'You did not choose me, I chose you.' (John 15:16) This was the theme of this year's Northern Catholic Conference which drew over 400 people to Liverpool Hope University for a weekend of prayer, celebration and reflection in June.
It was a weekend featuring some noteworthy guest speakers, star turns from Dana, the former Eurovision Song Contest winner, and comedian Jimmy Cricket, and also a day of children and youth's ministry.
Now in its 11th year, the three-day conference began on Friday 12 June with Father Richard Reid reflecting on our calling to go and bear 'Fruit that will last'. Father Richard – formerly rector of Our Lady of the Annunciation, Bishop Eton and now serving as parish priest at St Mary's, – was one of five guest speakers at the event alongside Sister Roseann Reddy, Father Pat Deegan, Dennis Wrigley and Dana. All offered thought-provoking and inspiring words, expressed with humour and sincerity, as they drew on personal experiences to convey a deep faith – and draw some meaning from it for those listening in the chapel at Hope.
In the case of Dana, the singer and pro-life activist, she gave a humble and humorous testimony, sharing stories of a peaceful and grace-filled life. She recounted her life within a Catholic family during the troubled times in Northern Ireland and explained how she was sometimes reticent about her Catholic faith and reluctant to use her musical gifts and talents when asked to write for a specific theme.
On one occasion, as she recalled, she refused an approach yet then became aware of lyrics and musical arrangements forming in her head without even trying. This was how she came to write her song Lady of Knock – a hugely popular hymn among Irish Catholics and pilgrims to Marian shrines. It was testimony, she noted, to how the Holy Spirit was working within her and through her to reach millions of people in a hugely profound way. Dana earned a standing ovation – and there was even a quick chorus of the song itself.
Equally compelling was the talk by Father Pat Deegan, the spiritual director for the Northern Catholic Conference and parish priest at Our Lady's and St Alphonsus in Moss Side, Manchester. He spoke about the necessity of reading scripture to truly understand the teachings of Jesus and also gave a moving insight into how he answered the call to become a priest in the midst of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
'Listening to God, here and now' was the theme of the talk on Day 2 of the conference by Dennis Wrigley. The co-founder and co-leader of the Maranatha Christian community, he is a campaigner for justice and for people facing persecution and poverty at home and abroad and he underlined the importance of our mission as Christians to heal and to be healed through love. Later in the day, in a talk titled 'Called to be saints', Sister Roseann Reddy spoke with great humour of her soul-searching life experiences which led her to become the founder of the Gospel of Life sisters in Scotland, working with vulnerable women and girls in crisis pregnancies and those suffering the trauma of abortion.
The celebrant of the main conference Mass on the Saturday was Archbishop Malcolm McMahon. It was the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and in his homily he talked about Our Lady as the great intercessor. The sense of celebration at the conference was enhanced by a group of talented young musicians providing uplifting praise and worship songs, although there was also the opportunity for peace and private prayer, with adoration of the Blessed Sacrament available throughout the weekend.
Rather less peaceful was the Saturday night concert for delegates featuring the comedian Jimmy Cricket and his son, Father Frankie Mulgrew. The pair joined forces for a brief comedy slot before Jimmy launched into his usual routine of jokes and sketches. They were supported by Dana who sang some favourite hymns to Our Lady, concluding with a rousing full version of Lady of Knock.
The Northern Catholic Conference, or NCC, is an event for Catholics of all ages and on the Saturday there was also a separate children's and youth ministry event. This comprised two groups – one for children aged 7–10 and the other for 11 to 16-year-olds – and was overseen by Sister Roseann and Father Richard, both of whom are vastly experienced in communicating with young people. There was reconciliation and quiet prayer time before the Blessed Sacrament, before a Mass celebrated by Father Frankie. Father Sean Riley, concelebrating, gave a full explanation of the true meaning of the Mass. Thankfully the good weather also allowed for a picnic lunch in the grounds at Hope, where a Christian circus act performed for the youngsters.
The purpose of the Conference is to inspire people to 'bear the fruit of God in our lives' and thus follow the call of Pope Francis, who has said: "We need saints who are in this world and who know how to enjoy the best in this world without being callous or mundane." It was established by Father Frankie Mulgrew, now serving in Salford Diocese, in consultation with the late Canon Jimmy Collins and it is essentially a celebration of the Catholic faith – a coming together of like-minded people who relish the opportunity to be renewed and refreshed by the richness of the truths of that faith, to be fed by the Word of God and nourished by the Holy Eucharist.
That said, it is open to all people of faith who seek a deeper relationship with Jesus and it is hoped that the fruits of the NCC will continue to grow year by year. The dates for the 2016 Conference are 19–21 June and accommodation, as per this year, will be available for the whole weekend on a full-board basis in single en-suite rooms on the Liverpool Hope campus. Attendance as day delegates (non-residential) is also available. For further information, contact Denise Pursall on 07543 800812 or write to Regina Coeli, 6 Warner Drive, Liverpool L4 8US.