Over 1,000 young people gathered in Knock Shrine last week to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Pope John Paul II Award. This was just a small portion of the over 20,000 teenagers who have completed the award since it was set up by Fr Paul Farren in 2006, in his role as director of the Derry Diocesan Catechetical Centre. Now underway in 22 dioceses in Ireland and two in Britain – the Archdiocese of Birmingham and the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle – and enquiries coming from the United States, the award continues to grow in popularity, which has led to the appointment of Tony Brennan as Award Co-Ordinator.
Originally from Tubbercurry in Co. Sligo, Tony has lived in Derry for many years as a graphic designer and his company was involved in the award project from the very beginning.
“We’ve been involved with the Pope John Paul II Award since it was founded in 2006, managing the award marketing materials for each diocese involved,” he says. “It has been a natural progression into this challenging role. The main responsibilities are to continue to promote the award throughout Ireland and internationally. To keep to the award founder, Fr Paul Farren’s vision of celebrating young people’s involvement in their church and to encourage more young people to get involved.”
Funded by the Knights of St Columbanus, the Pope John Paul II Award is a faith achievement award for young people between the age of 16 and 18. It is non-competitive, inclusive, flexible and voluntary. Each award is completed over a 16-month period beginning at the start of the academic year. Awards are earned by taking part in parish and social activities - one hour per week over 8, 14 or 20 weeks. There are three award levels – Gold, Silver & Bronze. Those that have completed the Gold Award have a further option of completing the Papal Cross Award.
Tony believes the secret behind the award’s great success lies in its simplicity. “The simple idea was to get young people visible with their church,” he says. “Fr Paul’s idea from the very start was to make young people visible in their Church and community. Schools are an obvious choice to use and promote the award, but no two dioceses are the same. In some the award is run through the parish and the parish leaders go into the schools, in other dioceses the award is run through the schools and they go out into the parishes.
“But the simple concept of making young people feel they are contributing in a worthwhile way to their community and the Church is part of that community. That is what makes it so easy to work in each parish and diocese and why we believe it is expanding.”
As well as getting young people involved in their local church, a great strength of the award is to appeal to young people’s desire to make a make a difference in their community. “On the social side we see a lot of the activities to do with fundraising or visiting old people’s homes or neighbours who live in their own and things like that,” Tony says. “Many young people continue to do this after completing the award. One local lad found out the gravedigger needed help and he volunteered to dig the graves with him.
“People like bad news and most of the publicity we see is the negative side to young people, but the majority are just trying to figure things out. The award slots into the need for young people to get involved in something and to see what they are doing is worthwhile. It is rewarding for them to see they are appreciated for what they do.”
The celebration for award participants in Knock was only the first anniversary event for the award. On October 30 there will be a pilgrimage to Rome led by Bishop Donal McKeown for those over 18 years old who have completed the award, which organisers hope will include an audience with Pope Francis.
A book is also currently being complied on the history of the award, which will record the experiences of many young people who have taken part in the award.
When asked if he had any idea 10 years ago that the award would grow so much, Tony says “the mind boggles”.
“We started off 10 years ago trying to figure out if it was worth anyone’s while. We thought it was an achievement just to get it out into a few parishes in the first year, but it ended up across the whole diocese. The teachers were engaged, the pupils were engaged and it just worked,” he says.
“Each year we have new surprises and new challenges, but we have a good, strong team behind us and thankfully everyone is really enthusiastic and coming up with great ideas and little ways to make it work.”
If you have any questions about the award, or if your school, parish or diocese wish to enrol, contact 028 7126 4087 (from Republic of Ireland: 048 7126 4087) or firstname.lastname@example.org