The “Celebrate” conference at Ilfracombe


by David Alton

Universe Column May 4th 2003

Celebrate – the annual Catholic family Conference held during Easter week at Ilfracombe – had something extra to celebrate this year: this was Celebrate’s tenth birthday.

This predominantly lay-led initiative is a remarkable success story. Its agenda of talks, seminars, workshops, young people’s streams, worship and prayer, is clearly meeting an unfilled need within the Church. This year’s theme was “equipping the church” and participants were invited to look beyond their own spiritual renewal to how they could use their gifts within the life of the Church.

The 1400 people who gathered at Celebrate (half of them young people), were joined this year by Cardinal Cormac. The first Mass of the week was led by the diocesan bishop, Christopher Budd, who has always been a great source of encouragement to Celebrate.

Plymouth diocese also provided the first main speaker of the week, David Wells. With great panache and humour he took as his theme St. Pauls letter to the Romans and the words “Gifted for Service.” He was followed by Damian Stayne, the founder of the Cor Lumen Christi Community, who spoke about “The Charismatic Gifts”, outlined in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians; by the Cardinal, on “Building Up The Church” and by Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio on “So The Body Grows…”

In the evenings Charles Whitehead, Michelle Moran, David Payne and Father Tom Forest, developed further the theme of “equipping the church.”

The basic message was that each of us has been given unique gifts by God and that we should use these gifts. Despite all they had seen, even after the Resurrection, the first disciples did not have the courage to use their gifts or knowledge. From Pentecost that all changed – and in every generation we need to pray for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The gifts already within us may then be given energy and focus.

We also have to use our gifts in whatever situation we find ourselves- and persist in adversity. Illustrating this point, the Cardinal told the story of Angelo Roncalli – Pope John XXIII.

The young Angelo felt called to the priesthood. On arriving at seminary he did not much care for the badly prepared, cold, and unappetising food: “O God why have you put me here? But if this is what You want, I will persist.” When he was later sent to work in the Vatican, and was weighed down with bureaucracy, and then sent to Eastern Europe as a diplomat, he asked the same question.

Finally, in 1953, he was appointed Patriarch of Venice – a job he loved and thanked God for.

Then, at the age of 77, when he was happily settled in his “last job” Pope Pius XII died. As Roncalli entered the Roman conclave to elect Pius’ successor, he thought to himself “O God, You wouldn’t! Would You?” God wanted it, and Angelo Roncalli knew he had to use his gifts accordingly.

In encouraging us to each use our own gifts, wherever we are and whatever we do, Celebrate is enriching the life of the Church -with new priestly vocations and deeper Christian lives. In pioneering Celebrate a decade ago Charles and Sue Whitehead had the right vision – one that should be emulated and amplified.

Tapes and CDs of the Conference talks can be obtained from Agape – 0151 924 4439; tapes@emmaus.uk.com