Pope Francis, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, and Cardinal Kevin Farrell, head of the Vatican's Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life, during a group photo at a pre-synod gathering of youth delegates in Rome March 19 (CNS photo / Paul Haring)


Part of a series on the Vatican Synod on young people, this is the first of Griffin Oleynick’s dispatches from Rome. Check back soon for the next installment.

If you don’t know much about the upcoming Synod, officially the “Fifteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” you can be forgiven. Never known for nimble communication, and hobbled further in having to deal with ongoing revelations about clerical sex abuse, the Vatican hasn’t exactly been adept in promoting it. When I learned I’d be traveling to Rome to write about the event for Commonweal, I began searching for information through the official website—always an uncertain proposition when it comes to Vatican dicasteries.

What I found didn’t seem promising. Slapdash pages full of amusing grammatical errors (“from 3th to 28 October”), curiously titled menus (“Pope & Young”), and paragraphs that begin in Latin and conclude in Italian conjured the image of a hapless Vatican committee, unfamiliar with even the most basic forms of digital communication. The General Secretariat of the Synod, headed by Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, had developed a list of fifteen “special hashtags” (a sampling: #InteriorLife, #DigitalWorld, #ActivelyInvolved, and, naturally, #Jesus) intended to grant young people around the world a voice in preparing the Instrumentum laboris, or Working Document, “by means of the social network.” While the Vatican expressed its aim “to remove, as much as possible, any difficulty in communication and to adopt a more immediately understandable language,” its website’s often impenetrable prose has the opposite effect. The writing creates a real barrier, impeding members of the hierarchy from actually reaching the young people they want to engage.

Pope Francis’s hope is that the Synod will not only be for young people, “but also, and above all, of young people.” It’s a laudable goal, but whether it comes to fruition remains to be seen. After all, the word “synod” (whose Greek etymology bespeaks a “shared way”) refers to a meeting of bishops, who alone retain the right to debate and vote on whatever proposals emerge from the discussion. The “synod process,” instituted after the Second Vatican Council and revitalized by Francis as a way for members of the hierarchy to “speak boldly” and make decisions collegially, is itself long and laborious—a far cry from the short shelf-life of Instagram feeds or the speed of Twitter wars. Spread over a few years, it winds its way through meetings that lead to further meetings, which generate documents that in turn give rise to further documents. (There is even a document explaining all the documents, available on the website, and an animated video, in the @synod2018 Twitter feed.)

The topic of the 2018 Synod (an offshoot of the 2015 Synod on the Family, which ended with Francis’s promulgation of Amoris laetitia) was first chosen and announced in December 2016. A pre-synodal meeting, involving three hundred young people from all around the world as in-person delegates, with several thousand more participating online, took place in Rome in March 2018. The Synod proper runs from October 3 to October 28. Its express purpose is

to accompany the young on their existential journey to maturity so that, through a process of discernment, they discover their plan for life and realize it with joy, opening up to the encounter with God and with human beings, and actively participating in the edification of the Church and of society.

Young people, for the purposes of the Synod, are defined as anyone between the ages of sixteen and twenty-nine. In Italian, the catch-all word is giovani; in English, we might say “young adults.” Apart from a few odd calls to cancel the event, largely from conservative quarters (chief among them Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, one of the USCCB’s five delegates, who even criticized the Instrumentum laboris for its supposed theological deficiencies), and the last-minute withdrawal of Cardinal Joseph Tobin (who, in light of the sex-abuse crisis, deems it inappropriate to leave the archdiocese of Newark for an entire month), the preparations have proceeded largely without conflict or scandal. Unlike the 2015 synod, where the question of admitting divorced and remarried couples to Communion loomed large over the proceedings, the upcoming one has no easily identifiable programmatic or pastoral agenda—it’s more like an open-ended invitation, a call to study and reflection, where Pope Francis summons the world’s bishops to ponder the situation of young people across the globe, both inside and outside the church.

Yet despite the absence of drama, and the lack of attention from many Catholics, the stakes really couldn’t be higher. Young people, after all, are the future of the church. Their present situation, articulated with refreshing frankness in the Instrumentum laboris, is alarmingly dire:

A large number of young people, mostly from highly secularized areas, are not asking the Church for anything, since they do not see her as a significant interlocutor in their lives. In fact, some of them expressly ask to be left alone, because they feel her presence to be bothersome or even irritating. This request does not stem from uncritical or impulsive scorn, but is deeply rooted in serious and respectable reasons: sexual and economic scandals [...] ; the unpreparedness of ordained ministers [...] ; the passive role given to young people within the Christian community; the difficulty the Church has in explaining her doctrinal and ethical stances in contemporary society.

I can’t recall a time when the church criticized itself so honestly and directly. Young adults, as the quotation bluntly acknowledges, aren’t stupid; they know how to think critically, rejecting nonsense when they see it. As the young lay delegates at the pre-synodal meeting pointedly write in their final report (and as Katie Prejean, one of three participants from the United States, told me over the phone), their peers have serious questions on a range of topics: homosexuality, contraception and abortion, cohabitation and marriage, the status of women in the church, and the role and nature of the priesthood. They want answers, not further equivocations. “The church,” Prejean explained, “should be a home, a place of welcome, where young people are empowered and welcomed with honesty, not rigidity.”

It appears that, at least among the drafters of the Instrumentum laboris, the message has been received. What young people want, the document goes on to explain, is an “authentically relational” church, a credible community, one that’s capable not only of responding to questions about the meaning of human life and the existence of God, but also of offering concrete support, of human accompaniment as they move through an increasingly chaotic economic and social landscape. As anyone keeping up with the news these days knows, the challenges are myriad: a disruptive globalized economy that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to plan effectively for the future; a “throwaway culture” that devalues non-monetizable gifts and talents; the addictive ubiquity of social media, whose numbing superficiality militates against the deep inner work required to achieve adulthood; and deep dissatisfaction with (and disaffection from) civil institutions of all kinds.

Interestingly enough, the Instrumentum laboris mostly steers clear of facile “kids-these-days” rhetoric. It doesn’t simply catalogue the lamentable behavior of young people, but rather tries to identify the broader structural and cultural causes of their distress. Thus addictions to drugs, alcohol, and pornography are treated not as lapses in virtue, but rather as symptoms of what Pope Francis calls the “dynamics of exclusion.” If young people are cynical, depressed, and bordering on despair, it isn’t because they refuse to listen to the wisdom of tradition. The failure lies instead with the keepers of those traditions—the world’s religious and political leaders, those who have the power, but not the vision, to build a more inclusive and equitable world.

Young people won’t profit from more ideology; they need a set of concrete practices ordered toward the experience of the sacred

That’s a shame, because the church, at least in its intellectual and spiritual traditions if not in every member of its personnel, possesses an array of resources for helping young people to flourish, even under the most trying, uncertain circumstances. Chief among these is the gift of discernment, a way of listening deeply for the call of the Holy Spirit amid the whirl of competing inner movements and external stimuli. Being a Christian, as Pope Francis states in Evangelii gaudium, is “not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” The church needs to be an incarnational sign of that event. Young people won’t profit from more ideology; they need a set of concrete practices ordered toward the experience of the sacred. But in order for that direct, salvific contact with the person of Christ to transform into a lifelong vocation (a term that, as the Instrumentum laboris recommends, must be expanded beyond the particular calls to priesthood and religious life), young people’s spiritual longings need to be met with care, attentiveness, and effective mentoring. And that’s precisely where the church, if it is to become a relevant voice in the lives of young adults, needs to direct its attention and resources.

In part, the church is already doing so. I’ve had the good fortune of having terrific mentors and spiritual directors, both clerical and lay, male and female, over the past decade. It’s not that they have ever given me precise instructions on what to do; rather, they’ve taught me how to think (and how to pray) about major life decisions—exercising a kind of “authority,” certainly, but eschewing coercion in favor of expansiveness, growth, and freedom. That’s the power that the Instrumentum laboris urges bishops to exercise, reminding them that authority, rooted in the Latin word (augeo) for growth, means “taking on the responsibility to foster development,” rather than exerting “control that holds people down and keeps them captive.”

In my encounters with ordained ministers over the years—not just priests and deacons, but bishops and cardinals too—I’ve experienced both kinds of authority. And so my expectations for the upcoming Synod are guardedly optimistic. But on a deeper, more prayerful plane, I’m full of hope, energized by my belief that the Synod can serve as a kairotic, genuinely conversionary moment for the church, one that prompts a shift in attitude even among the most hesitant and recalcitrant church officials.

So as I make my way to Rome, I’m hoping to see evidence of what Pope Francis calls the “listening church,” the ecclesia discens, rooted in the experience of the first apostles. As far as models of the church go, it’s a far cry from the aggressive ecclesia militans, that imperial “Rome where Christ himself is Roman” of which Dante wrote in the middle ages, or the “supereminent prodigious power” described by John Henry Newman in the nineteenth century. Indeed it’s the humble church, poor and for the poor, that Pope Francis is intent on rebuilding. In Rome, I plan to carry with me a scriptural image, beloved by Pope Francis and included in the Instrumentum laboris itself: that of the young King Solomon, who, when prompted by God to ask for any gift, wished to receive above all else a listening heart. That’s my prayer for the Synod, too: that the very heart of the hierarchical church may open its ears, and take in the vivifying words that God, eloquent in the voices of young people, so tenderly and mercifully speaks.   

Griffin Oleynick is an associate editor at Commonweal.

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