Imagine a great crowd of young people filling a magnificent college chapel, singing with enthusiasm and praying together. Imagine a long line of them quietly waiting to go to confession. Imagine a great procession following the Blessed Sacrament, with young people carrying glowing candles and singing, the sound rising to the night sky. Imagine a glorious Mass with Bishops concelebrating with a Papal Nuncio and a large congregation with many young nuns and brothers.
That is InVocation, a gathering at St Mary’s College, Oscott, on the outskirts of Birmingham in the English Midlands.
The idea behind InVocation is to bring together young people with priests, seminarians, and members of different religious orders, to offer an opportunity to discuss and reflect on the whole idea of vocation and of finding out God’s plan for each person.
The young people arrive from different parts of Britain – your correspondent travelled with a busload starting at London’s Westminster Cathedral – and they set up camp for the weekend. Some bring their own tents, others sleep in marquees provided. There is a big main tent for talks and lectures, and a group of large tepees where hot meals are served and where people gather to relax and chat. All of this takes place on the lawns of Oscott College, where the beautiful chapel is the centre and heart of events for the whole weekend.
There were inspiring – and challenging – talks on themes connected with vocation, service, holiness, and responding to God’s call. There were workshops where topics could be discussed and ideas analysed and challenged. Through the day, everyone gathered to pray the Office together. The Bishop of Shrewsbury celebrated a beautiful Mass on the Saturday, and on Sunday the Apostolic Nuncio arrived and concelebrated Mass with the Archbishop of Birmingham and a number of other Bishops and priests, in a swirl of incense and wearing the vestments originally worn by Archbishop Bernard Ullathorne over a century and a half ago. On the Saturday evening, a Holy Hour preceded a magnificent Night-time Procession of the Blessed Sacrament around the extensive college grounds, the glow of hundreds of candles challenging the dark woods and paths, and hundreds of young voices joining in hymns and litanies with vigour.
It was at Oscott last year that Pope Benedict XVI met the young men who are training to be priests in Britain’s various seminaries, and they joined him for what turned out to be an iconic photograph – a great crowd of them, all in black cassocks, lined up row upon row all around and on either side of the Pope, a single white-clad figure, in front of the college’s impressive buildings.
At InVocation, young people get the chance to meet seminarians, and also the young sisters and brothers of some of Britain’s religious communities. There were, among many others, Benedictines from Ealing Abbey and from Worth, Dominicans from Blackfriars in Oxford, and the Friars of the Renewal from the Community established in London a few years ago. There were young sisters of the Renewal, too – they have opened a house in Leeds in Yorkshire – and from the new Community of Our Lady of Walsingham, also Poor Clares, and Missionaries of Charity in their distinctive blue and white habits.
InVocation is a summer event, and is meant to happen in warm sunshine – but this year it happened to be a bitterly cold weekend, with outbreaks of rain. No one seemed to mind. People put on extra layers and drank quantities of hot tea and shrugged about how the British just get on with things. The mood was joyful , talkative, upbeat and friendly – and in the chapel it was reverent, united, and rather moving.
No one doubts that the Church in Britain faces a tough future in many ways. Here at InVocation, speakers tackled the reality of what it means to live the Christian life in a Western country in the 21st century. There was honesty and lots of humour. We looked at issues like people being comfortable to be regarded as “spiritual” but shying away from the claims of Christ, of talk of “discernment” but a reluctance to make commitments, of the challenge of recognising that it is worth responding to great challenges and also recognising that these need to be lived one day at a time and with trust in God.
Those who built Oscott College in the 19th century, in a very different Britain in a very different world, would perhaps be rather amazed at the sight of lots of young people, in a variety of waterproof clothing, busy with tents and backpacks on the wide green lawns. But, viewing them as they gathered for Mass or for Benediction, hearing their voices raised in prayer, and seeing them kneeling in the chapel beneath the stained glass and statues that have looked down on generations of students, they would have felt a strong sense of unity, I think – and of hope and trust.