Belvedere College SJ is facing into an Advent and Christmas “like no other”, according to college chaplain Eoghan Keogh. He says that all of the outreach work that the students engage in, along with their annual retreats and pilgrimages have all changed.
But, as he outlines below, Belvedere pupils and staff in the school are still keeping up their social justice work along with their spiritual and pastoral programmes, albeit in a new way. “Something remains unchanged, untouched,” Eoghan believes. “The desire to give from our students. The desire to live. The desire to be creative and continue to reach out to so many charities and vulnerable people we partner with. This is as strong as ever.” Read Eoghan’s full article below to find out what the students of Belvedere College will be doing this Advent.
‘Preparing the Way’ during Covid-19
As we enter the season of Advent 2020 we are experiencing a change like no other in our lifetime. Covid-19 has changed everything. Life, as we knew it in Belvedere College SJ in Dublin, is very different for both staff and students alike. All our outreach work, retreats, and pilgrimages have been changed. Everything that we plan in our Pastoral department must be scrutinized against the current restrictions, which in Ireland continues to change depending on the level of lockdown.
Plans for programmes are made, then sometimes abandoned, and we start again trying to continue to do our ministry as best we can. Externally everything is different in school, black and yellow tape marks the external boundaries that separate us from students and each other, masks shield us from each other depending on how you view it. We each live in our little separate space each day.
Yet as we try to sustain our social justice activities, retreats,and other pastoral programs something remains unchanged, untouched. The desire to give from our students. The desire to live. The desire to be creative and continue to reach out to so many charities and vulnerable people we partner with. This is as strong as ever.
Our annual toy appeal is a program where we partner with Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Ireland at Christmas to share gifts with children living in direct provision in Ireland. Our students in first-year take on the task of fundraising and getting a gift for each child that JRS work with. This program has changed from our students working in their community raising funds and collectively visiting a toy shop to buy the gifts, to an online event. The externals of the program have changed, but the desire from our students to share has been sustained.
Our fourth-year students who normally make an annual sponsored cycling pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago have taken to setting up exercise bikes up in our school yard and are creatively completing the sponsored cycle in a virtual fashion within the restrictions Covid places on us. This programme supports the work of Belvedere Youth Club who provide vulnerable children living in the inner city with access to homework clubs, mentoring, and various other services in support of our local community. The externals have changed but the desire has not and commitment to our partners has remained strong. The fundraising continues.
Our annual ‘Standup Week’, which is a national event in Ireland to challenge homophobic bullying, continued. Usually,a host of live talks would take place, but these were replaced by prerecorded talks to break open the topic of how to support LGBTQ+ youth in our school. We were blessed to have Fr James Martin SJ speak to our students this year via video. He built on a similar talk he shared with us last year where he spoke to our students about his book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. The externals have changed but the internal desire for community for all, the goodness and courage of our student leaders, and the development of faith remains strong.
For over thirty-five years students from Belvedere College have slept on the streets every Christmas for three days to advocate for homeless charities and collect much needed funds. Sadly, we cannot take our place in Dublin city center this year, which has become so synonymous with Christmas in Dublin, but students will still Sleep Out in our schoolyard and in their back gardens, all socially distanced of course. They have begun a huge online campaign with the hope of sustaining their fundraising targets. In the past this project has raised in excess of €200,000. The externals have changed but the desire to bring the motto of being a man for others is still strong among our senior boys and they remain fully committed to the three homeless charities we are partner with.
Yet within all this there is an impact. Our students are somewhat separated; the joy that normally comes from these programs, their struggles and sense of community from doing something worthwhile together is in a sense diminished. But that is what our Christian faith is about – embracing challenge. The Advent texts are full of challenge. Mary’s struggles and uncertainty of saying yes. Joseph’s inner struggles to trust what he did not fully understand. John the Baptist paid the ultimate price for his faith his life. Our understanding of preparing the way for Christ has never meant so much to us. Uncertainty with a deep sense of powerlessness put us right alongside those we read about in the Advent texts. While the feeling of been disconnected due to physical distancing from others might feel very real, our sense of God and our need for his inspiration have never been so clear. His consolation remains with us as we journey through Advent.
We have a tradition in our school on Christmas Eve. The SleepOut comes to an end that afternoon. We celebrate Christmas Eve mass and ‘the count’ of how much money the Sleep Out has raised is usually announced during mass. The boys, having spent three days / two-nights sleeping on the streets collecting funds almost twenty-four hours a day conclude the SleepOut by lighting the white candle on our Advent wreath. The baby Jesus is placed in the crib with a packed church full of past and present students. We feel the consolation that we have done our best to prepare the way for Christ as we sing silent night and celebrate mass.
We will not gather in our college chapel this year, but we will still have our mass. We will gather as a community from the comfort of our own homes linked by an online mass. The externals have changed for sure, but our faith and desire for faith and community has not been diminished. We will still sing silent night surrounded by our family and count our blessings this Christmas Eve, God willing.
Belvedere College SJ, Dublin, Ireland.