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DUBLIN (OSV News) – Claire Guernsey was eager to share her deeply held faith with the restless public of Irish school children. The students, however, did not share his enthusiasm. In fact, they were practically surly.

“They didn’t want us there,” laughed Guernsey, recalling the uncomfortable situation that happened more than once during his two terms as a member of the NET Ireland team, a Catholic youth ministry program specializing in school and parish ministry. Sometimes, when she and the other members of her team organized school retreats, “they were not at all receptive”.

Every year since 2004, NET Ireland – the ‘NET’ in its name stands for ‘National Evangelism Teams’ – has recruited and trained young adults to evangelize over 20,000 young people in churches, schools and parishes across Ireland. Ireland.

Guernsey, an American majoring in English Literature in her final year at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, has completed two stints with NET Ireland, from September 2020 to May 2021 and from February 2021 to June 2021. She is returning next year to work at the Mater Dei Academy in Cork.

While Irish state schools are still referred to as “Catholic”, Guernsey said she quickly learned they were equivalent to US secular state schools – but with the option to teach religion. The lack of sacramental preparation, she said, was painfully evident, and some schools had no desire to have an Orthodox Catholic witness within their walls.

As of 2021, of the 3,126 standard schools in Ireland, 88% are run by the Catholic Church, 5.7% are run by the (Anglican) Church of Ireland; 1% are managed by other religious organizations; and 5.4% are run by organizations with no religious affiliation.

About 15 years ago, a 2008 survey by the Irish Primary Principals Network found that 72% of parents wanted primary schools run by the state rather than by a specific religious denomination.

“I think a lot of what my team in particular was doing was just planting seeds,” Guernsey suggested, recalling the difficult environment.

“You would have students coming in and saying, ‘I’m an atheist; I am this, I am that; I do not believe it; I hate church. They are very outspoken about anything they disagree with,” Guernsey said. But the feedback forms, even from those most negative about the church, have begun to show signs of movement. “There’s one I remember specifically who said, ‘I still don’t like church…but when we were praying, I felt a peace like I had never felt before.’ “

There were also other encouraging episodes, Guernsey said, recalling a shy and clumsy participant. “He didn’t want to talk about anything faith-related, of course,” she said. “But in the end, he said to himself: ‘I want to do NET too!’ He texts his friends to create a Christian music playlist they can listen to, and they organize retreats to continue together.

“Young people who are in their faith are so convinced,” Guernsey shared. “You really see the revival pockets that are ready.”

Ultimately, she says, “we facilitate an encounter with Christ. And if they ever want to be on the same wavelength by embracing the life of the Catholic Church, it will have to start with an encounter with Christ.

Guernsey and his colleagues approached their evangelism with a mixture of realism and optimism.

“We knew when we moved away, it’s not like 90 percent of these students were about to become super-Catholics all of a sudden,” Guernsey explained. “But a few of them might walk away saying, ‘I want to start praying,’ or saying, ‘OK, maybe religion isn’t absolutely crazy.

Sean Flack, another American Catholic missionary, is currently serving in Ireland with FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), the college outreach ministry on mission to share the gospel with university students in America, Austria, Ireland, Germany , Mexico and the United Kingdom. . Missionaries are trained in church teaching, prayer, scripture, evangelism, and discipleship, and meet other students wherever they are on their faith journey.

In July 2017, Flack received a call from his FOCUS supervisor. It was an invitation to go to Ireland.

“I asked how long I had to discern it,” Flack recalled. “He replied, ‘Pray about it and I will call you tomorrow morning.’ I was in Dublin a month later.

Originally from Texas, Flack has been a FOCUS missionary for nearly a decade. He is now Regional Director of FOCUS in Ireland and also trains his talents in philanthropy. Like Guernsey, he too was more than mildly surprised by Ireland’s sometimes aggressive secularism.

“I expected more religious practice than I encountered, even if it was just cultural religious practice,” Flack said. “I expected to be able to invite people to Bible studies and be open to the experience.” But slowly, students began to attend.

“The time it takes to gain the trust of an Irishman is considerable, especially as a foreigner,” Flack explained. “People are generally afraid of church and of being seen as religious, even if they go to mass regularly.”

Given their fear of being labeled religious, Flack thinks “people haven’t really thought much about God. They mostly thought only of church structures.

But again – like Guernsey – Flack witnessed sparks among the embers. “There is a growing core of faith. The faithful really love Jesus Christ and his church. They must. It’s so crazy to be a Catholic in Ireland today that you have to choose to stay close to our Lord.

From this type of intentional discipleship, more vocations to religious life also blossom, Flack reported.

“Several religious orders have seen men join the training over the past few years,” he said. “Since we were invited to Ireland, six of our students have gone to the seminary and one to the convent.”

Neil Mather, who is Irish and a first-year FOCUS missionary on the campus of University College Dublin, said he was impressed by the zeal of his American counterparts.

“For the past few years, FOCUS missionaries have come to campus like a squad of Navy SEALS and lives have changed,” Mather said. “Suddenly, daily Mass attendance grew from four to 30 people, vocations to the priesthood sprouted among Bible study attendees, and students like me found true, good, Christ-centered friendships.”

Flack is determined, because ultimately – like another missionary named Paul – he is “not ashamed of the gospel” (Romans 1:16).

“We can’t be afraid to share the gospel in a culture like Ireland just because people generally don’t want to hear the gospel,” Flack said. “We must return to Jesus Christ again and get to know him personally, and then learn our faith.

Kimberley Heatherington writes for OSV News from Virginia.


For more information on NET Ireland: www.netministries.ie and for more information on FOCUS: www.focus.org

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American lay missionaries fan the embers of the Catholic faith in Ireland

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