Gather 2024: Joy in the presence of God

By Sarah Barreto

One hundred and fifty people from every corner of our diocese gathered together last weekend to celebrate together the joy of being beloved children of God at Gather 2024. For those who have never been, it is hard to describe what these weekends are, but one delegate called it ‘a feast of faith, friendship, song, prayer, contemplation and love.’

The incredibly talented Jo Boyce led our beautiful opening liturgy with:

It is wonderful for us to be here:

Here, in the presence of our loving God.

It is wonderful for us to be here:

Here, gathered as the Body of Christ.

It is wonderful for us to be here:

Here, filled with the joy of the Spirit.

An Introduction to Joy (David Wells)

David Wells began our time together reflecting on ‘Joy in the presence of God’ with an opening out of that whole subject of Joy, and he did this by the simple method of asking the question what is Joy? This led to many more questions for us to reflect on, such as where can it be found, is it necessary and if found…should it be shared?

David, as anyone knows who has ever heard him, is an entertaining and deeply thoughtful speaker but he also has the wonderfully graced ability to appear both vulnerable and confident. Confident in his own sense of God but then a marvellous preparedness to show his own struggle, his vulnerability to humanity’s common failing, that underestimation of the enormity of the love of God. He quoted from many writers and thinkers, but it was the joy that shone forth from Pope Francis’ ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ that won the day. Indeed, if Pope Francis received a Euro for every time this work was mentioned over the weekend, he might have been a very rich man. But then again why would you not joyously quote from ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ at every opportunity?

 The Joy of Synodality (Avril Baigent)

Avril delivered an enthusiastic presentation on The Synodal Way.  She reminded us that this was an ancient practice of the Church for discerning and decision making.  Avril explained that it flows out from the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium) enabling us to live as the Pilgrim People of God, through living, discerning and acting as Church in different ways: to dream about what it means to be the Church we are called to be – a journey of growing authentically towards the communion and mission that God calls the Church to live out in the Third Millennium.

In The Joy of the Gospel (EG83), Pope Francis explains why the Church needs to be changed from a kind of “tomb psychology”, allowing ourselves to be robbed of the joy of evangelisation, to sense the challenge of living together and supporting one another, which, albeit somewhat chaotic, can be “an experience of fraternity, a sacred pilgrimage”. (EG 87).

Avril reminded us that this is rooted in our common Baptism, encouraging us to listen to the sign of the times, using gracious listening and gracious speaking to create safe spaces where each one can be heard, being open to the Holy Spirit and moving to action (Instrumentum Laboris – the basis for discussion for the October 2023 Rome Synod meeting).

We then become:

  • Open to the Holy Spirit
  • Able to listen to all voices
  • A new way of being community
  • Exercising co-responsibility
  • Moving to action

How do we move from grey pragmatism to a caravan of solidarity?

  1. Through habits and practice e.g. start each meeting with Lectio Divina
  • Using conversation in the Spirit (gracious listening/ speaking)
  1. Transforming our decision making
  • Re-imagine parish structures (e.g. for finance committee)
  • Think about marginal voices
  1. Becoming a synodal community
  • What is our charism?
  • Learn from early Church (encounter, listen, discern, act)

Helpful resources from the School for Synodality:

 The Joy of the presence of God in his word (Sr Mary Magdalene)

Sr Mary Magdalene led us in a truly inspiring session around God being present to us in His word. As one of our Gatherers expressed afterwards ‘this beautiful woman simply glowed, exuding joy from every pore. What a privilege to be in her presence.’ And another, ‘The absolute love of God emanates from her. A truly inspiring session, thank you!’

Art, Faith and Joy (Colin Bentley)

Colin shared his remarkable journey from schoolboy to professional artist illustrated by examples of his art at different stages- his skill was evident even at 6 years old as he shared a sketch of a chimp and then as an adult, manifest in bringing the Jurassic Seascapes to an international audience. As his story unfurled and he described his other passion (the HCPT charity so integral to the lives of Colin and his wife Jenny), the conference could appreciate his true vocation, bringing his faith and art together. His portraits of the HCPT family are not only stunning but all exude the joy and love from the canvas that we saw mirrored on Colin’s face as he described his project.

He also shared examples of his talent for cartoon drawing, describing the apparitions of Lourdes and the beautifully illustrated Lourdes song book- the latter enthusiastically used by delegates later that night in the bar!

Animated Adoration led by the Sisters of Mary Morning Star in Lynton

Fr Jonathan Stewart wrote; ‘For me, and for many I have spoken to, the prayer vigil was the highlight of the weekend, our ‘mountain-top’. It revealed something deep within us, a longing for an encounter with the Lord which is truly transformative. Thank you for sharing something of your life of prayer with us and helping us to experience what true worship can and should be.

Please pass on our gratitude to your sisters who were present. I assure you, and they, of my continued prayers and the prayers of the whole team.’

The Wrong Trousers (John Mannix)

John led us in our final keynote with a beautiful, honest and reflective talk around ‘If I don’t feel joy, what am I doing wrong?’

It’s not a case of being bad but being mis-oriented; our spiritual antenna not being quite tuned-in. Sometimes the obstacle to our being able to ‘tune in’ to God has been negative life experiences.  For some people, their upbringing has prevented them developing the capacity to trust others. For others there may be negative experiences that prevent Christian imagery from reaching them. But sometimes, we’re prevented from tuning in to God; from ‘meeting’ God just because … we’re wearing the ‘wrong trousers’ or have a misaligned perspective!

As one of our delegates expressed afterwards, John was ‘funny, emotional, and inspiring. What a beautiful soul this man has. I’m sure his words will have touched everyone in the room. Thank you John for your honesty.’ Another told us ‘It was my favourite talk. I really felt he hit the spot for me- fantastic!’

Conference Mass

Our lovely Diocesan Administrator Canon Paul Cummins celebrated Mass with us. During his wonderful homily he touched upon the role of joy in our lives and also mentioned the poem on the theme of Joy gifted to all delegates written by Fr Mark Skelton. How apt that our Mass ended with:

It was wonderful for us to be here;
but we cannot stay on the mountain top…


With God on our side, who can be against us?


We have seen the glory of the Lord


As the French philosopher and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said, ‘Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.’  Some of us have still not yet come down from the mountain after such a wonderful experience and so many have reached out with heartfelt thanks and the desire to do it all again next year. ‘My cup runneth over. Such a blessed conference- though you must all be so exhausted now. It must have taken so much planning, all the details worked together to make it so beautiful for us all. Thank you and the team with all the superlatives you can muster.’

Would we do it all again? A hundred times yes!

‘An encounter with Jesus always brings you joy, and if this does not happen to you, it is not a true encounter with Jesus.’

Pope Francis General Audience St Peter’s Square 15th November 2023

Warmest thanks to delegate Monika Markzalek for providing the featured photos and to the organisers Sarah Barreto, Fr Mark Skelton, Fr Jonathan Stewart, Liz Toy, Angela Folland, Susanne Kowal and David Wells.