Part of a series on the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment at the Vatican, this is the last of Griffin Oleynick’s dispatches from Rome. Catch up on his first, second, third, fourth, and fifth pieces here.
On my last night in Rome covering the Synod on Young People, I got lost in a neighborhood adjacent to Vatican City. To return to my hotel, I had to circumambulate the mura vaticane—the massive walls first erected by Pope Leo IV in the ninth century and later reinforced by Pius IV in the sixteenth. I was struck not only by their height and thickness, but also by the kind of church they represent: fearful, defensive, and opaque. Farther along, though, it’s a different story, as the walls end abruptly at St. Peter’s Square. Here, Michelangelo’s twin elliptical colonnades gracefully cradle the open space like two outstretched arms. The architecture now signals a different kind of church, one that embraces visitors and pilgrims from all around the world. How appropriate, I thought. Just before leaving the Synod, I’d stumbled on the Vatican as a kind of visual metaphor for the Roman Catholic Church: an institution at times open and loving, but just as frequently impenetrable and unwelcoming.
The Synod officially concluded almost three weeks ago, with Pope Francis, delegates, and auditors all expressing mutual affection and gratitude for their time together. A cheerful atmosphere prevailed at the closing Mass held in St. Peter’s Basilica on October 28, where during his homily Francis thanked participants for their “witness” to unity and synodality. “We have worked in communion, with frankness and the desire to serve God’s people,” the pope said. Since then, delegates have explained that the Synod really isn’t over: the challenge now is bringing its collaborative spirit to dioceses and parishes all over the world. The road ahead won’t be easy. After returning to the United States in mid-October, I noticed a pointed lack of interest in (and even a certain skepticism toward) the proceedings—even from friends in the priesthood and religious life. How can the Synod overcome such indifference and realize its promise to revitalize the church for coming generations?
Whatever the Synod accomplishes in the next few months, its “first fruit”—the much anticipated Final Document—has failed to generate much enthusiasm. At more than twenty-seven thousand words, it’s both shorter and more concrete than the earlier Instrumentum laboris, but that hasn’t made it more widely read. Drafted in Italian by a small committee of delegates and approved on October 27 by a two-thirds vote in the hall, the Final Document still hasn’t been made available in English. Analysis on this side of the Atlantic has largely focused on the document’s third and final section (it’s dedicated to pressing problems and practical proposals, while the first two are theoretical). Critical reactions have emerged from different sides: progressive commentators have decried the exclusion of the term “LGBT,” calling it a “missed opportunity,” while conservatives have objected to passages on the topic of synodality. Some speculate that Pope Francis may rework the findings into an apostolic exhortation, but it’s difficult to see how another text will change the conversation. One priest friend, reflecting on best practices in homiletics, quipped, “If you’ve written more than a page, you’ve lost your audience.”