On Saturday 4 March, up to 10,000 young Catholics from around the country came together at Wembley Arena for a celebration. A day to fan the flame of the faith of the universal Church and to spark into motion a dynamic living witnesses to the faith.
The core WYM team arrived early on the day to await the various diocesan constituencies, youth workers and associates that had booked with us. As the crowds gathered, the flow of our red Westminster Youth Ministry t-shirts started to fill the entrance steps and anticipation grew.
Many other dioceses also arrived in their varying degrees of defining colour – Portsmouth’s blue hoodies, the bright orange of Clifton well as Nottingham diocese with their Robin Hood hats (a familiar sight now of this Flame event). As a visual person, this struck me as such a vivid sign of the wide-reaching, colourful dynamism of our universal Church.
Flame seems to have slowly grown into its own identity each year it has been delivered, trying each time to draw on a focus on a particular topic; kicking off its first ever event in 2012 by taking advantage of the buzz of the Olympics with guest athletes and inspiring people to “fan the flame” of our gifts and use them for the Church.
The event this year focused on the social injustice and shortcomings of our world, where many risk their lives and flea their home country to seek a better life from the terror they have fled from.
It was quite an intense topic but one that each of the speakers did their best to deliver based from their own experiences of varied intensities – from the ministry of Cardinal Bo, a Salesian priest and leader of the Church in Myanmar, whose country has recently been struggling to emerge from its troubled past and to establish its own democracy, to the environmental ethical concerns and social teaching of Fr Augusto Zampini.
What seems to be most expressive at the heart of Flame, however, particularly this year, is a steady and increasing resonance of joy, life and energy of our youth. Which of us can cast our minds back to any World Youth Day event? Cannot the word ‘joy’ so often be used to describe these events? We can all have joy, but the unique charism of our young people is a certain distinctiveness of eagerness, wonder, zest, sincerity, thirst, something that us slightly older in years might do well to note.
In a society struggling to find its moral compass and identity, Flame can be that place of refuge in which, should the dankness of society become that which dulls their youthful spirit, there might be a place to re-ignite that.
Indeed, the book of Ecclesiastes encourages the young to “rejoice in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth” (Ecc 11:9). This joy is there to be harnessed and set free into our world. For all the intensity and insight of the speakers, for all the skill of the musicians, for all the wonderful and incredible lighting and stage sets (which are notably impressive and inventive each year) without our young people, without their zeal, without their energy, without their voices filling the stadium, such sentiment would fall lost.
As Cardinal Newman once answered when asked “Who are the laity?”, he answered “The Church would look foolish without them”. So too we might ask “Who are the youth?” One might reply “The Church would look inert without them”.
This is the unique and valuable treasure of having so many young people from all over the UK in one place. Indeed, it is a treasure to be nurtured, protected and used wisely. Deep at the heart of this event, amidst all the lights and sounds, there is a call for every person there to recognise their own dignity and worth. Deep at the heart of social justice, equality, mercy and compassion for our fellow man we must first become aware of our own dignity and worth.
This was something touched upon during this event by Mike Pilavachi, who delivered an empowering story of how his friend once told him about his country’s tradition of trading women in exchange for up to five cows. The line “you are worth more than five cows” will likely go down as one of the most quotable and memorable parts of his talk; yet, amidst Mike’s humorous quip there was also a very serious message.
We are indeed worth more than five cows, more than many sparrows, worth more than a zoo full of cows and sparrows. We are infinitely and immeasurably of value to God. It is this that can spur us on to social justice. We can see Christ in the face of our oppressed and needy brothers and sisters when we are first able to see the face of Christ imprinted onto our own hearts.
David Wells has also been the face of Flame for each edition so far and recurrently warms the room with his cheeky sense of humour, balanced with a deep sincerity and kindness. His reflections regularly focus on who we truly are, that essential self-reflection, once again, a vital piece of spiritual and mental cognition we need to arm ourselves with if we are to truly serve justice in our world with conviction and vigour.
Flame therefore, is a gift to our Church and one that can and will set our young people ablaze and empower them to go out into the world and meet its needs.
We can change our world so long as we are all attentive not just to the needs of our society, but the need for all of us for Christ; and a room full of 10,000 people can raise the roof so long as we teach each other to invite Christ under the roof of our own hearts. We can’t spread the flame unless we draw near to the fire ourselves first.
For this reason, it cannot be overstated enough how poignant it is to be able to adore Christ in the most blessed sacrament in Wembley Arena itself. Sitting in a small fold-down chair amongst thousands of others, we gazed at Christ. On a stage that has been shared by the likes of Abba, Tina Turner, Prince and Bob Dylan sits the King of Kings. The silent, inexplicable, unsurpassable, unfathomable Creator of the universe; quietly speaking to thousands of hearts.
This is here where one hopes that the resonance of the day might settle in each and every heart. It is here where we might revive ourselves and to put into motion all that has been spoken of during the event, to, as St Pope John Paul ll once said, “Courageously follow the path of personal holiness and diligently nourish yourselves with the word of God and the Eucharist” for “the holier you are, the more you can contribute to building up the Church and society.”
Here one of our greatest saints reminds us of our priority. It is of great pertinence that Flame offers this incredible and unique space for the Church faithful to remember who they are, and for our youth to have a short moment of silence (which was almost impeccably observed by all) to let God speak.
When the lights go down, when the stage is empty, when the music fades, we recognise that the call for young people is (just as it is for people of all ages and walks of life) to take up the cross to follow Christ, to come alive in faith, to live a life to the full and ultimately become saints.
Flame is that chance to catch that Holy Fire of God, to dive in and drink deep of his life-giving waters, to rise up again with renewed hearts and walk out the steps of the stadium as little burning lights.
To close once again with some words from St Pope John Paul ll, we are indeed called to notice that “wherever people are suffering, wherever they are humiliated by poverty or injustice, and wherever a mockery is made of their rights, make it your task to serve them.”
Yet in tandem with that, we recognise that in order to do this we must make a perfect gift of ourselves to Christ so that we can make ourselves a gift to others. This does not mean we have to come to Christ with all our problems sorted out. God deals with that from our sincere and contrite hearts. The gift of Flame this year was to help us recognise the inadequacies of our world and what we might be able to do in order to alleviate this, but the final liturgy is the source and summit of how we might be able to achieve this.
Only with Christ, nourished by his Eucharistic food, can we truly be a Church alive on “God’s great dance floor” as Cardinal Vincent Nichols so vividly called it, adding that we are also on a construction site. We are indeed a work in progress, under construction. One can only imagine what can become of our youth should they take the nourishment and tools given to them at such an event.
Let us all pray for our youth, and for each other, that we might respond to that call to commit ourselves to follow Christ, to serve the needy, to build a society with building blocks that frame a civilisation of love and through the constant and reckless abandon of self-giving.