Thursday afternoon, standing in front of a class of Year 10s, I was struck again by “the look”. This appears regularly on the faces of Catholic pupils (however bright and engaged they might generally be) whenever an apparently sane adult mentions that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist. It is a look of utter, faintly pitying incredulity. That the Creator of time and space could be in the room, not metaphorically but literally, physically and in edible form, is for many pupils a claim too wild for the real world.
Around the same time, I was hearing about young people elsewhere who were risking their lives simply to attend Mass. People like Martin Banni, a seminarian in Iraq, who in 2014 rescued the Blessed Sacrament from his local church just as ISIS were coming to desecrate it. Now ordained, Fr Martin has returned the Sacrament to the church. Or Ayman Labib, an Egyptian Christian who was choked by his teacher for not covering the cross tattooed on his wrist and beaten to death by fellow students. As Benedict XVI observed, there are more Christian martyrs today than there were in the early Church.
When you teach pupils about slavery, the Nazis or Rwanda, they always ask: why didn’t people do more about it at the time? With 80 per cent of all religious discrimination today directed against Christians, and two million Christians at risk of persecution, the young need to be armed with the tools to take a stand against such injustice.
Benedict spoke of a “dictatorship of relativism” in the West, and I have seen its power over a whole generation of pupils whose only guide is how tolerant they are. We have to be the voice of the people who are suffering and dying for their faith, and who better to lead than the young?
My contrasting concerns about local apathy and global struggle collided unexpectedly one day via a leaflet from Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). It was about their Red Wednesday campaign, when buildings such as Westminster Cathedral are lit up red and schoolchildren and others wear red in solidarity with persecuted Christians around the world. One particular line jumped off the page at me: “Go to Mass for someone who can’t.” I decided to get behind this campaign and, following more than 20 years in Catholic education, was ready for the challenge of encouraging every Catholic in Britain to go to Mass for someone who can’t. I now work for ACN as their schools and youth officer.
The ACN campaign is inspired because it addresses both our yawning Western attitude (“Do I have to go to church?”) and the atrocities being inflicted on believers in places where Christianity is treated as an inexcusable offence. If we could present the reality of Jesus’s presence in the Eucharist anew, focusing on our giving rather than just receiving, our young people might perform the selfless act of attending a Mass that they wouldn’t normally go to, with the special intention of praying for someone or some area in the world where people are not free to practise their faith.
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