Legacy of Pope John Paul II alive in youth work

Mary O’Donnell meets Yvonne Rooney, the youth coordinator for the Derry diocese

In 2005 a young primary school teacher from County Derry had a deeply moving experience, when she travelled to Rome for Pope John Paul II’s funeral and found herself amongst those privileged to spend time in prayer in St Peter’s the night before his Requiem Mass.

Recalling her profound experience in Rome, Desertmartin-born Yvonne Rooney (nee Murray), who is now the youth coordinator for the Derry diocese, told The Irish Catholic that it had opened her eyes to the universal Church in a different way from what she had experienced at World Youth Days.

Feeling that the warmth and joy Pope John Paul II had exuded was what drew so many people to Rome at the time of his death, Yvonne said: “His witness at the end of an all consuming illness was, for me, affirmation of a life spent for Christ.”

She came home renewed in faith and hope and a year later she took a career break from teaching to work full-time in youth ministry, which led to her being seconded to work for the Derry diocese as its first youth coordinator.

And so began a journey with young people which has greatly enriched Yvonne’s faith and helped to keep the legacy of John Paul II’s papacy and his belief in youth to the fore, as the creation of this new post coincided with the launch of the Pope John Paul II Award in Derry.

This involved Yvonne working closely with young people as she helped to implement the programme in schools and parishes, enabling the youth to live their faith.

Youth involvement

The Derry Diocesan Youth Commission was established and Yvonne worked with its ‘Vision 2020’ plan, designed to introduce youth ministry at parish level. She helped to identify volunteers and organise youth involvement in the annual summer pilgrimage to Lourdes, as well as other diocesan youth events.

After she got married in 2009 and went to live in Dublin, Yvonne was delighted to be able to continue working in youth ministry when she took up a post with the Kildare and Leighlin diocese. The environment was new to her, but the work was not as the John Paul II Award had just been launched there.

Yvonne was also involved in preparations for the 2011 World Youth Day in Madrid and led 120 young people on pilgrimage. She introduced a new project created by the Kerry diocese, called Teen Spirit, which celebrates the talent and faith of young people through song.

There was much preparation too in Kildare and Leighlin for the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, which included a Diocesan School Congress for young people. This was such a success it has now become an annual event for senior students in the diocese.

As well as exploring parish ministry for young Ministers of the Word and Ministers of the Eucharist, Yvonne was also involved in organising a summer pilgrimage to the ‘Bright Lights Youth Festival’ in Kent and another to the Medjugorje Youth Festival.


She went on to take up the role of Diocesan Advisor for Religious Education and worked alongside Sr Anne Holtan in supporting teachers of religion in post primary schools. This led to her studying for a Masters in Religious Education for Post Primary, specialising in mentoring in leadership, which she graduated from a few months ago through the Mater Dei Institute in Dublin.

Around the same time Yvonne relocated back to Derry, where she has once again been appointed as the youth coordinator for the diocese. As well as coordinating the Pope John Paul II Award locally, Yvonne supports it at national level too, liaising with the 16 other dioceses throughout Ireland that have implemented it.

As youth coordinator, Yvonne liaises with teachers of religious education in post primary schools in the diocese and coordinates youth ministry at parish level.

Currently working on this, the Derry Diocesan Youth Commission has held information evenings and parish workshops in the various deaneries, and the hope is that this will lead to the appointment of parish coordinators for the Pope John Paul II Award and parish volunteers to develop youth ministry.

The Youth Commission is also recruiting a team of six young people, aged 18-25 years, to live in community for a gap year, with the focus of their work being school retreats and parish missions.

Yvonne has introduced the Youth Alpha film series in a few parishes, which she has found to be “very effective in energising young people in conversation around their faith”, and the introduction of the ‘Dead Theologians Society’ (DTS) as a pilot in some parishes to discuss the lives of saints, is another consideration in the months ahead.

Greatest gifts

Feeling blessed to still be working with young people, Yvonne finds them to be very open to exploring their faith and getting involved, and has found journeying with them to be “one of the greatest gifts of youth ministry”.

Noting that Pope Francis strongly advocates a personal relationship with Jesus Christ for all young people, she said: “For me, that is the key to youth ministry; to try to facilitate an encounter with Christ that will give young people life and open their eyes to the incredible plan he has for their life.”

*For more information on the Derry Diocesan Youth Commission contact 028 71 264087 or  yvonne.rooney@derrydiocese.org