When 19-year-old Claire Brown stood in the middle of Randwick Race Course for the final Mass at World Youth Day in Sydney 10 years ago, she knew she was witnessing something she’d never forget. It wasn’t just because she was surrounded by almost half a million people from more than 170 nations; she had also just become a Catholic the week before.
“That final Mass was very special,” Claire says. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is fantastic! What have I come into? This is great!”
Though Claire was baptised as a Catholic, she spent most of her childhood attending a Pentecostal church. When she was 18, her parents started attending Catholic Mass at St Finbar’s Catholic Church in Glenbrook, and she decided to join them. “I’d just been going through a time in my faith where something was missing. My parents went back to the Catholic Church, I went to check it out and was just asking questions.”
It was the Catholic approach to the sacrament of the Eucharist that piqued Claire’s curiosity. “I’d never really thought about it like that,” she says. “But I thought, you know, why wouldn’t I want that grace? Why wouldn’t I want that blessing from God? I started asking questions, I was curious. I was asking my parents and they said maybe it’s best to have all the answers from the then-parish priest, Fr John McSweeney. He was such a blessing and was very open and welcoming in answering any questions we had about the faith, answering everything I needed to know.”
Claire’s questioning led her back to St Finbar’s Parish, where she expresses her faith daily through her passion for music. Claire taught herself to play the piano by ear until 2005, when she started formal training so she could pursue a career as a music teacher. She now has her own music school in Glenbrook where she teaches piano, violin and music theory. In 2014 Claire was named Blue Mountains Young Citizen of the Year in recognition of her role in nurturing and developing the talents of young musicians in her local community and parish.
For the last eight years Claire has also been leading St Finbar’s Youth Band in Glenbrook, where she shares her vibrant and energetic approach to music and prayer. “I’ve always loved praise and worship,” Claire says, saying that these were a big part of the Pentecostal services she attended in her childhood. “I’ve always loved that, and it’s great to be able to bring that into the Youth Masses that I run.” Claire explains that while the style of music is not for everyone or for every occasion, she appreciates when priests are supportive of using a different style of music to reach young parishioners.
“For many of them, the Youth Mass is the only Mass they’ll go to. The music really speaks to them,” she says. To encourage involvement, she asks the choir to choose the songs they will play at the Youth Masses, which occur every first and third Sunday of the month. “When [the music] comes from something that they like, they can be more involved in their prayer life, and it encourages them to participate in the Mass.”
For Claire, music is an integral expression of her faith and her vocation as a teacher. “I use music as a form of prayer. I’ll come down to my studio and play the piano, and it’s like a meditation and prayer time for me. I’m just able to process a lot through music,” she says.
“I really have a passion for the kids [I work with] to find out who they are in God. However I can do that, whether it be through ministry or a little more subtly through my work as a music teacher is what God has called me to do. I’m not a performer or anything, but I love teaching. Teaching the choir what to do and teaching my students here is definitely how I can express my faith the most well.”
As part of her service to her parish community, Claire attended the Australian Catholic Youth Festival last December as a group leader. “I love being surrounded by like-minded people and to have that on a large scale really ministers to me,” she says of her experience. While she and her youth group attended plenty of concerts and appreciated the energy and vibrancy of the events, it was one evening Eucharistic Adoration session that stood out to Claire out as the highlight.
“17,000 kids in complete silence was just incredible. I didn’t think it could happen, but it did! To come from the excitement [of the festival] and then to just come and have that silent meditation was really powerful,” Claire said.
As she reflects on the Year of Youth and her own faith journey, Claire wants to encourage other young people to seek out opportunities to discover more about their Catholic faith. “Keep asking questions, and find the right people to go to with your questions.”
“Even now, it is still so important to ask questions, even though you’ve heard it all before. There’s always something new to learn. Even if you’re just asking God, just keep searching. You’re always going to find answers if you look in the right places, and it’s worth it,” Claire said.