“Blessed to be a witness” fantastic gathering of over 100 young Catholics in full time volunteer youth ministry


“It is a hidden treasure of our church that across the country over 100 young people aged 18-25 have given a year or more of their lives to work as full time volunteers in retreat centres, mission teams and youth outreach teams. There is an amazing generosity to this giving, and it means that tens of thousands of young people every year meet committed young leaders, close to them in age, who can speak their language when explaining the Catholic faith.”

These are the words of Fr Dominic Howarth, the Director of Brentwood Catholic Youth Service. He worked closely with John Toryusen and Jane Porter from Southwark Catholic Youth Service and together they organised the 2008 annual conference for the volunteers, held from 2nd – 4th January. The theme chosen was “Blessed to be a witness”, with echoes of the theme for World Youth Day in Sydney, 2008. In the organisation a third Diocese was involved, as the conference took place at the SPEC Centre and the Loft, the residential retreat houses for Westminster Diocese, located at the All Saints Pastoral Centre, London Colney. Twelve different teams were represented: In Reality (Hallam Diocese) Just Youth (Salford Diocese), Savio House (Salesians, Bollington), Castelrigg Manor (Lancaster Diocese), Soli House and Alton Castle (Birmingham Diocese), St Cassian’s Kintbury (de la Salle Brothers, Reading), Walsingham House (Brentwood Diocese), St Vincent’s (Southwark Diocese), SPEC, The Loft and SPEC East (all Westminster Diocese).

The Conference keynote speaker was Mgr John Armitage, Vicar General in Brentwood Diocese, who praised the volunteers for their generosity, and for all that they did for young people. He said that the young people did not remember retreats because of the buildings or the food, but because of the people who led them, the volunteers. Their witness was wonderful and vital in encouraging other young people to be able to see that it was possible to be a young, normal, happy and fulfilled Catholic, enriched by a lived relationship with Jesus Christ. Mgr Armitage challenged the volunteers to be ever more deeply witnesses in their lives and faith, and to allow all that they were experiencing during their volunteer year to sustain and shape them in their adult life.

For the young volunteers who came, the conference was a chance to share ideas and experiences, and to be strengthened by each others’ prayers. One young volunteer said, “I feel like I am connected to something bigger: it is great to know that all over the country there are people like me.” Another commented, “We are not in competition with each other – we are each looking after young people in different areas. It is a great opportunity to hear what happens in other places.”

The conference included a variety of workshops: input by Cafod, sessions about working in Catholic Education, new ideas for creative prayer with young people, teaching signed songs to young people, introducing new ways of praying with art, and a deeper look at the Sacrament of Confirmation. One of the most powerful moments of the three days was a time of Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament where the young people sat quietly in prayer. Towards the end of the time of quiet each retreat house and team stood up, one by one, and was prayed for by the other teams. United in front of Christ in the Eucharist there was a tangible and moving sense of solidarity and a shared journey. The conference had moments that were very lively and full of fun, too – especially an energetic band, “Sounds of Salvation” that played a wonderful range of songs through a vibrant social time on the middle evening. All in all the conference was an excellent, enriching and inspiring experience, and a great affirmation for the young volunteers.

To be involved in this work, contact your local Catholic Youth Service, or search under the names of the teams and houses mentioned in this article.

Two useful websites are and

Fr Dominic Howarth
Chaplain and Director, Brentwood Catholic Youth Service
7th January 2008

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