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AYWL: Renewing Sense of Mission

I first met Cardinal Cormac through my involvement with the launch Mass for At Your Word, Lord (AYWL) at Wembley Arena in 2002. I was joining a wonderful team who had already done so much to put the Cardinal’s vision into action. It took no time at all to get on board with that vision. The Cardinal wanted a programme of renewal across the diocese that would both celebrate people’s faith and help nurture individual and parish development, flowing from gathering together around the word of God.

Cardinal Cormac gave AYWL his full attention. It was his programme. He ensured it was at the heart of the diocese. He was genuine about his wish to celebrate and renew people’s faith, and to bring new energy to our parishes. That’s why it worked so well. Priests and people came on board, even those with initial misgivings, because of the Cardinal’s own commitment and vision.

I have two stand-out memories of my time working with the Cardinal. The first was only a week into my role. I was in his library in Archbishop’s House and I was surrounded by 10,000 tickets for Wembley arena, covering every surface you could see. My colleague Lindsey and I had taken on the task of completing the seating plan for the thousands of people attending the launch Mass. It had endless complications and took far longer than anticipated. Many people came through the library door that day offering support, and of course the Cardinal was one of them. It may have been the first encouraging word I heard from him, but there would be many more to come over the next three years. He had utter trust we’d do it… although he may not have realised we’d still be there at 1am, ordering pizza, stuffing envelopes to fulfil the ticket orders.

The second memory was from several months later, when we were making one of our videos. Cardinal Cormac understood the importance of this way of communicating (this was before the days of smart phones and social media, when we had to produce VHS tapes and DVDs to send to every parish). His warm, fatherly manner was a natural match with the camera. I remember feeding a lapel microphone through his striking red cassock, ready for him to be filmed, thinking to myself, how is that I am here, doing this with a Cardinal of the Church?

And that’s my overwhelming feeling. I was privileged. I was 23 when I produced the event at Wembley Arena, when I was surrounded by pizza and thousands of Wembley tickets in the Cardinal’s private library, and when I was directing him for the film. I was trusted with immense responsibility to play my part in putting his vision into practice.

Cardinal Cormac understood this. He had been a chaplain to the Young Christian Workers when he was a curate in Portsmouth. Like all good YCW chaplains, he knew what it meant to walk beside young people in giving them real responsibility for their faith and for their role in the world. I experienced that trust, and accompaniment first hand. But so did all the 20,000 people meeting in faith sharing groups across the diocese. These groups were the heart of the programme, and it was our diocesan bishop, saying to the people of God in Westminster, take hold of your own faith, celebrate it, grow together and live it in the world. Those 20,000 people were Cardinal Cormac’s vision in action. What an achievement.

I saw this accompaniment, too, in his work with the young adult programme for AYWL. Perhaps this was when we saw him at his most comfortable: surrounded by young people in the Cathedral, sharing his faith and hearing them share theirs. He enjoyed walking with them throughout those few years, and I am sure his journeying with them produced huge benefits.

My final memory is drawn from a photograph I took of Cardinal Cormac. It was on our second AYWL trip to Lourdes, when, true to the Cardinal’s vision, the diocesan pilgrimage reflected all that AYWL was aiming to achieve. We were involved in organising the liturgy and, of course, creating opportunities during the pilgrimage for people to share faith in small groups. It was almost like seeing the diocese in miniature. Taking a photo of him walking in the torch light procession, surrounded by people of all ages, with different needs and experiences, Cardinal Cormac was literally accompanying his people in their journey of faith. The photo says it all. It is no surprise then that this was one of the photos used when his death was announced. How happy he looked.

The fruit of Cardinal Cormac’s vision is plain to see. There are still many faith sharing groups in the diocese and people have built on that experience with a renewed sense of mission and purpose in their communities. I am still stopped on the tube and asked if I am Danny (or sometimes Joe!) from AYWL. These people remember the Cardinal’s commitment to offer them renewal, and still it is bearing fruit.

I will be forever grateful to him for many reasons, not least his support for me as I left the diocese. I had become President of the YCW by this stage and was moving on to help renew this organisation that the Cardinal knew well. Like AYWL, it is based around small groups coming together to share faith and to move to action. The Cardinal personally ensured that he found funders for the renewal of the YCW. In many ways I was building on the vision that he had shared with me, and he then invested in my vision. Without him, the YCW probably wouldn’t be as strong in our country today. Thank you, Cardinal Cormac.

I was privileged to see the Cardinal several times in the year before he died. Each time he made me feel special. There’s no other word for it. But he did that to everyone. On the final time I saw him, he said I must come for ‘a simple supper’ soon. Sadly he was in hospital within weeks and he never returned home. I may not have enjoyed that pasta, but I have no doubt he’s now enjoying a much more abundant feast than a simple supper. And I’m sure he’s praying that I, and all of us in the diocese he loved so much will one day join him at the feast.

I hope there’s a piano nearby so we can hear him play again.

Danny Curtin now works with charities and churches as a facilitator and coach. He is also CEO of Million Minutes, a Catholic charity supporting young people