O God, from my youth you have taught me,
and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds ~ Psalm 71:17
In 1984, the Bishop of Kisumu in Kenya appointed me ‘Kisumu Town Youth Chaplain’. At that time Kisumu was growing rapidly with the influx of mainly young people seeking education, employment or simply a more exciting way of life.
This was a missionary task I accepted with a mixture of joy and trepidation. There were hundreds of young people filling the town’s churches on Sundays, yet with no further engagement for the rest of the week.
Sister Mary, an American Sister of Notre Dame with plenty of experience of working with young people, teamed up with me to find ways to bring the Catholic youth together into faith communities. She proved to be quite literally a God-send as we faced the following questions:
- How could we help these young Catholics in Kisumu town to grow in their faith?
- How could we bring them together to reflect on the Word of God and to pray?
- What could we do to help these young Christians to live out their faith on a daily basis?
Foundations of the ‘Fish Group’
We launched a young movement called the ‘Fish Group’. Kisumu is situated on the shores of Lake Victoria, so there were plenty of fish to be had, but this was not the reason for the name. In Greek, the word for fish forms an acrostic for the words ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God and Saviour’, possibly one of the first creeds of the early Church.
We planned that the Fish Group would be divided into small groups of young people who would meet once a week in their home areas in town. We trained their youth leaders to lead the meetings through several steps involving reflecting on the Word of God, shared prayer, and a pledge to do something in the community to help those in need.
There were ups and downs in the development of the Fish Group, but by the grace of God it flourished across the town, attracting hundreds of young people. The Holy Spirit had surely played his part to the full!
A part to play
To tell you the truth, I have always felt a bit uncomfortable with the words that youth are ‘the future of the Church’. Of course, they are, for it is they who will sustain our Catholic communities and, in turn, hand on the baton of faith to their children. However, this is only half the story.
Young people are vital for the life of the Church here and now. They bring energetic enthusiasm and courageous commitment to our communities. They ask questions, some of them uncomfortable and challenging, but usually with a certain sincerity of heart, a healthy curiosity, and on occasion, playful mischief.
I am grateful to the young people of Kisumu town, many of them now parents and grandparents, for supporting me in my ministry in Kenya; teaching me how best to serve as a priest and missionary. I learned so much from them about what is important in life, about the presence of God in all things and at all times, the anchor that family life provides. I also learnt the joys of hospitality and spontaneous celebration, and the courage to trust in God even in the darkest of times, and I am still learning.
I look back with deep gratitude to Missio who, in 1988, helped us build a Fish Youth Centre in Kisumu – still standing and operating today.
Last week saw tens of thousands of youth travel from all over the world to attend World Youth Day in Lisbon and, by the way, our international Missio stand stood proudly in their midst.
The Holy Father was there to encourage them with these words:
‘My message for you, dear young people, the great message entrusted to the Church, is Jesus! Yes, Jesus himself, in his infinite love for each of us, his salvation and the new life he has bestowed upon us.
‘Mary is our model; she shows us how to welcome this immense gift into our lives, to share it with others, and thus to bring Christ, his compassionate love and his generous service to our deeply wounded humanity.’
We pray for God’s blessing on our youth and all those who work with them.
Our Lady of the Visitation,
you who arose and went with haste towards the mountain to meet Elizabeth,
lead us also to meet all those who await us
to deliver them the living Gospel:
Jesus Christ, your Son, and our Lord! Amen.
~Official World Youth Day Prayer, 2023