Part of a series on the Vatican Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, this is the fifth of Griffin Oleynick’s dispatches from Rome. Catch up on his first, second, third, and fourth pieces here. Check back soon for the final installment.
It was late on Sunday afternoon and I still hadn’t been to Mass. There was a massive line to enter St. Peter’s Basilica snaking through the square outside, so I made my way to the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, in the heart of Rome’s medieval quarter, where Mass would be celebrated using the “Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom,” developed in the early fifth century and still the most popular form of the Byzantine Rite today. As the congregation moved through repeated recitations of the trisagion (“Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us”) toward the chanting of the Gospel, the priest invoked Holy Wisdom and prayed that the “pure light of Divine Knowledge” might “open the eyes of our minds.” The Word, as it does in the beginning of John’s Gospel, had suddenly become “flesh,” dwelling there among us. The gospel, I recalled, is more than a message; it’s an encounter with a loving, incarnate Word, one that breaks into our lives and actively seeks us out.
As the Synod on Young People neared its conclusion, conversations among delegates, auditors, and commentators turned to what the practical, “enfleshed” results of the meeting might be. Young people have been pressing for greater attention to the concerns of women and LGBT Catholics in the final document (an initial draft came out the week of October 22), while the whole assembly has been stirred by tales of martyrdom in India and Iraq. But perhaps the theme to emerge most prominently in recent days is the question of social media, both its ubiquity in the lives of young Catholics and the church’s need to develop a more robust presence in the digital world. Somewhat surprisingly, synod delegates—mostly aging clerics in their 60s, 70s, and 80s—have shown a willingness to embrace the new platforms, viewing them not just as positive tools, but (as Bishop David Tencer of Reykjavik said at a press briefing) a pastoral necessity that “moves the church forward.”
Indeed, throughout the course of the Synod there’s been a steady stream of tweets, videos, and Instagram posts coming from both Vatican-managed accounts and delegates themselves. Most simply express a kind of benign affection for young people and enthusiasm for the Synod, their updates mirroring the timing and content of the official press briefings. But some, like Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, have used social media to convey more substantive remarks, tweeting highlights from their speeches in the hall and urging the church to embrace greater transparency and inclusivity. Still, as the church readily admits its relative inexperience in social media, how can it develop a distinctive voice that helps make the Word present? Should it even try? Efforts in recent days seem comically, even hopelessly, misguided—do church officials really expect young people to develop deeper spiritual lives after last week’s release of “Follow JC Go,” a Pokémon GO-style app where users wander the streets capturing saints, biblical figures, and Marian devotions on their smartphones?