During a year of volunteering, working among young people at Catholic schools and young adult events, Andrew Lemalu says he was happy if the message resonated that day, or would be, perhaps, the half-remembered catalyst for conversion 10 years hence.
“It’s God doing it – not us,” he says of the high school retreats, the university chaplaincy work, the evangelisation, the “presence” that he and his four NET (National Evangelisation Team) colleagues have been to young people in the archdiocese of Sydney over the past year.
The members of Sydney’s 2015 NET team – one of seven NET teams around Australia and many more around the world – returned to their places of origin a few weeks ago, speaking to The Catholic Weekly before they went: Andrew and Harmony, both 19, back to Melbourne; Marianne, 24, to England; and Gemma-Lee, 19, and Justin, 23, who both returned to Canada.
They began 2015 having completed six weeks of training at Australia’s NET headquarters in Brisbane, benefiting from the organisation’s expertise born of 27 years of trial and error since forming out of Brisbane’s charismatic Emmanuel Community.
After making their way south, the ‘NETers’ worked closely with archdiocesan youth agency Catholic Youth Services (CYS) throughout the year.
“They make the difference”, CYS director Bernard Toutounji told The Catholic Weekly, “between us just being an office staffed by people behind computers and one actually able to engage in a presence with young people and with the diocese in general.
“There’s nothing exceptional about these young people. They’re just five young people and they’ve got their problems and issues, just like anyone else. But they’ve stepped out in faith these 12 months.
“It’s a real blessing for the archdiocese.”
Reaching around 6000 students in somewhere between 50 and 60 schools, being a kindly presence among the young adults at City Silence, the weekly Adoration event at St Mary’s Cathedral, and hosting the weekly drop-in evening ‘Chill and Chat’ at CYS each week: the NET team has made Christ’s presence felt in a myriad of ways.
Sydney returned the favour, they said, in being a welcoming and supportive place in which to minister, particularly relative to other cities where NET has a presence.
(NETers in Canberra reported marked hostility from some high school students during their year of ministry).
“We’re very blessed in Sydney,” Andrew said. “Very rarely do we find somebody attacking or really challenging us in a very abrupt way.
“Instead it’s more everyone looking for the right answer, instead of saying that they already have it.
“Every city is different. Here, [students] are so highly exposed to [religiosity], especially just the beauty of having had World Youth Day here.
“We find that the main thing is just finding that personal connection with Jesus … That’s what everyone is struggling with”.
Marianne, who at 24 is the ‘oldest’ member of the team, had just finished her masters in international relations at St Andrews University, Scotland, before making the decision to join. It was always her intention to take a year out before working, and she had long wanted to visit Australia. But the biggest driver for her joining NET was the example of people in her Catholic university chaplaincy, and the realisation that she didn’t have the confidence to join conversations dominated by voices disdainful of Catholicism and the Church.
“It seemed to be the perfect package for me to share my faith, give a year of service to others, and also in thanks for all the people in my Catholic chaplaincy who filled me with the knowledge and the wisdom of the Catholic Church … A way to say thank you and to serve others.”
Gemma-Lee, too, joined as the result of being inspired by other young missionaries; her family in Canada hosting two young NETers when she was 12.
“I remember just having a talk with one of the girls and she shared her personal testimony with me. I thought it was just so powerful,” Gemma-Lee said.
“And she was only a few years older than I was, but she was out there sharing her faith with people and she inspired me to grow. I thought, ‘maybe I could do that for someone else’.”
Fellow Canadian Justin, who had served in a NET team in Ireland for a year before coming to Australia, said a friend in his parish had done NET, and had returned transformed.
“I knew that I still had a lot of spiritual and personal formation to go through in my life and I knew that NET was going to be the way to start doing that,” he said.
What ‘worked’ best during their time in schools wasn’t so much their programs – although content was important.
Young people responded best to their sincerity and passion, they said; a function of God’s Spirit and of sharing things they believed in and practised themselves.
“Whatever you are telling people, be living it too,” Gemma-Lee said, reflecting on what she had learnt from the year.
“If you are telling people to grow in their relationship with Jesus, even if you are in a great place with Jesus right now, be always trying to grow yourself, so that what you are sharing with young people is honest.
“If you are not living out the story that you are sharing with them, young people can see that and they won’t be taking what you are saying as truth.”
Her compatriot, Justin, felt similarly.
“I’ve learnt that young people, even though cultures are different, are just looking for love – for Jesus – ultimately,” Justin said.
“In Canada and Ireland and Australia, it’s the same.”
Andrew said that before embarking on the year, he was of the mistaken impression that all NET did with kids was to “muck around”.
NET does two things extremely well, he said: “It takes ministry really, really seriously” and it keeps it “God-centred”.
“We may be the only faces of the Church that these students see. So, to treat that with the utmost respect, that’s when it becomes something really special.”
Marianne says she feels no long term inclination to youth ministry, but instead feels a greater capacity to be an active presence for God in all or any echelons of society.