by ANGELA PYKE
CHRISTCHURCH — As parish priest of St Teresa’s in Riccarton, school chaplain for St Teresa’s School, and local superior of the Community of St John, French priest Fr Antoine Thomas has little time to pursue his sporting interests.
But the keen skier, mountaineer, rock-climber, hang glider and windsurfer does use outdoor sport, along with contemplative silence, to help young people discover and adore Jesus, which he believes cannot be achieved by attendance at Sunday Mass alone.
“Some young people can sit in Church every week without realising the presence of God in the holy sacrament of the Eucharist and without knowing how to adore the Lord,” said Fr Thomas.
Through rock and mountain climbing, Fr Thomas invites teenagers and young adults to “discover the hidden and mysterious presence of God through a physical and spiritual ascent”. He said that mountains, “beckon us to gaze upwards and to encounter God in the stillness, beauty and rawness of his creation”.
“The time in the mountains affords us an opportunity to live in the present, to embrace silence and poverty, to practice fraternal charity, to search [for] the truth, to pray in community, and to adore our Creator and Father.”
For 12 years, Fr Thomas has taken groups of young people to the Colorado Mountains for summer retreats through Verso L’Alto (To the Heights) Ministries, which he co-founded. Since moving to Christchurch in 2010, he has taken young Cantabrians up the Port Hills and led outdoor retreats in Auckland and Hamilton.
Fr Thomas always takes a Mass kit with him on his mountain climbs, which he describes as “not just an exciting summit, but a summit of prayer and daily Eucharist”. During his expeditions, Fr Thomas has seen young people find responses to a range of questions and, in some cases, go on to join religious life.
For younger people, he leads Holy Hours using “Children of Hope”, a eucharistic adoration programme he formed for children as young as four. The programme is being implemented in parishes and Catholic schools around the world.
It includes music, teaching, prayer offerings, and moments of silence, with no action lasting for more than three minutes. Fr Thomas recommends that children be allowed to kneel and sit on the floor in front of the altar, so as to encourage a more intimate encounter between them and their “best friend, Jesus”.
“Children are able to relate to the notion of a best friend, so during an Adoration hour, that is how I refer to the Lord. I explain to the children that when we visit Jesus in the tabernacle he gazes at us and
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so we gaze back.”
After more than 18 years of leading Adoration hours for children, Fr Thomas believes that children are more capable of understanding the Eucharist than many adults think, particularly at the age when some parents might consider them too young to understand.
“When children are between four and 10 they are most receptive and therefore likely to discover Jesus,” he said.
“I have seen the benefits of Eucharist Adoration for children, one of which is their discovery that the host is actually the person of Jesus mysteriously hidden. This leads to their increased interest in the mysteries of faith and the liturgy of the Mass.
“Others bring faith back to their families, who have become disconnected from the Church, by sharing their knowledge that they have Jesus inside of them.”
Fr Thomas has led children, teens and families in Eucharistic Adoration in the United States, Canada, France, Australia, Haiti, Nicaragua, Romania and Singapore and has been invited to four eucharistic congresses. He has taken Youth 2000 retreats throughout the United States and led retreats for seminarians and religious around the world.
The success of his ministry has continued in New Zealand, with Eucharistic Adoration hours held twice daily at St Teresa’s parish and students from the school taking part every second Friday. Fr Thomas also leads Eucharistic Adoration in other dioceses and trains Eucharistic Adoration leaders.
• Fr Antoine Thomas — http://nzstjohn.wordpress.com/contact-us/