Pope Francis waves during an evening prayer vigil with young people at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome April 8 (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)

The streets in the historic center of Rome are overflowing with visitors right now as tourists and religious pilgrims descend on the Eternal City for the Western Church’s celebration of Holy Week and the Easter Triduum.

Many of those who attended the Palm Sunday outdoor Mass in St. Peter’s Square were young people from all over the world. The biggest single contingent was once again the several thousand university students who are here for a weeklong conference organized by the personal prelature of Opus Dei.

You can’t miss them. They’re the nicely groomed kids with the “preppy” look—young men mostly in beige khakis and navy blue blazers, while most of the young women are in knee-length skirts and white blouses.

Their conference is called the Univ Forum and the theme of this year’s gathering— the fiftieth since 1968—is titled, “A World in Movement: The drama of migration and melting identity in a digital world.”

The forum does not get underway officially until Tuesday, but most of the participants were already in town for Sunday’s papal Mass.

That’s because since 1986 the Church has designated Palm Sunday as the local celebration of World Youth Day (WYD). Catholic dioceses around the globe are encouraged to mark the event as a way to prepare their young people for the big international WYD celebrations that are held only once every few years in a designated location.

Pope Francis helped the youth of Rome and the surrounding area prepare for this year’s celebration with a prayer vigil on Saturday evening at the Basilica of St Mary Major.

The last World Youth Day at the international level was held in August 2016 in Krakow. The next one will be in late January 2019 in Panama.

Interestingly, these two major WYD gatherings will stand as bookends to the October 2018 ordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which will focus on young people, faith, and vocational discernment.

The pope has made it clear that he wants the youngsters to play a key role in preparing the bishops’ agenda.

And that means “all young people in the world, not just Catholics or Christians, but also those of other faiths or religions, and even those who are non-believers.” That’s according to Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the Synod’s secretary general.

“We’ll lose a precious opportunity if we limit ourselves to only those young people who are actively involved in the life of the church or its initiatives,” the cardinal said last Thursday at a Rome conference.

(Francis said that even more forcefully at the Saturday vigil, stressing that young people must tell the bishops “what they feel, what they want, what things they criticize, and what they regret.” And he said that even includes young atheists.)

“The idea is to reach all young people, or at least the greatest number possible, in the concrete situations of their life,” explained Cardinal Baldisseri.

The cardinal’s deputy, Bishop Fabio Fabene, stressed that the Synod gathering of 2018 was intended to be in tune with the “journey” towards World Youth Day in Panama in 2019.

He told the conference the Synod secretariat would hold an international seminar next September here in Rome as part of that. It will look at the situation of young people throughout the world by giving a number of them a prominent role at that meeting.

“This is a way to carry out the authentic synodality the pope wants. The Synod is not reduced to something just for the bishops, but in different ways involves the entire People of God,” said the bishop.

As mentioned before, the discussions and debates that will go on during this session of the Synod are not likely to be any less lively than those we saw when Pope Francis convened the Synod in 2014 and 2015 to look at issues surrounding marriage and family life.

Pope Francis has again told the Synod secretariat to involve the entire church in its preparations by, among other things, demanding that bishops’ conference survey their young people. The idea, as in the questionnaires on family and marriage, is to take the pulse of those whose lives and futures the bishops will be discussing.

Episcopal conferences have the freedom to conduct this survey any way they choose. In the past, some appeared to carry out little consultation. But others, like the Bishops of England and Wales, canvassed their people directly. And there are doing so again by posting an on-line questionnaire that young people are encouraged to answer.

Actually, any group or individual can send suggestions, concerns and queries directly to their bishops and even to the Synod secretariat in Rome ([email protected]).

Evidently, that is what an organization called International Young Catholic Students (JESI-IYCS) is planning to do. It has also posted a questionnaire on its website.

But this time the Synod secretariat has decided to issue its own questionnaire for the youngsters. Cardinal Baldisseri and Bishop Fabene announced back in January that it would be placed on a new website that was supposed to be active on March 1.

But it is still nowhere to be found. The address to the new site it still a dead link.

It is not clear what why there’s a hold-up, but it is understood that clerics in the Vatican and elsewhere who are not exactly enamored of the current pope have protested the initiative.

They believe it will open a can of worms (as they believe the questionnaires for the 2014 and 2015 synod gatherings did). And they are not at all happy that non-Catholics and even atheists can fill out the survey.

But knowing the determination of Francis, those few dissenting voices will not block what the pope has made a top priority.

Pope Francis is still on a very steep learning curve when it comes to dealing with the sexual abuse crisis

Sad to say, something that has not been a pressing issue for Pope Francis up to now—no matter how many times his spokespersons or others say differently—is dealing with the clergy sex abuse crisis.

But this is not because he lacks sensitivity to the health and welfare of those who are abused, almost always young people.

No, it is about his apparently ambivalent attitude towards holding bishops accountable for mishandling cases, protecting abusive priests, or showing more concern for the reputation of the institution than for victims.

However, there was a small sign last week that the pope’s attitude may be changing (and, note well, Francis has shown an amazing capacity to listen, learn, and change). It came with the forced resignation of a bishop in Southern France.

The resignation of the prelate in question—Bishop Hervé Gaschignard of the Diocese of Dax and Aire—was accepted on April 6. It occurred just a few months after people in his diocese went to the French bishops’ conference and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with complaints over the bishop’s inappropriate “words and attitude with respect to several young people.”

Make no mistake. Bishop Gashignard was sacked. But no one with authority in the church has given clear reasons why. Their vague explanations imply that the bishop had acted improperly with minors, but they amount to nothing more than mere insinuation.

This, too, is lack of transparency. And Pope Francis has been complicit in its perpetuation each time he has asked a bishop to step down without stating the reasons for the sacking. The pope has done this on numerous occasions.

The removal of the French bishop—if it was, in fact, connected to sexual abuse—would be the most important of a string of otherwise underwhelming actions the pope has taken since the dramatic resignation of Marie Collins from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (PCPM).

Cardinals Sean O’Malley of Boston and Reinhard Marx of Munich, members of the C9 council of papal advisors, had convinced Pope Francis in December 2013 to establish the PCPM.

And Collins, an Irish abuse survivor, was its most credible member. But she stepped down effective Ash Wednesday because of the obstacles the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)—and particularly its prefect, Cardinal Gerhard Müller— has thrown in the path of the commission’s work.

The day of Collins’s resignation Francis appointed Fr. Hans Zollner SJ, another PCPM member and head of the Gregorian University’s Child Protection Center, as a consultant at the Congregation for the Clergy. Three days later the pope named Msgr. John Kennedy of Ireland to head the CDF’s disciplinary section, which deals with abuse cases.

Some said these were important moves in response to the resignation. But they were actually insignificant.

Fr. Zollner is merely a consultant of a congregation whose members are bishops and cardinals. He has no authority over its deliberations and will get a chance to give advice only when he’s explicitly asked for it.

Msgr. Kennedy’s appointment is even less impressive. Ordained for the Archdiocese of Dublin in 1993, he has been working at the CDF the past nearly fifteen years, dating back to when Joseph Ratzinger headed the office.

One can be very much mistaken, but promoting a priest from within the very office that has been accused of stonewalling the PCPM does not seem to augur well for a change of policy or practice.

Even more baffling than these latest appointments, though, which amount to not much more than window-dressing, is the fact that Pope Francis has never once attended a meeting of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors or even addressed the commission.

And why did a pope who has become famous for calling people out of the blue, for desiring dialogue and encounter even with those who disagree with him, not pick up the phone and ask Marie Collins to tell him more about her frustrations with the PCPM? It is confounding, in the least.  

Pope Francis is still on a very steep learning curve when it comes to figuring out how to deal with the sexual abuse crisis and the bishops who have tried to cover it up.

His teachers should not principally be men in Roman collars or those with miters on their heads. But unfortunately, as one lay expert on the abuse issue told me, it seems the last word of advice the pope gets is from a cleric.

The abuse crisis is far from over and Francis has to do a lot more listening and learning from the non-clerics.He should started using his phone or the sitting room at his Santa Marta Residence to speak with them.

First on the list should be Marie Collins. 

Robert Mickens is English-language editor of La Croix International.

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