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Antioch keeps flame of youth burning for four decades

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Antioch members cheer outside St Mary’s Cathedral in this undated photo. Were you there? Email us at cweditor@catholicweekly.com.au. Photo: Supplied
Antioch members cheer outside St Mary’s Cathedral in this undated photo. Were you there? Email us at [email protected]. Photo: Supplied

The very first Antioch weekend in Carlingford was held in the same year that brought the world The Return of the Jedi and the Cabbage Patch doll craze—August 1983.

It’s rare for a parish youth group to operate non-stop for years, but the Antioch youth movement is still going strong there four decades later.

For Fr Vince Casey, then a 25-year-old deacon based at Carlingford, 1983 was a time of exciting developments in the post-Vatican II renewal of church life, of which Antioch was one.

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He sought out and was warmly welcomed to an Antioch weekend in March the previous year at Maroubra Bay, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.

“It was a powerful experience,” Fr Vince said.

“I saw 80 young people coming alive in their faith and in their joy of being part of Christian community.”

Excited by the potential for Carlingford, he invited 10 young parishioners and a married couple, Rita and John O’Reilly, to return with him to a training weekend held in Maroubra Bay.

Six months later, the 10 young people had invited another 10.

“As a team they prepared talks, organised logistics, recruited their friends and convinced the wider parish to get behind this new youth initiative,” Fr Vince explained.

Sixty young people attended that first weekend, and the Carlingford Antiochers recently celebrated their 40th anniversary with Mass and dinner at their parish, where they reflected on what makes their Sunday night meetings the best part of their week.

Their enthusiasm shows that Antioch, far from being a relic of the past, is a vibrant part of the fabric of parish life for people aged 16-21 today that can inspire others engaged in parish renewal or youth ministry.

“I joined Antioch in 2021 in Year 10 and love the people and to be able to talk about my faith and make new friends,” said 17-year-old Christine.

“It has helped me to know God and I now serve at Mass with the Powerpoint slides and at Antioch and Antioch retreats with the tech side.

“Since moving to Australia in 2019, Antioch has helped my confidence and public speaking skills and to get out of my comfort zone and I am feel so blessed to be part of this amazing group!”

Says another teenaged regular, “I always can’t wait for the next meeting! I have made so many lifelong friends and am now able to pray out loud, something I found hard to do growing up.”

The Antioch program takes its name from the place where believers in the resurrection of Jesus Christ were first called Christians (Acts 11:26).

Originally developed at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, for use on university campuses, it only really took off when it was adapted for high school-aged youth based in parishes after 1973.

The peer-led parish-based movement spread like wildfire across Australia during the 80s and has continued in recent years in several Sydney parishes including Liverpool and Engadine..

Key elements include a retreat experience and Sunday night meetings that include talks, sharing groups, and music in a friendly environment that allows young people, supported by adult leaders, to explore life’s big questions, develop leadership skills, and an appreciation of what it means to be Catholic today.

Fr Vince, currently the parish priest at Terrigal on the New South Wales Central Coast, puts Carlingford Antioch’s longevity down to the laying of strong foundations.

These include the careful selection and discernment of youth leaders, prayer, consistency, and a strong culture of recognising and calling upon people’s gifts.

1985 Antioch Convention Mass. Photo: Supplied
1985 Antioch Convention Mass. Photo: Supplied

“Parish support was also key,” he said.

“Parishioners were proud to support the young people with catering, billeting, and prayer.

“Having a clear program, with talks prepared with the accompaniment of discerning adults, was vital.

“Also, we were unashamedly a Catholic youth group with a spiritual agenda. The program was Christ-centred; the social dimension flowed from that.”

The beginnings of Antioch as a parish-based youth movement in Australia go back to February 1981 when three Aussie siblings participated in an Antioch weekend in Dobbs Ferry, New York, while on holiday with their parents, well-known Catholic couple Ron and Mavis Pirola, and youngest sister Tina.

They were Byron Pirola (then aged 20) and his teenaged sisters Teresa and Claire.

That weekend with just over 100 young people “was a powerful experience of Christian community,” Teresa recalled.

“Towards the end, there was a commitment ceremony, a call to mission. My brother, Byron, stood up and committed himself, with his two sisters, to take Antioch back to Australia.

“There was also a closing ceremony attended by parents and parishioners. Our parents showed up, wondering what on earth it was all about!”

Back home in Maroubra Bay the trio began gathering a team of people with the goal of holding an Antioch weekend at their local parish.

Over six months, their number grew to 20 youth, joined by Ron and Mavis, a second married couple and an MSC priest.

“Claire was initially ambivalent,” said Teresa.

“She was 15, a rebellious teenager, and it was touch-and-go as to whether or not she would come on board with Antioch.

“But she did. And, with her gift of being able to tap into ‘peer leader’ dynamics, she turned out to be the critical factor that enabled Antioch to grow as rapidly as it did.”

Within a year of the first Antioch weekend held at Maroubra Bay with 60 young participants, Antioch was spreading locally, including at Carlingford, and there was a steady flow of enquiries from parishes from around the country.

By the end of 1988 Antioch was established in more than 200 Australian parishes, with 31,500 young people having experienced at least one Antioch weekend.

Over time, Antioch would spread from Australia to 11 other countries including New Zealand, Fiji, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Hungary.

Reflecting back on those early days, Teresa said their group took strategic steps which helped Antioch to “take off” as it did.

“But there was also the inexplicable ‘Holy Spirit factor’,” she said.

“We and our co-workers were ordinary young people, ordinary families, who happened to be in the right place, at the right time, when that wave of God’s grace came rushing through.”

With thanks to Teresa Pirola.

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