Tess Martin interviews Seán Ascough, a civil engineer with a private practice, on how he sees the Youth 2000 movement which draws many young people to a change of life and a commitment to their Catholic faith.
In his address at World Youth Day in Santiago de Compostella in Spain in 1989, Pope John Paul II asked young people to evangelize each other by coming together, learning about and experiencing the love of God. In the vast audience was a twenty-six-year old IT specialist, Ernest Williams from England, who was moved by the challenge. He came up with the idea of Youth 2000, and formally founded the organization in Medjugorje in 1990.
`He met a lot of other young people in Medjugorje, they gathered together in prayer, exchanged contact details, returned to their own countries and continued to keep in touch. It was the start,’ explains Sean Ascough, National Leader of Youth 2000 in Ireland. Youth 2000 is a spiritual initiative of young people who work in cooperation with clergy and older adults in a mutual discovery of the unique love of God for each person. Ideally, through a personal experience of Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament, each is awakened to the individual plan God has for them. The aim is to draw people to the heart of the Catholic Church, particularly and specifically through the Mass, Eucharist, sacraments, scriptures, devotion to Mary through praying the rosary, to promote reflection and study on matters of faith, and to empower them to take their place in their communities as active members of society and Church. The structure features a national council and regional committees. There is also a vibrant social programme.
Today the organization has spread to twenty-five countries worldwide. The Irish movement began in 1993. ‘We don’t have members as such, we aim to bring young people to the heart of the Church, and are in touch regularly with several thousand a year aged from sixteen to mid thirties, with an average age of twenty-five. Our festival last year attracted 750 people, and about 500 meet in prayer groups round the country weekly,’ says Seán. About twenty weekend retreats are held each year with about twenty-five to thirty young people at each. Retreat participants typically reflect on questions such as – what does God want from me? What does the world offer me? What are the values I seek? Do these values bring me a true and lasting peace? `We have people from all backgrounds. The ones I see experiencing a particular attraction may have been struggling to keep the faith themselves among their friends, wondering, ‘Am I the only person who believes in God?’ When they come to Youth 2000 they meet others like them, alive in their faith which helps it continue to grow.
`We also get people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Last year, we came across a young man on the steps of a church; he was down and out, on drugs. We told him of the free bus going to a young people’s retreat in Knock, and asked would he like to go. He said later, he doesn’t know why he agreed, but he did. ‘He wasn’t really part of things the first couple of days, felt it was all “too holy” for him. But mid-way, he had a change of heart and decided to give up drugs completely. At the end of the week, he joined Our Lady’s School of Evangelization, a cathecetics community based in Knock.
`He recently gave his testimony at a retreat back in his home town, his family came to hear him and it was deeply moving. I met him last week and you wouldn’t recognize him as the same person of a year ago.
`There are other stories like that. On World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany, in a field with a million young people, I bumped into a group from Belfast. One off them told me he had been at the bottom of the barrel, with a definite plan to take his own life when he realized the love of God, and he wanted to thank God for Youth 2000.
‘Any authentic Catholic can find a place with us, spiritually. I could compare it to the vast ticket hall in a railway station like Milano Centrale. People come from the streets with no distinction between them, they pass through, they find their platform. Some get jobs like porters or in kiosks, while others do not but are still involved.’
He uses the railway job analogy to explain the effect Youth 2000 has had on life and careers, `There has been a very notable stream of people who have left different professions to train as teachers. In Youth 2000, people realize that God loves them, they have a deep personal meeting with Him, which bursts forth in their wanting to give to others, often through the vocation of teaching.
Power to change
`We also have had a lot of wonderful marriages, and people going on for the priesthood and religious life. A number of seminarians have said their involvement with Youth 2000 influenced their time in religious formation, a number say they would not have stayed without us.’ Seán joined Youth 2000 in 1993, and six years ago deepened his involvement. A chartered engineer with a private practice, he now gives three days a week to the organization and feels the richer for it.
Given that so many young adults today agree with the option of contraception, condone sex before marriage, favour divorce and have an accepting attitude to gay culture, I wondered how the Youth 2000 community responds to these mores.
‘We would welcome people of all beliefs. We can’t change people’s minds. They say a mind forced to change, is of the same mind. All we can do is to help to draw people to the love of God and see the teachings of the Church live in people’s lives. It’s about attraction to the beauty of the Church in a coherent, deeply human approach. We find when people sincerely come to know and love God, change – if needed -happens naturally,’ says Seán.
‘I see Youth 2000 as a sign of hope in Ireland. We are reaching out and out, champing at the bit to do more and more. That’s our desire, and it’s happening.’
More information on Youth 2000 from www.youth2000.ie
This article first appeared in The Messenger (June 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.