22 November 2016, The Tablet

Stepping into the gap: taking part in the Vatican Youth Symposium and shaking hands with the Pope

One of the young representatives at last month's UN/Vatican-led brainstorming session shares her experience with thetablet.co.uk

Eleanor Margetts, pictured shaking hands with the Pope, a volunteer with Wellspring Community in Brighton, East Sussex, won a competition to travel to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis and present her ideas on how the Church is getting young Catholics to take a lead on providing solutions to global problems to a joint Vatican-UN symposium at the end of October. Here she shares her experience with thetablet.co.uk 

Few would question the importance of listening to young people. We might not have the same number of years under our belts as others, but we bring to the table our own experiences.

With typical wisdom, Pope Francis has acknowledged this by making the engagement of young people a hallmark of his papacy. And it’s not just by posing for selfies; this is a Pope who wrote in his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium: “Young people call us to renewed and expansive hope, for they represent new directions for humanity and open us up to the future.” It’s only natural that the Church would act on this by inviting us to discuss that future.

It’s been one of the great privileges of my life that I was amongst a group of young people welcomed to the Vatican to participate in such a discussion – a dialogue on the world’s commitments to tackle global poverty through the Sustainable Development Goals, agreed by the UN last year.

I realised my passion for global justice three years ago when I applied to join CAFOD’s gap year programme, Step into the Gap. I was unsure of what my next step would be after university, but volunteering with CAFOD in England and Wales and spending time with CAFOD’s partners in Sierra Leone inspired me to undertake further study, this time in Development and Human Rights. I felt a call to continue down the path of international development work.

It was through CAFOD that I was made aware of a Vatican Youth Symposium on development issues – a partnership between the Holy See and a UN body called the Sustainable Development Youth Network. I wrote an application to take part, looking at the links between the Sustainable Development Goals and climate change as a major cause of poverty. To my delight, my application was accepted and I was invited to Rome to present my ideas.

And what an experience! I arrived in Rome excited to share ideas and learn from peers from across the world. We sat down ready to begin when we were told that Pope Francis wanted to meet us. I was amazed at the prospect of meeting the Pope: a person who symbolises the Church’s mission to place the fight against poverty at its heart.

We were strictly told by security not to approach the Holy Father, yet he walked straight into the group, offering kind words. I was a little taken aback so chose to stand further away from the people; happy enough just to be in the presence of someone who has proved such an inspiration to my generation. But it was then that Pope Francis actually approached me. The rule might have been that there would be no hand-shaking, but I could hardly reject his outstretched hand. I felt blessed by such an experience.

Straight afterwards, it was my turn to present my ideas to the symposium. My nerves from the morning had gone, replaced with the glow I felt after meeting the Pope. We spent the rest of the afternoon listening to and discussing one another’s ideas: the sort of dialogue that Francis has called for. The projects people were talking about were so impressive, especially exciting innovations that young people had with regards to technology. I was particularly struck by an idea to create a smartphone app that matches up young people to volunteer roles in their local area.

Some of the ideas we contributed will feed into future UN conferences, and we will continue to share our ideas as a group. It has been a privilege to have been a part of such an amazing experience, one that the Church could replicate elsewhere to involve young people in creating solutions to other issues. I have learnt so much and made inspiring friendships that will continue to feed my passion for social justice.

Eleanor Margetts is currently volunteering with the Wellspring Community in Brighton. She would like to thank the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and their lay associates for their contributions to her participation in the Vatican symposium

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