15 August 2022, The Tablet

A level results day – and these Catholic retreat centres would welcome gap year students

by Dominic Howarth

A year at a retreat house means serving thousands of young people from schools and parishes in the local area.

A level results day – and these Catholic retreat centres would welcome gap year students

Pupils are being urged to consider a gap year at a Catholic retreat centre after receiving A level results on Thursday.
Simon Dack / Vervate/Alamy

Across the country on Thursday morning computer screens will be refreshed and envelopes opened as A-Level results day arrives.

It is a very unusual year. When this cohort of Year 13s were due to take GCSEs public exams were not possible, and grades were teacher assessed. So, having taken many mock exams, it was only in June 2022, aged 17 or 18, that they finally entered full “exam conditions” for the first time in their lives.

As people working with teenagers across the country, Catholic Youth Ministry Federation (CYMFed) members have seen the immense pressures on young people, and the amazing work done by schools, families and youth ministry to support, nurture and encourage students in this challenging and unpredictable time.

Thursday may bring surprises, positive or otherwise, when those results emails and envelopes are opened. Or it may be that the last six weeks since putting down the pen on the final exam have been a time of reflecting in a way that was not possible for many months before the exams. Anyone working with young people this summer knows that many Year 13s are only now discerning what happens after results day, as the last year has been so crammed with studies and revision.

One of the hidden gems of the Catholic Church in England and Wales is a network of youth retreat houses; in Birmingham, Brentwood, London, Newbury, Newcastle, Nottingham, Reading and the Lake District, as well as retreat teams in Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow. There are also international opportunities with Cafod, the Columbans and the Salesians. A year at a retreat house means serving thousands of young people from schools and parishes in the local area. Skills such as teamwork, confidence in presenting in front of others, and leading a small group are blended with the practicalities of living away from home – washing, cooking, cleaning – all wrapped in a wonderful journey of formation in faith, together with other young adults of similar age (usually 18 – 22 years old).

Raph, who took a gap year from 2020 – 2021 at Walsingham House, in the Diocese of Brentwood, said afterwards: “Being on the team really pushed me outside my comfort zone; I gained skills in leadership and teamwork, boosted my confidence, and lived an amazing year full of friendship and fun. I lived in a community with other people my age, and learnt new things about my faith and how to use my faith in the world.”  

One of his teammates, Erin, said: “Being on team was the best year of my life so far. It was amazing to work with lots of young people each day, to learn so many skills – including teamwork, leadership and public speaking – and so much more about myself. Combining my year on team with working with Cafod enabled me to show my faith in action, and gave me deep insight into social injustices across the world.”

This year, many retreat houses and teams still have some vacancies for volunteers and would warmly welcome applications in this A level results week. It may be that you are a teacher, chaplain, priest, parent or grandparent reading this, and you could share it with someone who is still searching for what to do after A-levels, and who would love a gap year. If A-level results don’t go quite as planned (in either direction!) a gap year provides the opportunity to reassess what happens next for you. It may also be that you have finished university or an apprenticeship and now is the moment in your life when you would welcome a gap year.

Felishia, who was also on a recent retreat team, said: “The gap year really prepared me for university – I think I would have been very ‘young’ if I had gone straight after A levels, but after a year on the team I had confidence in making friends and settling into uni really well.” And Sophie, who has just finished a gap year and is heading to uni in the autumn, said: “This year meant I could interact with lots of different young people – it was a year full of variety. I have been able to constantly grow, spending time in a small community filled with laughter and joy has given me memories I will never forget.”

Some may think that to begin a Catholic gap year you have to be a “perfect Catholic”. Well, not only is no-one perfect, the very best gappers are those with lots of questions, and an energy to dive deep into faith, to share it with others authentically – that means, facing doubts and questions together with young people who are on retreat, while also inspiring them as young leaders. You do that by being who you are and who God calls you to be. There is no one type of Catholic gap year applicant, just as there is no one type of Catholic young person. If what you are reading here interests you, then follow your heart and make an application.

On the map above there are details of the retreat houses and teams. You may want to choose one near to home, or in a completely different part of the country. Each have their own application process, and they will respond to you very quickly. If you do start a Catholic gap year this autumn, a few things are sure – you will be opening an amazing new horizon in your life, you will be serving other young people in powerful ways, rooted in faith, and you will finish the year with deep friendships and a fresh understanding of your Catholic faith.

It is all well summed up in a quote from Beth, who has just finished a gap year which she took after uni, and is about to begin work in a school. She said: “It was a year full of faith, fun and friendship. Every day was helping the young people of our diocese to connect with their faith, and with one another.” When asked if they would recommend the year to someone who had just finished A-levels Raph, Erin, Felishia, Sophie and Beth all said immediately that they would.

For all those receiving A-level results this week, many blessings and prayers from everyone at the Catholic Youth Ministry Federation.


Fr Dominic Howarth, Diocese of Brentwood

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