New Approach to Faith Development
adventure brochure cover 2012
If one was to ask the average teenager in Ireland whether they felt the Catholic faith (notice I avoided the use of Church!) was answering their needs, whether it bore any relevance to their lives, 9 times out of 10 one would be greeted with a resounding ‘no’!  This should be no surprise, as, apart from an aging priesthood and Mass-going community, most of the limited resources for youth activities within Irish dioceses are now being channelled into safeguarding administration.  Dioceses and parishes appear simply not to have the resources, financial and human, to cater adequately for young people.  Many people, clerical and lay, indeed are frightened to engage at all with this age group. As a result there is a growing vacuum occurring within this younger population.
So where does that leave us as educators, as parents, as concerned individuals interested in the moral and Christian development of our sons and daughters?  Many of our teenagers are attending ‘Catholic’ schools never having experienced or being given the opportunity to experience God as a personal relationship. With the best will in the world the Sunday Mass, important as it most certainly is, does not often engage young people. Its formulaic approach rattled off four times in a row on a Sunday morning does not often encourage prayerful interaction with the Word and the Eucharist. Its language is challenging and remote and its presentation is often dry and boring. Don’t get me wrong, there are notable exceptions where priests, laity and young people work together to develop a Sunday Eucharist which inspires, which is genuinely joyful and which resonates in the lives of young people. But by and large young people are slipping through the net either because of neglect or because we are failing to connect to where they are at in life.
The Congregation of the Sacred Hearts (, in Tanagh near Cootehill in Co Cavan set out September twelve months ago with a project to counter the negative response to religious faith and spirituality among school-going youth.  The concept was simple; put together a fun, active, co-educational programme which provides a vehicle for faith development.  Called Adventure Retreats Ireland, this programme is based firmly on the primary message from Vatican II, that ‘ministry’ is the responsibly of all the baptised.  The concept of peer to peer ministry, where people of similar age groups share their relationship with Jesus and the Holy Spirit can be life changing for young people. The project in Cootehill gives the opportunity for young people to do what they like doing, enjoy team work, benefit from achieving personal and group goals and at the same time are given the space to discover that they are more than just physical and psychological beings but have a spiritual dimension often untapped. 
The idea of combining faith development with fun outdoor adventure is not new and is common for American Catholics, for example, to undertake summer camps where faith and adventure combine. What is new though, is the emphasis that this project places on the empowerment of the young lay person.  Perhaps for the first time in the history of the State, the young Irish Catholic now has an opportunity to answer God’s call as a ‘layperson’- with recognition of their particular vocation.  Traditionally, with their parent’s generation, ‘Church’ was seen as the Institution. If the priest didn’t turn up on a Sunday God didn’t either! On retreat, young people are being given the opportunity to witness to each other, to see faith as enjoyable and fun while seeing the challenge of being and bringing Christ to each other in their own lives.
This emphasis on empowerment, I believe, is key to the future of the Catholic faith in Ireland.  Young people have to be helped to form a personal relationship with God so no matter what challenges or failures take place within the Institution, their personal relationship remains bedrock for their lives.  The idea of ownership, although embryonic in a day retreat, is attempting to plant the seed for future growth and spiritual development. Through empowerment they can be encouraged to take up the mantle for future parish work, for the education of their own children or, should they be called, for religious life. 
A total of 1282 youth passed through the programme in just 9 months with many teachers and chaplains reporting tangible and beneficial outcomes in light of the experience. All loved the concept and both students and teachers indicated a desire to repeat the experience in later months.
An experimental foray into the area of Confirmation preparation also proved to be very popular with many sixth class teachers recounting the strikingly beneficial effect that their retreat had on the group.  
A major issue during the year was the time restraint on a single day retreat with those groups
opting for an overnight experience benefiting from greater opportunity to experience and discover a little of their hidden depths. It was also regrettable the lack of resources that schools have for retreat work, many considering the cost of  €22 for a full day to be prohibitive, even though it includes all the outdoor adventure and the residential upkeep of a retreat team of five young adults.
The centre is open again in September for year two of operation. The Congregation of the Sacred Hearts are indebted to its young retreat team and the support of the schools and parish groups many of whom travelled from as far away as Galway, Kildare and Dublin to attend the retreats with their students. We look forward to hosting more of you over the coming months.
Article appeared in August 4 edtion Irish Catholic