincerity was instructive. Christianity is intimately connected with what is most deeply personal and most authentically human within us.
The discussion was largely led by lay people. In many ways throughout the week the point was made that informed and responsible lay people make vital contrubtions to the development of the Church in a way which complements rather than subverts the role of the clergy. And not simply in questions of liturgy. The actual lived experience of married people is increasingly being brought to bear in a more obvious way on the development and interpretation of official Church teaching on matters related to personal relationships.
The clergy, while fulfilling their role in the sacraments, throughout the pilgrimage, were not in any negative sense dominant. Their brief was for the most part simply to be available to those people who wanted to meet them.
Before setting off I was dreading the whole affair. I'm not particularly hooked on Marian shrines or on discussion groups, and I felt particularly vulnerable as a seminarian/ group leader, fearing that I might be looked upon as some kind of authoritative Churchrepresentative.
Fortunately for me, though, the openness of the leaders and speakers on the pilgrimage had spread, and my discussion groups "worked" simply because there was no pressure on any of us to make claims to knowledge we simply did not have. It was an immense privilege simply to be part of a group of people who were prepared to admit to problems they were having in living a Christian life.