Some are heartbreaking, others are heartwarming, and when I write the stories I often feel quite humbled and inadequate as I reflect on the commitment, the achievements and sometimes the hardships these people have endured.
When I read that Pope Francis had issued an apostolic exhortation – or rather, a lengthy letter – to the youth of today in which he calls on them to embrace their role as the ‘present and future’ of the Church, I had a smile on my face. From where I sit and the stories I cover, I think the youth in the Archdiocese have been heeding this call for some time.
There are endless stories of students at Catholic schools fundraising for great causes to help the vulnerable and those in need.
Whether it’s running along the beach at Seacliff to raise money for Caritas Australia’s annual Project Compassion Lenten appeal or manning a free lunchtime barbecue at a Vinnies store in Elizabeth – it would seem young people in the Archdiocese have a social conscience and want to give of themselves, without any fanfare or acknowledgement expected, to help others less fortunate in the community.
Perhaps the story that has affected me the most in the past few weeks is that of Gemma Sisia, an amazing woman who established a private school in Tanzania in 2002 which offers free education to the poorest – and brightest – students. No, she’s not a member of the Archdiocese – in fact she was brought up in Armidale in country NSW – and no, she’s not someone who would be considered ‘young’ anymore.
But she made a visit to Adelaide last month to say a big thank you to the students at St Aloysius College who have been raising money to support St Jude’s School. They were mesmerised by Gemma’s recount of how the school was established and how their fundraising efforts are contributing to changing the lives of children in Tanzania and long term, helping to transform an impoverished country.
As a young woman in her 20s Gemma took a leap of faith and went to work in a convent school in Uganda. She believed her vocation was to be a nun or missionary and decided to use this time to discern her future. However, like a love story in a movie, she met her husband Richard, who was the driver on a safari and her life took a different path.
It’s incredible to think that in just 16 years she has managed to build a school which now educates 1800 students. Perhaps more amazing to me was to hear the story of Adelaide’s own Maddie Kelly who joined Gemma at the assembly. Maddie graduated from SAC in 2011 and returned later to be the college’s social justice coordinator.
Two years ago she followed in Gemma’s footsteps, moving to Africa to work at St Jude’s.
It was her message to the SAC students that inspired me the most and filled me with great optimism for the future of not only the Church, but the world.
Maddie told each girl at the assembly that unlike her, they didn’t need to move to Africa to make a difference in the world. She said that if they opened their hearts and embraced the spirit of Mercy and their Catholic social teachings in their everyday lives, they too would be making a difference.
I think Pope Francis may have smiled at such wise words from someone so young. Yes, the youth are indeed the present and future of the Church.