The Jesuits in Ireland were among the exhibitors at this year’s National Ploughing Championships which were held in Rathneiska, Co. Laois from 22-24 September. It was my first time attending this vibrant rural event which has become Europe’s largest outdoor exhibition and agricultural trade show, and it was a hugely uplifting experience. I attended the ploughing championships as part of my work with Jesuit Communications, to promote the prayer website Sacred Space; Venerable John Sullivan, the Jesuit priest is on the path for sainthood; and the free 8-step Guide to Making Good Decisions that is offered by the Jesuits in leaflet form and also online.
The Jesuits were among a number of religious groups who took a stand at the ploughing championships. A key attraction of the Jesuit marquee was the Venerable John Sullivan Cross. A number of Jesuit priests were on hand over the course of the three days to offer a blessing with this cross and many people who visited the marquee sought a blessing. It is this crucifix, which originally belonged to his mother, that Fr. John Sullivan used to bless the sick he encountered during his lifetime. Many people believe that it still carries something of the power and blessing it had in Fr. John’s heart, and they pray for special intentions through his intercession.
The vast exhibition area at the event offered a significant pastoral opportunity, a possibility to engage in the practical work of the New Evangelisation, to meet with people in the midst of their ordinary lives, the young and old; families; secondary school students; those from different socio-economic groups and backgrounds. It was a chance to be with people, to listen and to be present, and to bring the love of Jesus to them.
I had many joyful and fruitful encounters with visitors to the Jesuits marquee, especially with the young teenagers, many of whom attended as part of the Transition Year programme with their school. Quite often I was surrounded by groups of them, and I enjoyed having relaxed easy-going conversations in their company. I asked them general questions, such as where they were from, their reasons for coming to the event, and their experience of the day; and after this ‘icebreaker’ introduction I often had the opportunity to explain to many of them the different types of work the Jesuits are engaged in.
A few groups of young people came in for a blessing with the Venerable John Sullivan cross. It was really powerful to see their openness as they willingly shared their prayer intentions and encountered the presence of God. In some conversations I was able to share part of my personal faith journey, for example how I have experienced God’s presence during difficult times in my life. My experience is that young people are searching and that faith is relevant to them. There is certainly an openness among many to explore the deeper questions of life. I feel that if you scratch the surface and bring the joy of faith to them – the fact that they are valued and loved unconditionally by their Creator, it can plant seeds and then God’s grace begins to work in them.
In Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation ‘Evangelii Gaudium/The Joy of the Gospel’ (Ch. 3, 119-120) he speaks about the importance of “bringing the Gospel to the people we meet, whether they be our neighbours or complete strangers”. According to the Pope we are all challenged to be missionary by virtue of our baptism in which we are given the power of the Holy Spirit “impelling us to evangelisation”. It is a task for the whole Church to evangelise – it is not merely a responsibility of priests and religious. The laity too must participate in announcing the joy of the Gospel by reaching out and inviting people into a personal encounter with Jesus, to be in friendship with him. This is the essence of the new evangelisation – to share the ‘Good News’, and it can happen unexpectedly and in any place, in any situation.