When I first began working as a chaplain for young people I was under the misapprehension that everything had to be conventionally engaging. I saw what contemporary Catholic youth ministry was doing and tried to replicate it within my own context. I encouraged many students to attend large events and tried to run a few smaller events myself, with a certain amount of success. From outside it looked like it was working, but I soon came to realise that many of the young people were only engaging in a rather superficial way. This was probably because what I was offering had an air of superficiality.
The realisation that things were not working also came at a time when more traditional devotions were starting to be used in the secondary school where I am a chaplain. A teaching colleague of mine began to run a weekly rosary club during the lunch break and in a very short time it became very successful. Some of the most unlikely students started attending and even leading the sessions. There was always the incentive of a free drink of hot chocolate, but students attended faithfully each week and brought their friends along.
We began distributing Rosaries and prayer cards to students who showed an interest. Even now, there are not many weeks when I am not asked for one of our special packs. Only this week I witnessed a small group of students saying the Rosary in chapel before the beginning of the school day, which gave me great encouragement.
I have noticed that the group of students who come to the Rosary club are very mixed. A number are young people who struggle with school life and discipline. Some of the students who attend come from fairly chaotic family situations and a reasonable number are non-Catholic. They seem to find something in the Rosary that is lacking in their own life experience. St Josemaria Escriva once recommended: “Say the Holy Rosary. Blessed be that monotony of Hail Mary’s which purifies the monotony of your sins!” Whilst the Rosary can be seen as monotonous, it is also consistent. For many of the young people that I work with, consistency is one thing that is lacking in their life. School can sadly be the only stable aspect of their rapidly cycling lives. When home life is difficult and messy, having a form of prayer which is predictable, familiar and safe can become powerful and sustaining.
Several years ago, I worked with a young man who had significant social and emotional difficulties. I supported him for a while on a one-to-one basis. He also went to the Rosary club and would eventually gain the confidence to lead the prayers and encourage younger students. He once shared with me how he saw learning the Rosary and leading the group as a great personal achievement. He never would have gained that experience in other forms of worship and chaplaincy because of his anxiety. In a quiet way the Rosary had brought transformation to his life (or at least part of his life).
Just before the summer I was giving a homily in school and I asked those present to tell me any Bible stories that they knew. Thank goodness those students who knew the Rosary were there on that day. They were able to name the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, and Presentation in the Temple and so on. They could also tell me what these accounts were about. This really brought home to me the claim that “The Rosary is Scripture on a string”. In an age when few Christians read scripture, the Rosary is a good foundation and introduction to the Word of God.
The Rosary is only a small aspect of our work with young people in school and yet it has been key in helping some of our students deepen their understanding of their faith. Other aspects of youth ministry are important but I believe that our work with teenagers can have even greater power and influence when we introduce them to the riches of our Catholic spirituality and don’t shy away from the more traditional devotions.
I have seen in this small way how the Rosary is not only a key to prayer but is a tool for mission.
Fr Matthew Pittam’s new book, Building the Kingdom in the Classroom, is published at the end of October.