Flame? The event is, of course, inspired by St. Paul’s writing to “let our faith fan into a flame”, and the message of St. Catherine of Sienna to “be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire”, and on March 11 the Salesians of Don Bosco took a group of 560 people from their schools, parishes, and youth centres, including 30 students from schools across central Scotland connected with URSpace; the retreat community run by the Salesian Sisters from their base in Glasgow.
My connection with URSpace goes back to Sr Gill – who I first met at a Salesian retreat centre 10 years ago, and it was Sr Gill and Sr Bernie who gave me a place to stay for my first two weeks north of the border working with Justice and Peace Scotland. So of course, I was going to join students from St Maurice’s (Cumbernauld), St Ninian’s (Eastwood), John Paul Academy (Glasgow), St Andrews and St. Bride’s (East Kilbride), and Cardinal Newman (Bellshill) travelling down to London on the Friday.
For some of the Scottish young people it was their first time in London, and after navigating the Underground we made camp at The Bosco Centre, a vocational college in Bermondsey, before setting out to see the Thames at night, walking down to Tower Bridge.
The following morning we were up early and on the tube to Wembley. Being the only Scottish group attending we broke out the face-paint, and arrived well decorated in both Saltires and the Salesian family logo. The event started with Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster reading a message from Pope Francis. Music-led by worship leader Matt Redman (back after appearing at Flame 2 in 2015) helped to focus on the theme. His song “10,000 reasons”, reflecting the 10,000 of us gathered there, all of us a blessing to the church, each other, and, in the words of Don Bosco, “loved, and lovable” to God.
Cardinal Charles Bo of Burma addressed us, speaking about the church in his country under persecution for so many years, now finding its place in an emerging democracy, and leaving us with the message that all of us “are made for greater things. Let hope put fire into your hearts and make you a great human being”.
The lunchtime activities were the original reason for my attendance, and along with colleagues from Bosco Volunteer Action, the Columbans, and Assumptionist volunteers we delivered “Imagine” – challenging young people, their leaders, and a few bishops to imagine they were threatened, and having to flee to safety, what would they pack, how would they feel, and how do they imagine they would be received in a strange country? This led into the afternoon, where an unapologetic focus was placed on refugees and asylum seekers. Present in the arena was T06411, a boat that had crossed from Libya to Lampedusa. Volunteers from CAFOD spoke about their experiences of visiting partner organisations in Lebanon, and staff from Jesuit Refugee Service shared the experience of their work here in the UK.
The afternoon ended in prayer, with the whole of Wembley arena silent in Adoration, before singing and dancing our way out of the arena. A late night trip to Piccadilly Circus, and an early start for Mass at Westminster Cathedral left all of us tired, as we sat, slept, or (in my case) wrote this blog, on the train back to Glasgow.
The speakers, videos, and drama at Flame are a real inspiration. But even more powerful was to travel with our young people visiting London, and taking part in Flame for the first time. While walking on the Friday, several were speaking to me about how they lived their faith in little acts of service; volunteering in soup kitchens, and as peer mentors in their schools. I have never accepted the despairing remarks that “young people don’t get involved in the church”, and the stories they shared were always described as “it’s just something I know I should do” – no fanfare, no praise sought - makes me feel as sure of our young people, as standing amongst 10,000 in worship on the Saturday did. I know that I would have been at Flame this year either way – but the experience is multiplied thousands of times by sharing the journey with such amazing young people.
Danny Sweeney is Justice and Peace Scotland’s Social Justice Co-ordinator, a Salesian lay-volunteer, and (at the time of writing) hasn’t slept in 2 days!
For more information about the work of URSpace in schools across Scotland, see their Facebook page (search for URSpace).
For photos and videos from Flame see our Twitter feed (@JandPScot), and also Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for @FlameCongress, and #Flame2017.