Among the young people of Galway as witnesses of fraternity

The 2022-2023 academic year is just around the corner, and the young people of Galway are also preparing to start their ordinary lives again after the summer break. In this port city on the west coast of Ireland, there are about 30,000 students in the two local universities, attended by people from all over the world. There, the friars minor listened to the young people and picked up on the desire of many of them: to find a community to lean on and grow in faith. “This is how the Galway project was born, as an experience of a Church which goes forth,” explains Br Jacopo Pozzerle of the Galway fraternity, who has worked on the project from the beginning, together with Br Ronan Sharpley.

“We arrived in Ireland at the time of the pandemic and started to seek contact with young people,” continues Br Jacopo. “From an online group, thanks to e-mail addresses provided by the Poor Clares, we moved on to face-to-face or hybrid meetings (with the possibility of connecting remotely). We have thus begun a series of activities aimed at young people“. The regular events now range from the weekly Lectio Divina to the Ten Commandments path at the diocesan pastoral centre, to pilgrimages in nature, called “Laudato Si’ pilgrimage”. “The aim is to offer spiritual content and create opportunities for a shared life,” explains Br. Jacopo. “Between workers and temporary students, however, we know that we need flexibility in our activities. The young participants comprise an international group from different countries, such as East Timor, India, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Ecuador, Israel, Palestine, France and Tanzania. Many of them were looking for a reference parish and were, therefore, invited by the priests of the local cathedral to contact the Franciscans. This was the case with the first girl that Br Jacopo and Br Ronan met: a young French student who then helped to spread the Franciscan events among her friends.

Among the initiatives offered by the friars is “A Light in the Night”, the opening of the Franciscan friary church once a month, every Saturday, in the evening, for Eucharistic adoration. “Our church, the Franciscan Abbey, is in a central location in Galway,” says Br Jacopo. “The open doors in the evenings have thus attracted new people, who then formed the group that attends the Ten Commandments catechesis.

To be able to speak to young people, the Galway friars decided to immerse themselves totally in their world. Thus Br Liam Kelly teaches theology at the university, Br Ronan is a university chaplain, and Br Jacopo works as a psychotherapist and counsellor for students. “During the day, we familiarise ourselves with their world and the rest of the time, we try to put initiatives in place to support them,” explains Br Jacopo. In lives that seemingly conceal no hidden entanglements, there is often deep unease, leading in some cases to alcohol, drug abuse or self-harm. Today in Ireland, a volunteer team monitors certain at-risk areas because they are often chosen as places to take their own lives.

Listening to the sufferings and hopes of the young people, the friars try to be a presence at their service. “Here in Ireland, where there is much secularisation,” says Br Jacopo, “our initiatives are linked to the Franciscan word, life and spirituality. Our dream is for a YouFra community to be born here”.

The Franciscans are trying to bring the charism of St Francis without fuss, without grandiose acts. In times of pandemic, even just walking in the city centre wearing the Franciscan habit could be a Word to someone, according to Brother Jacopo: “A person who frequents our activities revealed to us that, some time ago, when he was already abandoning his former life of alcoholism, unruliness and promiscuity, he saw us walking in the streets wearing the Franciscan habit. I still remember his words: I saw you happy, and I began to think that faith had something to do with joy“.

The Galway community now numbers six friars, all Irish except one Italian. “Ours is a fraternity with two lungs: on the one hand, work with young people, on the other, collaboration with the local Church,” continues Br Jacopo. The friars offer themselves as support to country parishes in outlying areas, such as Kilbeacanty or Barna. They celebrate Mass and make themselves available for confessions and requested pastoral services. The guardian of the fraternity, Br David Collins, together with the entire community of Galway friars, supports and encourages youth initiatives.

The collaboration with the local Poor Clares, to whom they go to pray together and for evenings of witnessing with groups of young people, is also very intense and fruitful. “I like to be among people, to talk, to share stories: we are like brothers, we are fellow travellers,” says Br Jacopo. “In the moments of sharing, the stories of the young people complement our catechesis”. In this shared journey, another common desire is to invest in relationships of friendship, to always go forward with mutual support. “We want to pass on the message of fraternity, even in our commitment to the university. Ours is a great challenge, an open quest to find the right language to speak to this society”.

Beatrice Guarrera