A new gap year program gives young people the opportunity to spend one year living in Ireland in an intentional Catholic community with daily Mass, eucharistic adoration, and faith formation.
Located in the rolling green hills of County Waterford, the Holy Family Mission program is seen by many local Catholics as a ray of hope for the Church in Ireland.
“This idea of having a place where you can get to know yourself better, get to know the Lord better, and then really face life as a more confident, well-rounded, mature, faithful person is a great gift,” Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan of Waterford told CNA.
“I wonder how many young people wander into college without really knowing what they want, and then get distracted with all kinds of things,” he said.
The nine-month “gap year” is for people aged 18-30 who desire greater formation in their Catholic faith. Approximately 30 young people live on the grounds of the 200-year-old Glencomeragh estate, where they also help to organize retreats to share the faith with others.
‘A gap year for God’
Teresa Jansen came to Holy Family Mission from Chicago directly after high school because she felt the need for more training in her faith and wanted to “dive deeper” in her relationship with God.
“There are just so many opportunities to be able to pray and to really encounter the Lord,” Jansen said.
“My highlight has been adoration every day. Having adoration and Mass every single day has been key, I think, just because that’s where the transformation has really happened. … And then along with that, deep, authentic friendships have come out of this year,” she said.
“God is forming me for mission just because he’s doing a lot in my heart that I wasn’t expecting.”
Michael Tierney, a 27-year-old Ph.D. student from County Offaly, Ireland, calls Holy Family Mission “a gap year for God.”
“Some people go on retreats or they go for weekends and they have like this spiritual or ‘Jesus high’ for a couple of days, but then they go back to their normal lives and they fall back into old habits,” Tierney said.
“Holy Family Mission is really needed now to produce a generation of young people to lead the renewal of the Church and who are really grounded in what the Church believes.”
In a country where at least 10 dioceses do not have a single seminarian studying for the priesthood, Holy Family Mission has borne remarkable fruit since its founding in 2016.
Seven alumni of the program have gone on to enter the priesthood or religious life. Others have met their spouse during their time at Holy Family Mission.
“We’re seeing a lot of green shoots in the ‘yes’ that young people have given here in their generosity to God,” Maura Murphy said.
Murphy is one of three youth ministers who founded Holy Family as a house of formation. She said that many young people describe the gap year as the “steppingstone that they needed” before entering college life.
“Many of them have gone on and have got really involved in their college campuses. Some of them have started Catholic societies. Some of them have started off Catholic households on campus,” she said.
“Some who come to us have been teachers, nurses. They have taken a career break … and they’ve gone back to that reality, they have gone back into that environment, but better formed to witness to the faith and to answer questions that their colleagues have.”
Bishop Cullinan remarked: “It’s bearing fruits, first of all, in all of these young people being more confident in themselves and in their faith to face whatever life has for them. Some have gone into religious life, but most of them have gone on to just being more confident in the chosen path that they’ve taken.”
“And there have been a few marriages as well,” he added. “And that, you know, is great because the vocation to marriage is … so fundamental to the well-being of society.”
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An answered prayer
Father Patrick Cahill, Patrick Reynolds, and Murphy were each working in youth ministry in different parts of Ireland but kept hearing the same things.
“We were hearing young people say we desire formation. We desire community. We want to know more about the faith. … And at that point, we didn’t know where to send them in Ireland,” Murphy recalled.
She said that the dream was to have “a house of formation for young people in Ireland, a place where they could live in for a set period of time, where they could be walked with accompanied, where they could be taught the faith, and where they could share it with young adults.”
In April 2016 the three youth ministers approached Bishop Cullinan to pitch the idea of forming young people in Ireland and having a missionary outreach to young people and families.
Cullinan remembered: “I listened and I was really taken by the idea. I said, ‘This is the kind of thing we need.’”
The Glencomeragh property came to the bishop’s mind, but he did not say anything because it did not belong to the diocese. He said: “Look, let’s pray about it. If God wants this to happen, it’ll happen.”
The very next day, the bishop received a call from a priest with the Rosminian order who said that the order wanted to gift the Glencomeragh property to the diocese “if it had a purpose for it.”
Cullinan said: “I actually had to ask him to repeat it. And I sat down. And he said it again. And I said, ‘There’s an answer to prayer!’”
Murphy recalls that the bishop “really saw that the Lord wanted Holy Family Mission and his time was now.” Holy Family Mission opened within a few months.
“Sometimes it is the case that the Lord is putting that deep desire in your heart because he’s actually asking you to respond to that call. He’s showing you a need, and he wants you to cooperate with his guidance and to make it happen,” Murphy said.
A Marian and eucharistic spirituality
Holy Family Mission focuses on formation in five areas: spiritual, personal, academic, community, and mission.
For Father Cahill, the full-time priest in residence for the program, the ultimate goal of the gap year is for young people to “know the Lord.”
“God has revealed himself to us because he wants us to know him. How can we love a God that we don’t know? So that’s what we aim to do. Here we aim to facilitate through various means in everything that we do to know who the Lord is. So if it’s academics, if it’s through community life, but most especially through being with him, and that’s why everything has to be eucharistic,” he said.
Tierney described the spirituality of Holy Family as “very Marian and eucharistic.”
“We have the rosary. We have eucharistic adoration. We also have a chapel on site where people can go during the day and just check in with God. And you know, that’s really important, because at least from me, like that’s where the growth has really occurred,” he said.
Holy Family Mission uses materials from Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Catechetical Institute as part of its intellectual formation. A counselor is also made available to the community.
“We want to be in the right environment, a prayerful environment with like-minded people, where we can study our faith and allow that knowledge to impact our prayer life, to impact who we are, and how we interact with those around us,” Murphy said.
“We hope that in the nine or 10 months that they are here, that at the end, they are closer to who God has asked them to be and has called them to be, better equipped to live out the Gospel, and to fully embrace the beauty of it,” she said.
Courtney Mares is a Rome Correspondent for Catholic News Agency. A graduate of Harvard University, she has reported from news bureaus on three continents and was awarded the Gardner Fellowship for her work with North Korean refugees.
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