Last year, 1 July, saw the inaugural Celebrating Young People Awards in London's Leicester Square, organised by Catholic Charity Million Minutes. The awards recognise and celebrate young people living out the principles of Catholic social teaching, from the young family carer upholding human dignity, to the teenager promoting peace by leading the campaign to eliminate bullying in his school.
On that night, Cardinal Vincent Nichols gave the Pope Francis Award to Ryan O'Neill a psychiatric nursing student from Merthyr Tydfil who, in his free time works tirelessly supporting and inspiring young people. As part of his award, Ryan has just completed a tailor-made study trip to Argentina to trace the footsteps of Pope Francis.
Here Chris Knowles, Trustee of Million Minutes, who accompanied Ryan, writes of the trip:
On 1 July 2016 we found ourselves in a suburb of Buenos Aires, staying in a building called the ‘minimo’. This building, in years gone by was surrounded by a farm set up by Padre Bergoglio, it sat in the grounds of the Maximo College, the Jesuit theology and philosophy college that Bergoglio lived in as Provincial, and the community (and seminary) that he subsequently rector of. It was a exactly a year before that we were say in a theatre in Leicester Square and Ryan O’Neill received the Pope Francis award from Cardinal Nichols for efforts supporting young people on the margins in South Wales as part of the 2015 Million Minutes Celebrating Young People Awards.
The study trip, supported by the International Young Leaders Network, was an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Pope Francis, to learn about context from which he came, and to see how the Church in Argentina tried to live out its responsibility to the most vulnerable in society.
While staying in the Jesuit community in San Miguel we visited the poor neighbourhoods in which Pope Francis worked, the local areas in which he was instrumental in the in the efforts to reach out and set up new chapels and parishes. We were welcomed into these communities with such generosity, while there were often language barriers, their openness and affection towards us was unmistakable. As we got further into these neighbourhoods it was clear that, the further you got from the main road, the more deprived it got. The buildings were more basic, and fewer of the roads were tarmacked. For Ryan, “visiting the poorer parts of Argentina is heart-breaking, but at the same time visiting their houses and experiencing their attitudes, seeing how open they are to helping others was very moving”. After sending out seminarians on pastoral duties, Bergloglio used to check the bottom of their shoes for dust and dirt. Having spent some time in these communities, it’s clear that this was a good way to know that you’d reached those families that needed the support of the Church the most…!
On the 2nd of July we were privileged enough to be invited to a mass in one of the poor neighbourhoods near the Jesuit college as they celebrating the lives of two Assumptionist seminarians who were 'disappeared' during Argentina's last dictatorship. Raúl Rodríguez and Carlos Antonio de Piero were taken in the middle of the night 40 years ago by men in army uniform, and their bodies have never been found. They were studying at the Maximo College where Fr Juan Carlos Scannone SJ, a friend of Pope Francis and a theologian quoted in Laudato Si’ taught them theology. Fr Scannone celebrated the mass with an Assumptionist priest who lived with the two seminarians, and only survived that night because he went home to spend a night at his parents’ house.
We also got the time to learn about the reality of the social problems in the big city from the cold face in a Jesuit homeless shelter in the centre of Buenos Aires. Over the last 10 years demand has grown and grown for the simple services they provide. Even only a very short period of time we were able to build relationships with those that came to the centre because we ate together, prayed together, learnt together and even celebrated Argentinian independence together with a Mass and a fantastic fiesta! Often they felt so welcomed at this centre because, unlike other projects in Buenos Aires, they were treated with the dignity and love.
After receiving nominations for over 250 young people, Million Minutes, in partnership with St Mary’s university Twickenham are now preparing for this year’s Award Ceremony on Tuesday 9 July at London’s Barbican Centre.