We can open up a space to help people encounter God, writes Gerard Hanley
“I’d like to believe in God but he’s probably not real”. This is how I expressed my faith to a friend when I was 13-years-old. I was setting myself up for a life without God. I hadn’t seen, heard or experienced anything in my life up until then that would lead me to believe otherwise. A teacher in my secondary school however, made a deep impression on me. He was unashamed of his Catholic faith and wasn’t afraid to share it. He spoke the truth directly with love and respect in class and witnessed to his own faith freely. This teacher brought us on two retreats in first and second year that would change the direction of my life.
In Knock on the first retreat, I heard faith testimonies for the first time. These life stories made me think that perhaps God isn’t only real but also relevant to my life. We also had the opportunity to go to Confession. I was afraid to be real in Confession, but I wanted to take the examination of conscience they gave us seriously and be real with God. After I received absolution, I experienced a peace in my heart that until then I didn’t know was possible. A priest then brought the Eucharist to each of us in a Monstrance for a moment of prayer with Jesus. When he came to me, I was overwhelmed by God’s loving presence. I received the gift of faith and knew I was kneeling before Jesus. This experience rocked my world. Up until then I thought God was either not real, or if he was, he was very cold and distant. Here I had experienced Christ, alive, present and full of love. This was the beginning of the journey.
One year later, I hadn’t changed much following my retreat experience. By the time of the next retreat, I was supposed to be suspended from school. “They might put some manners on you” were the last words of the vice-principal as he sent me to the bus! On this retreat day in Clonfert, I again encountered the love and mercy of Jesus in Confession and I also experienced the power of the Holy Spirit when I was prayed with. I was left in no doubt that God was real, that he was good and worth going after more than anything the world has to offer. At that time, I was at the early stages of a career in professional football. Soon afterwards I was selected to play for the Irish U15’s and I progressed through the ranks up to U19. I had trials in England and real ambition to play professionally. My encounters with God however lead me to wonder which direction he was calling me in life. I continually begged him to bless my career and help me play at the highest level I could, but a deeper voice told me he had other work for me to do. After 10 years of wrestling with God, ups and downs in the League of Ireland, doing well, getting injured, signing for clubs and being let go, I finally gave up football to work full-time in ministry. It was not a quick decision and most certainly not an easy one but since letting go, I have had no regrets and a deep sense of peace in my heart.
I’m deeply grateful to the secondary school teacher who courageously witnessed to Jesus and brought us on those school retreats.”
Since leaving football in January 2016, I worked with NET Ministries for two years and then took on the position of Youth & Young Adult Ministry Coordinator at the Emmaus Centre, Swords. My number one responsibility is leading a team which facilitates retreats for primary and secondary school students. My own life was turned upside down through an encounter with God on a school retreat and it is a privilege to be leading them for others now. We want to make God’s love known among young people by sharing the love of Jesus with them. Retreat days are often memorable experiences for students but can also be life changing. Only God can reveal himself to an individual, but we can help by being open and available, by sharing his message and providing a space for encounter. We have wonderful facilities at Emmaus with beautiful grounds and we endeavour make sure students know they are welcome. They are welcome at Emmaus and welcome in the Church.
I’m deeply grateful to the secondary school teacher who courageously witnessed to Jesus and brought us on those school retreats. I’m also grateful to all who facilitated retreats for me as a teenager, they provided the space for me to connect with God and begin my relationship with Jesus. He is now the rock I’m building my life on. He led me to my wife Katie who I married in the Church last year. I’m grateful to God, His Church and all those who work in evangelisation. I’m now grateful to be playing a part in the mission too!