By Fr Tim Byron SJ
University is a very exciting time, young adults leaving the nest and emerging into the wider world. It is also a very stressful experience and it may feel overwhelming at times as you are introduced to new fields of knowledge, develop new friendships, discover new hobbies. In this context a bit of focused adoration in front of Christ can be the perfect antidote to this information overload. It’s also very healthy for students because it directs the focus away from themselves – in what has been described as the ‘me-me-me’ generation, this is an important reorientation. I used to describe Eucharistic adoration to interested students sometimes as a ‘Mindfulness +’ exercise.
We are social animals, and at this transition point from childhood to early adulthood love is such an important thing. This seems to be a moment in history where it is a very confusing time to learn about love for many young Catholics. It’s an age of promiscuity (Tinder), pornography, but also strangely of a new puritanism (On-line shaming), and identity confusion (LGBTQ) – this confusing world is particularly potent at university. Love is such a powerful thing for all of us, and at this stage of life loving and being loved takes on paramount importance – with strengths of feelings that we are not used to – both intoxicating and scary. But love as well as being creative, can in fragile and hurting hands quickly change into something else and be so destructive, and at university can become a toxic environment, where pure love is forgotten or even lampooned. Two of the greatest things in the Catholic treasure trove – to remind us of pure love – are Adoration and the Sacred Heart. There is a real thirst and hunger to encounter it. Very simple for a Chaplain to set up – the secret of a regular adoration is to be committed, regular and reliable, so even if young hearts can’t come regularly they know it is there when they need it.
If you are lucky enough as Chaplain and you have a permanent sacred space available to you in the hustle and bustle of campus life, then you can create ‘a holy backwater’ where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for a set time every day, or every week you will be amazed at what ends up drifting into this backwater. It is a healing space, and also a space for confession. During my time as Catholic Chaplain at the University of Manchester we would expose the Sacrament for a period of time before Mass, so the chapel or church was a praying space rather than a talking place. It was a digital free-zone, and a priest would also be available for sacramental confession if possible. With many graces and pastoral fruits.
There are certain treasurers in the Church’s devotional life which survive the ebb and flow of liturgical and spiritual trends. Often they are devotions that come from the ‘margins’…. Often they are accepted by the ‘sensus fidei’…. and flourish in spite of a lack of appreciation from various pastors. Occasionally, a well-meaning priest or bishop will try to vigorously stamp them out, but like a resilient plant, they can weather storms and changes in climate. I used to be fascinated by the marram grass clinging to the sand dunes in my native Formby, they would slow down the incredible erosion of the shifting dune system. Some of these devotions are like the marram grass of faith, their resilience is often a sign that the Holy Spirit is at work. Perhaps Eucharistic Adoration can fall into this category. I was alarmed as a young enthusiastic Catholic, to be told by a spiritual ‘guru’ that my desire to have adoration was absurd and misplaced – you can’t worship a ‘thing’ – I was told.
The symbolism of the throne, the monstrance, the use of incense are all appreciated by young people who are used to a very visual culture. To bathe in his light, is a relief to a generation who are often subject to the harsh light of digital media, judging and being judged. To gaze on and even more importantly to allow him to gaze at us, meets a deep intimate need in the human soul.
Part of a Bigger Ecosystem
However in a hostile secular climate – university chaplaincies can become havens for the broken and lonely students. Cliques quickly form – and if a rich devotional life is not balance with opportunities for service and putting your faith into action, then a Catholic ghetto emerges. Normal students stay away, and the needy ones ‘rule the roost’ and those who have been bullied become bullies. A good chaplain will keep an eye on this community and make sure that there is a balanced ecosystem. The Jesuits have a phrase ‘contemplatives in action,’ Adoration is a beautiful focus for contemplation but wasted if that renewed energy is not put into action into a confident and engaged community.
Fr Tim Byron SJ, was a Chaplain at Manchester University until the summer of 2017. He is now on the parish team at St Ignatius in Stamford Hill, London. He has a blog: sjsa.wordpress.com
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Picture: Oxford University Catholic Chaplaincy – Chapel of St Thomas More.