This year, in light of COVID-19 restrictions, the Pope John Paull II Awards were held in a virtual ceremony. Below is the address of Bishop Denis and don’t forget to check out some photos from the night with thanks to John Nugent Photography.

Pope John Paul II Awards 2020 – Virtual Ceremony              29.09.20

7.30pm in the Cathedral of the Assumption, Carlow

We gather in the Cathedral in Carlow this night to honour 403 recipients of the Pope John Paul II Award. 403 young people from 35 of our parishes and 25 of our Secondary Schools. I am so aware this only tells a part of the story. There are 8 other schools and 4 other parishes beyond the boundaries of our diocese who participate regularly in the Pope John Paul II Award programme, coordinated by Cathriona Kelly. To each participating school and parish, I say thanks. Behind Cathriona there are 50 Award leaders, of whom 12 are completing their first full year in this role. To Cathriona and each Award Leader, I say a huge thanks.

I love statistics, they tell the narrative, the story and where our school, our parish fits into something much bigger. Let’s take a moment to look at the diocesan figures, the stats over the past eleven years. 15 ceremonies over 11 years awarding 2,970 young people. That’s as close to 3,000 as you are going to get! The Awards were launched in Derry in 2006. One of the first dioceses outside Derry to introduce the Awards was Kildare & Leighlin in 2009 with the first awards presented nine years ago in 2011.

This is the first Virtual Ceremony, because of the COVID-19 restrictions. I want to thank all of you for being with us and staying with us this evening. Normally you would be meeting up with your friends, your school pals, in a kind nervous anticipation of being publicly called forward to receive your award.  Friends, pals and classmates who were on the Pope John Paul II Award journey with you. Normally you would be sitting in your parish group, but tonight you are with your family and I hope they are around you to support you.

Normally I would be looking at smiling excited faces who had completed their hours, their journal, their project and were deemed by their award leader worthy of bronze, silver, gold or Papal Cross. Remember it’s not what you receive, it’s that you participated, that you took part. You finished the race, you donned the jersey, you rolled up your sleeves. And tonight, you are being awarded very much for doing that.

Normally you would be participating in many events at parish level, but I am so aware that this has been anything but a normal year. Participants who would have led the Sunday School or children’s liturgy had less opportunity to do so because of Covid-19. Participants who would have helped with sacramental programmes like Confirmation, Faith Friends, First Holy Communion at a parish level were completely restricted this year because of Covid-19.

Participants who would have gone on pilgrimages to Lourdes, Taize, Medjugorje even to Knock. I heard of a Papal Cross group who were due to do a stage of the Camino with their leaders. But no one got to travel on any pilgrimage because of Covid-19. And yet there are still awards, in fact more than ever, because your leaders under Cathriona’s coordination have had to reimagine the programme as it applies to parishes and schools.

JPII Awardees are now experts on sanitisation! They are professionals in the mechanics of fogging! They are genius’s on systems management as they steward the regular congregation and do so sensitively and respectfully. Overnight they understand the term ‘capacity’ when it comes to churches. Overnight they have become inventful offering outdoor seating for latecomers. Overnight they have introduced Facebook Live and its benefits into mainstream parish liturgy. For these things and much more you are this evening receiving your awards.

Our ceremony falls on the Feast celebrating the Archangels – Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. The name Michael means “who is like God?” Gabriel means “God’s strength” while Raphael translates as “God heals”. It’s interesting we are told that Archangels are “incorporeal beings”. Covid has in many respects made all of us into incorporeal beings as we are introduced to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Instagram, Snapchat and Tiktok. Devices that allow us to work incorporeally, a bit like the archangels.

Michael is often represented as a warrior in armour, wielding a sword, protecting us from anything awkard or that isn’t good for us. Gabriel is the messenger, he told Mary that she was going to be the Mother of Jesus and he frequently appeared in Joseph’s dreams. Raphael is the one who brings healing, and who seems to bring people together who are good for one another. We love our friends, we thank Raphael for introducing us to our pals, people that are special in our lives. Maybe the people we teamed up when completing our Pope John Paul II Award.

The Award allows you to live your faith and to witness to that faith in front of your peers and the wider community. Not everyone gets parish, but I think Pope John Paul II Awardees understand it from a young age. My prayer is always that you will stay with parish, stay connected long after the credits have been achieved and the awards have been presented. Being a JPII young person is more than just leading a Sunday liturgy, sanitising a church before the next Mass or even travelling to Lourdes and all these things are commendable, but being a JPII young person is understanding what parish is and why by your involvement, your inclusion, your participation, you make room for many more to become involved and part of our faith story.

An image caught my attention earlier this month, the front cover of the Sacred Heart Messenger Magazine. The eyes of the dog focused on the church webcam, focused on the virtual celebration, focused on the computer screen – I encourage you to stay focused. There is a danger because so much we do now is done virtually that this generation of young people could distance themselves from the church building and in doing so, the practice of their faith. Sunday gets lost between camogie, football, soccer, chilling out and lunch. I would encourage you to stay connected with your faith in these pandemic times.

You are all worth more than gold, silver and bronze, even the Papal Cross award – you are worth more because of your engagement, your involvement, your participation in these awards. I wish you every blessing and once again thank our wonderful priests who encourage you, our committed teachers who inspire you, our inspiring Award Leader who mentors you and of course Cathriona, who tirelessly works  co-ordinating this programme and alongside Robert Norton continues to inspire young people in our diocese to live their faith and be a real part of their parish and diocese. Many thanks.