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... From the Goodnews archives, May/June 2007


Fanning the Flame


Sr Maria Natella OP tells the story of Fanning the Flame, a ministry to children which introduces them in a natural way to the gifts of the Holy Spirit in a Catholic context



Sr mariaIt began about 15 years ago when I was the youth chaplain to the city of Southampton and I thought it would be really good to have a mission and bring together the whole Catholic community in the city. I needed people to help and most of the people who volunteered were members of a catholic charismatic group called the Burning Bush Community. The title for the mission, which took three years to prepare, was “Fanning the Flame”(2 Tim 1:6-7). In my prayer time I began to receive a series of pictures, which culminated in one of an old lady with a stick. Eventually the Lord revealed to me that the old lady represented the Catholic Church and He revealed to me that although she was old, her heart was as young as Pentecost. I prayed and asked the Lord how I could show people this vibrant heart of an institution 2000 years old. Six months later in another picture I saw a young child with a kite running past the old lady which was accompanied with the words, “Let the children run with the Spirit.”

I didn’t quite understand what this meant, but in the mission preparation we asked people to prepare some banners to illustrate the theme “Fanning the Flame”. I had told nobody apart from my spiritual director and my superior about the pictures, but 12 out of 15 of the banners that were submitted all depicted a child flying a kite. This was a huge confirmation about what I was trying to do.

After the mission, which was a great success, we arranged as a follow up a Fanning the Flame summer camp for children and young people. The purpose of the camp was to give the young people some solid Catholic teaching about the traditions of the Church and the sacraments in an atmosphere of fun and fellowship. We had no intention in talking about the gifts of the Holy Spirit but only to teach them about their Catholic faith so they could hold their own in discussions when questions came up. About 38 young people came aged 10-18 years old. The first night of the camp the team had arranged a time of prayer accompanied by a slide show with stills from the film Jesus of Nazareth. The last slide was left on the wall which was of Mary kneeling down with her hands open and resting on knees at the moment of the Annunciation. At the end I told the young people that they could either go to bed, go to the chapel or play some quiet games, or they could stay where they were and I would ask God’s blessing on them for a quiet night and a good sleep.

“ Children resting in the Spirit”

They all elected to stay and so I invited them to assume the position of Mary depicted on the slide. I put my hand on the young child in front of me. To my surprise she gently rested in the Holy Spirit. The rest of the team looked at me, wondering what was happening, as they were as surprised as I was. The young people, however, weren’t fazed at all. I went to pray a blessing for the next child and she rested in the spirit too. Then I saw out of the corner of my eye, two twelve year olds in the corner. They had laid hands on another child, who was also resting in the spirit. Within 20 minutes, every young person in the room was resting in the Holy Spirit. As a team we had a brief discussion about what we should do. We decided we would play the whole thing down and not mention it again. But on the Wednesday five 14 year olds turned up to speak to me and asked, “Do we pray in tongues every time we pray over people or not?” Once again I was shocked as we hadn’t told them anything about tongues but somehow it had naturally emerged among them. I realised then the meaning of the word and the picture I had received earlier about “Let the children run with the Spirit.” Fanning the Flame was not just to be about teaching the Catholic Faith but also about providing an environment where God could move.

Our job as a team was simply to be open enough to the Holy Spirit, so that we could explain to them what was happening as the Spirit manifested itself. This became our way of working. The young people would experience the Holy Spirit acting and then I and the team would explain what this was. The young people particularly loved prayer ministry and being prayed over. They told me that this was the time that they felt at their safest and they could express themselves and feel there was no barrier between God and them. After praying with them, we would encourage them in their turn to pray for others, which they were only too happy to do.

“Small children praying over parents”

After the camp we had a weekly youth fellowship and a children’s fellowship in Southampton. Then because of links we had with a group in Christchurch, we started a Fanning the Flame group there, and after running a confirmation group in Ledbury, the children there wanted a Fanning the Flame camp there too. It was wonderful to see how this developed. During the day the children would learn about the gifts of the Spirit, and in the evening they would put them into practice and you would have very small children praying over their parents. Out of this grew a parish mission and from that the Hereford Catholic Family conference which now takes place every autumn. New groups have also started in Gateshead and Stockton-on-Tees initiated by a priest, Fr Sean O’Neill, who spent almost a year with my religious community and who shadowed me and my work and took it back there.

As well as the annual camps in the three locations, we still run a weekly children’s fellowship at Springhill R.C. Primary School, Southampton. We don’t do the teenage group as a separate group any more. Instead, in the Priory, we have a monthly meeting for all ages: children, youth, young adults and adults. The young people are really on fire with zeal to spread the gospel. Their latest dream is to fund raise for a couple of vans or a bus so they can go out evangelising outside pubs, clubs, university campuses, etc. where other young people are, rather than having to organise events in church buildings. For these young people the gifts of the Holy Spirit are just a normal part of their Catholic faith, and not something separate or strange. As leaders we see our work simply as a matter of helping them develop their gifts, both natural and spiritual. The spiritual gifts are not confined to prophecy and healing, but all those mentioned in the scriptures such as administration and works of mercy. The important thing is to provide an environment where they can explore these gifts and have an opportunity to use them. Young people often have both natural and spiritual gifts but they don’t have an outlet to put them into practice and grow in them.

One of the problems in the Church is that although we are good at imparting knowledge about the faith, we often don’t see the need to help people experience God themselves. When you give God permission He can do all sorts of things. The challenge for leaders is to be open enough to what God wants to do, and then give Him the space to do it and not try to regiment and control things so much that the Holy Spirit has no place to move. Our favourite prayer is the one from Ephesians 3:14-21, which we print as a prayer card for all our missions, and which reminds us that God can “do more than you can ask or imagine…”

About 120 children and young people come to annual Fanning the Flame camp in the grounds of Sr Maria’a convent in the New Forest which takes place this year 13th-17th August. There will also be a smaller camp at Simon and Mary Cameron’s farm in Dymock in Gloucestershire from 23rd-27th July for about 50 people and another one in the north east in Stockton (non-residential) in the last week of July for another 100 or so young people. The age range for all camps is 10-20 years old as there is appropriate input for the different age groups and the older young people help with the younger ones.

For further info contact: Sr Maria Natella OP, St Joseph’s, Shirley Holmes Road, Lymington, Hants SO41 8NH Tel 01590 681874

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Clare Vandome, who is part of the Fanning the Flame team shares about the effect that the ministry has had on herself and her family

I am married to a naval officer so we move around the country quite a lot. Seven years ago we were posted to Ledbury. We are committed Catholics and soon got involved in the parish. Our son Christopher went on a confirmation retreat run by Sr Maria. He came back, having had an amazing weekend and full of fire for his faith.

We have always been church goers but I had never come across the Catholic Charismatic Renewal before. I had always felt that there must be something more to my Catholic faith but I didn’t know what it was. When I listened to what Christopher told me I realised that this was what I had always been looking for. This led me to doing an Alpha course and being prayed over at a charismatic evening in the parish where I was baptised in the Holy Spirit myself. As a family we also all took part in the first Fanning the Flame summer week. My children all thought it was fantastic and we have been involved in Fanning the Flame ever since.

Through all this my faith has changed out of recognition. I see things completely differently now. I am drawn to Mass and read the bible every day, which I never did before. I can also see the difference that Fanning the Flame has made to my children and others involved. It has brought their faith alive. As a parent I have never had to argue with my children, who are now 11, 19 and 22, to go to Mass. Their faith is very strong.

They love going to the Fanning the Flame camp because they meet other young people who feel the same as they do about their Faith and where they are not considered freaky for believing in Christ.