GABRIELLE Fernandes spends her working days giving, and giving back, a gift she received when she was a schoolgirl.
It’s a gift a group of young people helped her to discover and to cherish as a teenager – a personal relationship with Jesus.
Growing up in a strong Catholic family in Rockhampton, Gabrielle has always been involved in ministry in the Church but discovering that relationship was a life-changer.
“When I was towards the end of my high school years, I experienced God in a more real way …,” she said.
“I’d been in the Church for my whole life and then, through a couple of different experiences, my faith became more of a personal thing rather than just an inherited thing, if you like.
“NET (National Evangelisation Teams) Ministries (for youth) was one of those experiences when we had a NET team come to our school, and I was part of a retreat that they facilitated.
“As a result of that, I was like ‘Oh, wow, these young people really seem to know Jesus personally and are living their lives for Him, and I want to be doing that too’.”
A year after leaving school she volunteered with NET Ministries in Australia and then in Canada.
“So I got to live and breathe the same air as another 10 people travelling around the country both times serving and sharing my story with other young people,” Gabrielle said.
“And I guess that was my first glimpse into ministry and seeing God use me in sharing His story with others.
“Life after that honestly has been non-stop ministry for me.
“I think once you realise that you have a call to ministry God continues to lead you to serve Him through different avenues, and that’s certainly been my experience of things.”
These days she’s serving in Campus Ministry at Australian Catholic University’s Banyo campus as pastoral associate for students and doing her best to “walk” with others in discovering their own personal relationship with God.
Gabrielle remembers two events that led her to that discovery – one was through a Charismatic prayer group and the other was her encounter with NET Ministries.
Through the prayer group, she had what she would call it “an experience of the Holy Spirit”.
“It was a prayer experience where suddenly it just clicked,” she said.
“It was like suddenly I realised that God was everything that I had needed and the love that I was so desperate for He could fill every need in me.
“I think it was just in a prayer sort of moment of just feeling His love and feeling the Holy Spirit kind of just filling my heart with something that I hadn’t experienced before, and just a real peace and a real sense of joy and just wholeness.”
That experience of a personal relationship with God was confirmed and deepened through NET Ministries.
Gabrielle said her role as pastoral associate to students at ACU was about “taking a journey” with them.
“We take a journey and, during their time at the university, they have the opportunity to not just go on that intellectual journey of learning but to take a spiritual journey as well,” she said.
“And the role of our campus ministry team is to embody that and make that possible, to make it possible for students to engage in various ways that will enhance their spiritual journey.”
Constantly drawing on her own spirituality is the way Gabrielle remains effective in ministry.
“You get tired with life, but you don’t get tired when you’re in ministry and I think it’s because it’s sustained by your own relationship with Jesus,” she said.
“It’s that constant (conversation), like, if you’re having a moment when you go,’How am I going to do this?’ or ‘How am I going to lead this thing?’ or ‘How am I going to take these kids on this journey?’.
“I know that I can’t. That’s crucial because, without Him, I know I have nothing to give (the students) but, with Him, I have everything to give them.
“That is such a comfort when you work in ministry, because if you think that you can give them something on your own then it’s just going to drain you and it’s not going to be near as effective or sustainable.
“Sometimes it’s hard to see the fruits of the ministry but the comforting knowledge is that God takes even the smallest, most humble, efforts to use them for His own purpose and glory.
“And I think, all in all, I constantly need to come back to centre myself with Him, and my own times of solitude and reflection and worship also give me that grace to do the job that I am called to do here.
“An essential part of that is that I need to spend that time with God so that He can fill me with His Spirit so that I can have something to give from the overflow of what He’s given me, and His Word says that ‘we love because He first loved us’.
“How else do we show that love and that support to students and be Christ to them if we’re not experiencing that affection and that security in our own hearts with God?
“I try to listen to His voice and be attentive to the Holy Spirit throughout the day and in my interactions and conversations with students as well as in my planning.
“But, of course, you get busy as well and sometimes it’s those little short prayers like ‘God be with me …’ or ‘Bless what I’m doing …’ or ‘Show me if I need to change something along the way …’ (that get me through).”
Connecting deeply with students one-on-one – “seeing that spiritual journey” – is what Gabrielle finds most rewarding.
“Because spirituality is such a personal thing for everyone and God moves in different hearts in different ways, and so for those of us who get to glimpse what God’s doing in the heart of another person, I feel extremely privileged,” she said.
“I think the rewarding aspects are those really privileged moments spiritually, and listening to their story, helping them realise sometimes the hand of God in their lives or encouraging them to see where God is with them on the journey.
“Unless somebody points it out, sometimes it’s hard to see that, ‘Oh, that was actually God moving in my life …’
“I feel really blessed as well to be able to help students be who they are … helping them to be who they are, and be confident in who they are and helping them find ways of using their God-given gifts and talents, to give them that true satisfaction and joy …”
As someone who feels blessed and as she and husband Agnelo prepare for the birth of their third child, Gabrielle and the Campus Ministry team are preparing other young people to share in ministry through a relative new program called Frontier.
“I think there’s definitely an urgency within us and in our planning in campus ministry to raise up strong Catholic leaders for our community, in our schools and health-care facilities and all of that,” she said.
“There’s certainly a need to have strong, faith-filled workers out there because without them many won’t experience or ever see a true lived faith experience demonstrated.”
Campus Ministry has developed Frontier as a peer-to-peer ministry program among the students, and it’s flourishing.
Since 2018, there have been more 170 students engaged in the ministry nationally and more than 40 students in Brisbane.
“That means that we suddenly have this peer-to-peer ministry and we have students representing us, a team of energetic young people,” Gabrielle said.
“As with my experience with NET Ministries when I was young, I think when you see a group of people who exhibit these qualities or this fervour, this energy about the same thing, about a unique faith experience and at the same time a common belief, it sparks something different.
“And, not only that; the reason it’s called Frontier is because they’re on the frontiers, they’re on the frontiers in their classes.
“They’re out further than we are here in our space here and they can engage with students in a different way as their peers.
“But these are the young faith-filled leaders that we’re going to then send out into our schools and hospitals and aged-care facilities and other health-care facilities.”
And so the circle of young people discovering a personal relationship with God spreads further.