Young people, open to the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, gathered in great numbers on a July weekend in Britain. This was the third year of InVocation, a great Festival of Vocations held at St Mary’s College, Oscott, at Birmingham in the English Midland, and numbers, always large, have grown year on year. The ingredients of the weekend include a tented village spread on the lawns of a seminary, a candlelit Blessed Sacrament procession winding its way through woodland paths, and a packed church for a great concelebrated Mass with the Papal Nuncio.

The venue itself is significant. This is the place where Bl. John Henry Newman preached his famous sermon on the “Second Spring”, following the restoration of the Hierarchy in Britain in the middle of the 19th century. For some 300 years there had been no Catholic bishops in Britain – following the break with Rome under Henry VIII and the subsequent years of persecution, this was mission territory under the care of Vicars Apostolic. The Catholic revival of the 19th century saw much building – physically and spiritually – and the beautiful Pugin chapl at Oscott was one result. Here, John Henry Newman spoke of a “Second Spring” of the Catholic Faith in Britain, and here, over the past three years, the annual InVocation Festival has brought together crowds of young people along with great numbers of young friars, nuns, monks and priests for a revival of religious life in these opening years of the 21st century.

The concept is simple – a daily programme centred on the Divine Office, and Mass, a big tent, in which talks are given and where meals are also served, a series of other interconnecting tepees with comfortable chairs for chats, constant prayer in the chapel – including all-night Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament – and a welcome to all the many young people who book in from across Britain.

Canon Luiz Ruscillo from the diocese of Lancaster gave a superb opening talk, on the theme of Christ’s call to Peter and the others from the shore. Exploring, in depth, the relevant passage from the Gospel of St John, he drew out the significance of Christ’s great love – for Peter, who had denied him, for Thomas, who doubted him, for Nathaniel who had asked if anything good could come out of Nazareth. Christ’s “Follow me” is centred on this love: he teaches us that we are deeply loved, and deeply lovable.

Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham was present during the weekend, meeting and talking to many of the young people who thronged the Festival from across Britain. During the weekend, Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury visited bringing the relic of St John Vianney, which was venerated in the chapel, and spoke about this much-loved Cure of Ars and his message. Along with other priests and bishops, Bishop Mark heard confessions during Saturday afternoon. In the evening a great procession of the Blessed Sacrament took place through the extensive grounds of Oscott, with all the young people carrying glowing candles and singing litanies and hymns. Sunday morning saw a chapel packed to overflowing for the final Mass, at which a greeting was read out from the Holy Father. The preacher was the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Menini.

The focus throughout the weekend were the members of different religious Orders – Franciscans, Carmelites, Dominicans, Jesuits, Benedictines, Presentation Brothers, Poor Clares and others, who led talks and workshops but also simply met and talked to anyone and everyone. There were also numbers of diocesan clergy and Vocations Directors. A young Sister of the Franciscans of the Renewal, Sister Kirstin Holum, a former Olympic speed-skater gave a powerful testimony. Dominicans from Oxford, Benedictines from Worth, and Poor Clares from Sussex were among those leading discussions. During the free time in the Saturday afternoon, a great crowd joined in a Rosary Walk with Marian hymns.

Numbers of young people joining religious orders in Britain have risen in recent years, along with the numbers of young men entering the seminary for training for the priesthood. InVocation, with its emphasis on personal witness and shared prayer has proved an effective way of enabling young people to meet members of religious orders and to discern the reality of what a vocation means and what religious life really involves. The Festival has something of the flavour of a retreat, something of World Youth Day, something of a pilgrimage, and something of a great gathering of friends. One young man, who is joining a religious order, spoke of how the event had helped him to focus and make his decision. “I came two years running, and it was a great help in my discernment” he said. Sister Hyacinthe Defos de Pau, a Dominican sister, spoke of the enthusiasm she had encountered in leading a discussion about the Dominican life It’s wonderful – but of course it’s wonderful” she said “We know that it is – and that’s why we want to share it!”