The challenges of forming children and teenagers in the faith was at the heart of a keynote address given on Monday by Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster to the opening session of the XII European Congress for Catechesis.

The four day meeting taking place here in Rome is organised by the CCEE, the Council of European Bishops Conferences, and focuses on the theme of 'Christian Initiation in the context of the new evangelisation, with particular attention to children and young people aged from 7 to 16'. As President of the CCEE commission for catechesis, schools and universities, Archbishop Nichols spoke of the "intuitive sense of hope" of young people and their "desire to know and discover the underlying patterns and purpose of their existence and experiences".

Talking to Philippa Hitchen about the meeting and about the forthcoming Year of Faith, the English Church leader also shared some surprising anecdotes about the most successful activities for bringing young people to the faith..... Listen: Read the full text of Archbishop Nichol's address below: Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster President of the CCEE Commission for Catechesis, Schools and Universities. It is a great pleasure for me to welcome you to this important Congress.

I do so in the name of the CCEE and in particular of its President, Cardinal Peter Erdo. As you know, CCEE is at the service of the Episcopal Conferences of Europe and it is very much our hope that this Congress will be a significant part of that service. I also welcome you, in my own name, as the President of the CCEE Commission for Catechesis, Schools and Universities. In offering these words of welcome, I have in mind especially all the members of Bishops’ Conferences who are present. I thank you for your presence. I know how difficult it is to make time for events such as these, with all the pressing issues that face us in our dioceses. So I am very grateful that you have made this time available and I hope it will prove to be a good investment! What we hope for, above all else, is to achieve an exchange and mutual learning from each others’ experience of this crucial work of Christian Initiation.

There is not only great concern about this theme present here today but also great experience which is to be respected and, I hope, shared sensitively. Thank you, then, not only for your presence but also for all that you will contribute. I thank also the other delegates, priests, religious, experts and all who have worked hard to prepare for this Congress, especially Monsignor Michalik, who heads up this work in our Commission.

Your contributions and serious study of these issues is much appreciated and a valued part of our work. I hope, too, that all our work here together in this Congress will be deeply rooted in our prayer together. It is the Lord whom we seek to serve, whom we seek to put forward. So let us be constantly open to His presence in our midst and sensitive to His promptings and call. Then all shall be well.

The theme of our Congress has been well announced: Christian Initiation in the context of the new Evangelisation with particular attention to children and young people from 7 to 16 years of age. The importance of this theme in the life of the Church is clear. But so is the context. First of all there is the context of the awareness in the Church of a summons to a new Evangelisation: new because there is a need for fresh vigour and imagination; new because there are so many who have never heard the invitation of the Gospel. Often it is said that Europe in particular is the field most in need of a new evangelisation.

While it is difficult to generalise about Europe as a whole, there is truth in the view that Europe is, in a particular sense, the focus of so much tension between the summons of the Gospel and the call of a way of life which is seen, understood, developed and lived without any reference to the reality of God whatsoever. This is the atmosphere which young people meet in so many circumstances, sometimes within their life at home. It is the air they breathe. Yet we know that it is not an air that satisfies or refreshes the human spirit. We know that many young people are filled with an instinctive generosity, an intuitive sense of hope and a desire to know and discover the underlying patterns and purpose of their existence and their experiences.

These aspirations are a source of great hope to us all. They are evidence, if we need it, that the truths about our humanity expressed in the gift of our teaching are indeed valid and enduring. We know that we are made ‘in the image and likeness of God’ and therefore will find true satisfaction only when ‘we shall be like Him because we shall see Him as He really is’ (1 John 3:2). We also know that the fragility of our efforts to realise those aspirations is a direct consequences of the brokenness of our humanity, well expressed in the teaching about the presence within every human being of the reality of original sin.

Every person experiences the conflict spoken of by St Paul as he struggled with the reality of his own experiences and calling (see Romans 7:13-25). It is important for us to remember, during this Congress, that these deep-seated dimensions of the human spirit express themselves very differently in the years covered by this Congress – from 7 to 16. I believe we must be attentive to those differences. Visiting a parish in Birmingham, a few years ago now, I met with a man who had spent many years in Catholic youth work and was renowned for his success in it. I asked him two questions and I remember clearly the answers he gave.

My first question was: What is the key advice you would give to those in the Church working with young people today? His answer: ‘Try to keep the age groups separate; they are so different’. My second question was this: ‘What was your most successful activity for the young people?’ His answer: ‘Ballroom dancing!’ A second part of the context in which we meet is, of course, the Year of Faith called for by the Holy Father for October 2012 to November 2013.

I am sure that there will be opportunities during this Congress for considering the importance of this initiative for the work of Christian Initiation. Certainly among the dioceses of England and Wales considerable planning is taking place so that we can respond firmly and creatively to this initiative and use this Year as a major opportunity to help people to deepen their knowledge of the faith of the Church. That knowledge is important. It recalls that our faith is essentially a revealed religion, a gift for us to receive, explore, understand, and come to enter ever more deeply.

There are, of course, many moments for such learning to take place. For some of us the moment of Sunday preaching is an important opportunity and we are looking at helping priests to present again the key themes of faith during their preaching in the Year of Faith. Some are also looking to this Year as an opportunity of refreshing the work of parish catechists, those who work directly with the age groups of children and young people on whom we are focussing.

I am sure you will have your own ideas and plans for this Year of Faith and we will be guided and stimulated by the many ideas and proposals being put forward at this time by the Congregations and Offices here in Rome. Central to this work for the Year of Faith is the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the arrival of the 20th Anniversary of its publication. The Catechism is a great resource and a great challenge. It is a resource as it can and does guide our understanding of the faith, and its key content, in both profession and practice. It is a challenge because it holds before us the task of presenting the faith in its entirety, in its symphonic wholeness.

It is so easy for us all, and for those who work with youngsters, to concentrate on what might seem to be favourite and attractive aspects of our faith, relegating as ‘for later’ those other aspects which are more difficult, or more counter-cultural. Obviously our presentation of faith has to be sensitive to age and capacity. But it should not, on that account, be over-selective. After all the full sweep of the articles of faith are just that: interconnected dimensions which, taken together as joined – or articulated – make up the whole of the Gospel invitation as understood and lived in the Tradition of the Church.

Much work is and has been done and properly adapting the Catechism of the Catholic Church for different countries and age groups. I know from my own experience how helpful the YouCat project has been for older youngsters. Indeed some who receive it for the first time are quickly absorbed by its content, as if it actually does answer a hunger and a thirst that they feel inside themselves. There are many challenges that lie ahead of this Congress. I hope that that are tackled in an energetic and fruitful manner.

From the point of view of this Commission of CCEE, this is an important moment. The work of the Commission covers this great journey of faith: in the task of schools, in the experience of university life and, throughout life, in the task of continuing catechesis. So the theme of this Congress is very central to our overall view: how do we best share the Gospel in Christian initiation with youngsters in these crucial years? I wish you well and ask God’s blessing on all this work. Thank you very much.