A group of more than 80 young people from England and Wales joined hundreds of pilgrims in Rome over the weekend for a Year of Faith pilgrimage dedicated to priests, religious, and those on a vocational journey of discernment.
The pilgrimage group was organized by Invocation – an initiative begun three years ago to offer an environment where young people from England and Wales who feel they might be called to the priesthood or religious life can discern their vocation.
One of the organizers of the pilgrimage was Fr. Stephen Langridge, chairman of the vocation directors of England and Wales, and vocations director for the Archdiocese of Suffolk. Speaking with ZENIT, he explained how "often, young people are invited to vocations events, and in a sense it's a step too far – sometimes they just need space to think and reflect without any pressure being put on them."
"Invocation exists," he said, "to create that space for young people to give them the context within which they can pray and reflect, to give them the opportunity to meet other young people, to be inspired by other young people, to make friends with other young people, and to have the questions that they might have answered."
Despite decades of lagging vocations, in recent years vocations in England in Wales have been on the rise. Fr. Langridge cites World Youth Day (WYD) as contributing to this increase. "Over recent WYDs, more and more young people have just gone to WYD independently… but it's had a big effect on them. That desire to be better disciples has created within them a desire also to answer the question: What the Lord is asking of them. It becomes safe to ask that question, and they have the courage, then, to answer it."
The pilgrimage from the UK gathered young people in various stages of discernment – ranging from those who are in or are about to enter seminary, to those who simply wanted to participate in a pilgrimage to Rome.
Fr. Langridge said he was most struck by the "number of people who have come [on the pilgrimage] a little bit scared, thinking that perhaps the Lord is calling them: how are they going to tell their parents? And two of them have said to me: 'I've decided. I'm going to respond.'"
One of the participants in the pilgrimage was Chris Stowell, a young man from Sandwich, England, who is currently discerning a religious vocation. Raised in a Catholic family, he told ZENIT: "I'd always been sort of drawn to it, but I'd never seriously thought about being called as a priest."
Stowell had attended various Invocation events, and next year intends to enter a discernment center, run by Fr. Langridge, to determine whether he is prepared to make the next step in his life. Over the course of a year, he and five other young men who are discerning the priesthood will live in community, praying together for three hours a day.
Although it is only as recently as this past Easter that he has taken more definitive steps in his discernment process, he said that the process of "conversion" has been taking place throughout his life. "I don't think it's a 'one big moment' thing: I think it's something that happens your whole life, and you build up, and often the times when God is working most hard is when you don't notice Him."
"I think it's important to think of who you want to be," Stowell said. "Whereas before I had always thought I couldn't be fulfilled without having a family, maybe if this is what God is wanting me to do, maybe He will give me the grace. Then this Easter, I thought: this could be me. I could be a priest. And it's just making that positive choice for Christ."