Eastertide or Paschal Time is the period of celebration which spans the fifty days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost. The Church has traditionally treated this period as one single joyful feast – and in recent years a group of English Catholics have reclaimed the sense of celebration and joy which the season represents.
It’s nearly twenty years since the Stonyhurst educated Charles Whitehead and Ampleforth’s Fr. Ian Petit OSB, with a small core group, conceived the idea of holding an annual Catholic family conference to be held over the week following Easter Sunday. Around 1500 people – about half under the age of 22 – descend on the North Devon seaside town of Ilfracombe and this year was no exception.
The Conference was opened by the Bishop of Plymouth, Christopher Budd, and later in the week, Bishop Malcolm McMahon, the Bishop of Nottingham, celebrated the conference Mass. Another celebrant was Fr.Simon Penhalagan – whose journey to the priesthood was partly inspired by Celebrate and his membership of the Sion community.
The key to Celebrate’s success has been its ability to strike the right balance between creating a setting which allows for informality and friendship with opportunities to be challenged and inspired by good teaching.
The seven “streams” for young people and young adults are run by gifted and talented leaders – many of whom are themselves the fruits of coming to Celebrate since their own childhood and who have caught the vision. I was very struck by one young woman’s remarks to the conference about the Release programme and Facebook friendship group which she and others have started. Emily Baker’s mother, Jenny, is one of the principal conference leaders and, underlining the inter-generational appeal of Celebrate, Emily’s grandparents were present too.
The seminars, workshops, liturgies, prayer time and evening celebrations at The Fringe – along with a well run crèche – enable participants to make the most of their time together. Ecumenical visitors from other denomination have also been struck by the openness and friendship which Celebrate promotes – so much so that David Matthews, a bluff and good humoured Northern Irishman, who has served as a Protestant Pastor for many decades, was received into the Church last Easter, attributing his decision to his experiences at Celebrate. He says “I cannot remember even one attempt to get me to become Roman Catholic. I can say that I was many times almost embarrassed and often humbled with the warmth of love and appreciation I received.”
As Celebrate has matured it has innovated.
It now has its own magazine and well run radio station transmitting throughout Ilfracombe for the duration of the Conference. Among the many people interviewed were a group of current Catholic Society Presidents from several universities. It’s also a chance to showcase and hear about some of the Catholic communities and organizations such as the Catholic Bible School, Cor Lumen Christi and the House of the Open Door.
The Conference has its own market place and well stocked book shop. Most of the Conference talks are professionally recorded and are available on CD from Agape Ministries (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Along with a number of drama and mime presentations (some by RISE which originated at the conference), it staged an excellent and challenging production of “Nine Months” by the Ten Ten theatre group and a special service and Mass was held in the lovely parish church of Our Lady Star of the Sea for children who have been still born, miscarried or aborted.
Celebrate has also spawned a number of regional weekends, which Jenny Baker is co-ordinating – seven taking place between now and November at Cardiff, Brighton, Macclesfield, Southampton, Torquay, Bristol and St. Albans (details of these and next year’s Ilfracombe Conference are available at http://www.celebrateconference.org).
The theme of this year’s Celebrate was “The Highway of Holiness”. It brought to mind Paul McCartney’s Long and Winding Road – “a road that will never disappear” – a song which he says was inspired by the peace and calm of the beautiful Scottish setting of Kintyre and the B842 which runs on to Campbell Town.
Like McCartney we all need moments of peace, calm and inspiration in facing the challenges of a highway on which we are bound to encounter heavy traffic, road hogs, pot holes, traffic jams, the occasional heavy fog and any number of other unanticipated hazards.
The Highway of Holiness also brings to mind Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, written in 1678, and which tells the story of Christian’s journey from the City of Destruction (this world) to the Celestial City (the city which is to come: heaven). As his journey progresses he encounters a cast of characters from Evangelist to Obstinate from Pliable to Mr. Legality, from Wiseman to Civility. Help pulls him out of the Slough of Despond and he travels on to the Place of Destruction, the Hill of Difficulty, the House Beautiful, the Valley of Humiliation and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. At one stage – and how very much like us – Christian leaves the King’s Highway to take the easier by-path meadow, only to be ensnared by Giant Despair and is taken prisoner in Doubting Castle. Back on track he encounters Atheist, who mocks Christian because he says that God and the Celestial City are figments of his imagination.
As we embark on our own pilgrim’s progress, and our own long and winding roads, from time to time the going will get tough. We will inevitably meet our own adversaries and our own giants.
Only a fool risks the hazards of the road without provisions and a good guide. This is a journey which needs maps. Events like Celebrate cannot eradicate the risk associated with the journey but it does provide some good sign posts and companions to travel with you.