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 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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.