Nurturing a future of faith


Director of youth ministry for Down and Connor,
Pauline Dowd spoke with Martin O’Brien


She was charged with re-launching and refashioning  Down and Connor’s youth mission to meet the ever  pressing needs of those in post primary education of one kind or another in the diocese’s 87 parishes stretching from Portstewart in Co. Derry on the north  coast to the fishing port of Kilkeel in  south Down.

Speaking to Pauline in the youth commission’s spacious if still under-used building in the grounds of St Mary’s chapel in central Belfast (one challenge is to fully utilise the premises which includes a large oratory) one senses purpose and a steely determination to achieve results.

“Our goal is to achieve a cycle of care across our dioceses where every young person from whatever background, has the opportunity to have fun and be helped to develop their faith and build up the kingdom of God.”

Those opportunities reside especially in the diocese’s 12 youth centres, soon to be 13 with the official opening expected next month of a long awaited state of the art centre in St Malachy’s parish in the Markets area of Belfast.

She speaks with passion and with admiration for “our youth workers who are doing lifesaving work with youngsters right at the edge” with problems such as addiction and depression.

The past year has been dominated by efforts to put those youth centres on a sound footing of compliance. There is a continuing immense joint effort between the Youth Commission and the Diocesan Safeguarding Office to roll out a training programme across all the youth centres aimed at securing the implementation of all the new policies to protect children and young people.

Perhaps just as laborious but also of critical importance has been the task of updating and re-writing the constitutions of the youth centres. These, Pauline says hadn’t been touched for maybe 20 years and included framing rules on the recruitment of members to a management committee. This is considered necessary to protect the independence and operational integrity of such influential community bodies from any person or group who may wish to dominate them for their own ends.

Pauline is currently evaluating data from an audit she launched early on of youth provision in every parish in the diocese and will be particularly interested to see the part faith ministry plays in this. It is a fair bet that any slackness in this area will be addressed.

She stresses  she is part of a very talented team and seems touched by the level of support she has received from a range of people including Jim Tracey in safeguarding, the youth centre chairpersons for their co-operation with the constitutions, her assistant  Claire Smylie, the Youth Commission’s chairperson Aine Lockhart  and the priests she deals with.  She mentions in particular “the wonderful support” of Baroness Nuala O’Loan and Bishop Donal McKeown.

Two pivotal projects in the armoury of the Down and Connor youth ministry are the GIFT 1 to 4   (Growing in Faith Together) initiative and the Blessed John Paul II Awards.

She is anxious to ensure that both are as inclusive as possible appealing to young people with a wide variety of abilities and backgrounds ranging from families where the faith is strong through to where it is weak or non-existent.

Through SPRED a particular effort is made to include those with special needs.

Pauline describes GIFT as “a faith programme with fun” run in parishes by a co-ordinator assisted by a team of volunteers. GIFT 1 is for Year 8 children in their first year in secondary school and begins with prayer and  the child being prompted to remember their confirmation and what it means before proceeding through a number of games including balloon volley ball and a bean bag game that creatively shed light on Christian values.

“Some of those volunteers will be the parents of Year 8 children who may not be practising their faith but the hope would be that by using the language of faith again they may be drawn back to it.”

The GIFT programme which is being re-written and re-designed by Pauline and her team culminates in a parish Mass. The liturgy is intended to be as “young person friendly” as possible and the hope once again is that such a beautiful Mass may prompt parents who have lapsed to have a re-think.

Around 350 young people in Down and Connor enrol  for the John Paul II awards each year and the Youth Commission pulled off a coup in April when Irish  Olympic boxing medallist Michael Conlan from Belfast presented the medals and received an honorary John Paul II award for being a role model. Michael is a staunch friend of the commission and regularly provides signed promotional material for fundraising.

The John Paul II awards which are likely to become even more popular when the late Pope become as saint are meant to underline the  link between faith and good works. They are awarded to 16-to-18 year olds who have completed a programme of service to their parish which might include being ministers of the Word or Eucharistic ministers as well as a programme of social awareness which might include volunteering for St Vincent de Paul or SPRED.

Pauline says: “A key objective is to bring the young person into contact with the priest. “

She adds: “The idea is to have a cyclical effect. The hope is that, for example, the John Paul II winners will proceed to go on to do pilgrimages and deliver the GIFT programmes themselves.”

The youth ministry will obviously have a major role in the pastoral plan to be unveiled at the diocesan congress next month.

Pauline, brought up on the Falls one of five children of Rose and John Smyth owes her faith to her “wonderful selfless parents”. She reveals with pride her father now in his 70s “delivers 500 issues of each edition of the Sacred Heart Messenger door to door” in the city.

She is married to Brendan, a teacher in Lagan College and a member of the youth commission board.

Pauline Dowd is a woman who means business. She communicates a vision for a youth ministry rooted in a context of care, safety and opportunity where faith and fun go hand in hand. A clear strategy for strengthening the faith of some and recovering and discovering the faith of others is being laid out here.

She admits  notwithstanding the great support the Youth Commission receives across the board in Down and Connor the Church locally is not particularly good at communicating the message about all the good work of young people who go on pilgrimages and  works of charity  and that people in the pews “often wonder what the Youth Commission is doing.”

Good news stories she says include, for example, the 26 young people led by Fr Raymond McCullough just returned from Ethiopia where they spent nearly three weeks building houses for Habitat for Humanity and the 23 young people they brought to Scotland for the “mini-Rio” at Stirling University.

It is still relatively early days and Pauline had to hit the ground running. While only time will tell the ultimate effectiveness of this particular diocesan youth ministry in a vitally important part of the country  those  yearning  for a recovery in the fortunes of the Church sense there is  afoot in Down and Connor  at any rate something  that will   “…bear fruit, fruit that will last” (John 15:16).