Q & A: Father Dermott Donnelly

Father Dermott Donnelly is a busy man. As well as being a priest, he works in schools, is chair of CYMfed (the Catholic Youth Ministry Federation of England and Wales), heads up the Youth Village - a Catholic residential centre in the North East of England - and is dean of the Catholic Cathedral in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Editor Phoebe Thompson chatted to him about how the Youth Village began, and the future of vocational callings.

PT: What is the Youth Village?

FD: The Youth Village is the diocesan youth centre for the Diocese of Hexham in Newcastle - the Catholic Church in the North East. We started off about 20 years ago, gathering young people together to live in community in order to go out and evangelise; it was a request of the bishop at the time, Bishop Ambrose. As more church houses were becoming empty, the bigger we got.

We were involved with 20 Catholic secondary schools and some 160 primary schools, so were fairly busy. We started thinking that it would be great to also have people come to us. In John’s Gospel the disciples of John the Baptist follow Jesus and say, ‘Master where do you live?’ Jesus replies, ‘Come and see.’ So we had this idea of building a Youth Village. We found a building smack-bang in the middle of the diocese and went to the diocesan authorities and asked them if they would buy the property. They said: ‘We’ll buy it if you can raise £1million to build.’ As I left the meeting I had no idea where I would get £1million, but I thought once they’d bought it, they weren’t going to take it off us. We ended up raising £1.6 million.

At first all we wanted to do was build a building so that we could give young people a powerful, prayerful experience and tap into their spirituality. Rather than building a breezeblock building with bunk beds and plastic mattresses we wanted them to come to a place where they knew from the moment they walked in that they were valued. There are five chalets with 11 bedrooms in each chalet, all of which are ensuite. Each chalet has its own lounge area with a 54-inch plasma TV.  

We want young people to know from the moment they walk into this youth village that they are valued 

The Youth Village is also where we house our youth ministry for the diocese. As part of the youth ministry we call together young people from all over the world to live in community. We send young people into schools to do missions, but before we do a mission we spend 12 months in the local community working with local parish groups to try and network between the school and the local faith communities. They generally tend to be Catholic, but we also find that there are lots of non-Catholics in our schools and so we work ecumenically. The mission is based on God’s love, sin and redemption, and the power of ‘Metonia’ (repentance). It is based on the story of the Prodigal Son – showing how it encapsulates the whole gospel.

As well as that, all year we set up mini mission teams so that the young people in the secondary schools bring the mission into the primary schools – they become the missionaries to the primary school students. We have a monthly event called ‘The Source’, to gather everyone together.

In the summer we also have our diocesan secondary schools festival. The young people call it ‘God Camp’! On the last weekend in June we have over 600 young people from the secondary schools come and camp. The interesting thing about it is that these are young people who would never go to things like Soul Survivor or The Big Church Day Out. But because they’ve had contact with us and the experience of ‘The Source’ they might be up for coming to this, and some have a powerful experience.

PT: It seems like it all works through the missions in schools and contacts that you’ve made through those networks?

FD: That’s pretty much it. We work very closely with the head teachers. We go to all the Catholic head teacher’s meetings and we’ll be an item on their agenda. [They see us] as a valuable resource in tapping into young people’s spiritually. Sometimes teaching religion is different from allowing people to encounter Christ.

PT: Do the young people you come across engage with all elements of what you put on for them – the sacraments, for example - or do you think that the naturally lean towards the more lively elements, like praise and worship?

FD: We work with young people at different levels. Sometimes at the residentials, if a priest is available then mass and confession is something that we focus on. We offer the sacrament of reconciliation or confession as well and quite a number of young people come to that. I think we see our role as offering young people opportunities. We’re also aware of the African proverb ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child’. It takes a whole Church to enable our young people to become disciples. At times during retreats we’ll offer Eucharist, confession, prayer times, quiet times, lively times and fun times. One of the reasons we named our event ‘The Source’ is that in the second Vatican Council they said that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life - all draws from it and all draws to it. We see ourselves as providing young people the opportunity to draw towards the source and the summit in that sense. We also recognise that at some level sacraments like the Eucharist are for those who are initiated. We have to recognise that all young people are at different stages, and the sacraments aren’t always appropriate if people aren’t initiated.

PT: Have you got any success stories from the retreats?

FD: A girl came along to one of our retreats who was a selective mute. She told her story through music and by holding up cards - it was incredible. Her father pretended to commit suicide in front of her; he was beating up her mum, and a safe project had to get them out of it. She said it was the worst year of her life. She lacked so much hope at the start but by the end she said, ‘I’m happy now because I’ve found God.’ She talked about how her life had changed. She went back to school and began to speak.

We talk about young people having outrageous hope and ridiculous optimism and that’s what we need - a Church where there is outrageous hope and ridiculous optimism. Especially as we see declining numbers on Sunday mornings and congregations becoming more elderly, we need people who are going to have that hope and optimism.  

That’s what we need: A Church where there is outrageous hope and ridiculous optimism 

PT: What are your thoughts on vocational callings? Are young people going into the religious and secular orders anymore? Do you think that it’s just such a radical call on people’s lives that it’s too much of a sacrifice?

FD: The Catholic bishops of England and Wales met a little while ago and they announced that this is the second year running where we have had nearly 100 men and women enter convents, seminaries and religious houses across England and Wales. This is a significant increase on where we were 10 years ago. Although it is not what it was like in the 1980s, there is certainly an increase, so we have stopped the decline. This could be because youth teams and groups are helping young Catholics discern their vocation in life and how they can follow Christ in a particular way.

There’s no doubt that there’s a cost to these callings. There’s a cost to discipleship and we’re living in a culture which tells us that what you give should never cost more than what you’re going to get. Yet the gospel is radically different to that because there is a cost to discipleship. There are lots of little orders springing up like the Franciscan Friars of Renewal who, again, are outrageously hopeful and ridiculously optimistic. In Newcastle we have some of the Missionaries of Charity who are from the same order as Mother Teresa. They’re working extremely hard. They live in poverty - we give them gifts and they give them away! There are still people out there who are really willing to sacrifice everything, to sell themselves out for the gospel and not worry about the cost. When you see that it’s both humbling and a witness.

God always does something new. I think the way ahead is new and how we cope with it will be different from how we have coped in the past. Just because in the 60s we had a boom in the amount of churches and houses being built, should that be the same way of being Church now? Does community look different now? Does community mean people who live on your street or does it mean something different? In that case, do you need a Catholic church every halfmile? It’s this sort of thing which needs a lot of rethinking.

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