Bishops and youth delegates leave a session of the Synod (CNS photo/Paul Haring)


Part of a series on the Vatican Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, this is the third of Griffin Oleynick’s dispatches from Rome. Catch up on his first and second pieces here. Check back soon for the next installment.


Here at the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, it’s been impossible to ignore the news that continues to rattle the church. Earlier this week, at long last, there came the Vatican’s first official response to the “testimony” and accusations of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, by way of an open letter penned by Cardinal Marc Ouellet. Calling Viganò’s charges against Pope Francis “monstrous and unsubstantiated” and urging the former nuncio to come out of hiding and repent, the prefect for the Congregation of Bishops concluded that Viganò’s “unjust and unjustified attack” is nothing more than “a political plot...that profoundly harms the communion of the church.”

Still, even as those gathered in Rome absorb these latest developments, the reports from the Synod hall have largely been positive. A Panamanian bishop has described the atmosphere as one of alegría, that is, of joy. Journalists aren’t allowed into the hall, where nearly three hundred participants—the pope, delegates, and auditors—listen to four-minute speeches (fifty each day, translated simultaneously into various languages, with a three-minute period of silence for every five interventions) from the Synod fathers before breaking into small discussion groups organized by language. Summaries of their remarks are then given at daily press conferences, where two delegates (bishops, mostly) and an auditor (typically a young person) share thoughts and impressions before making themselves available for brief interviews.

The reports—delivered by way of detailed notes jotted down in the hall by veteran Italian journalist Paolo Ruffini, recently named Prefect for the Vatican Dicastery for Communication—are full of the themes you might expect. These include the dreams and aspirations of young people, mentoring, the prevalence of technology, and the dependency on social media—but also poverty, migration, sexuality, and, front-and-center from the very first day, the sex-abuse crisis. It’s still too early to speculate on precisely what might come of the Synod. Before specific programs and solutions can be proposed, one delegate told me, the real job is to recognize: that is, to become cognizant again—as thoroughly and accurately as possible, as if for the first time—of the concrete situation of young people in the world today.

Make that “situations”: plural. After all, the suffering of teenage refugees from Syria and Iraq is different from the problems that college students in wealthy, highly secularized countries might face, or that impoverished young adults looking to raise families in rural Africa confront. The range of national delegations represented also makes it difficult for the church, as a universal, international body, to articulate concrete ways of addressing each of these particularized social contexts with the specificity and care that each demands.

The aspiration is that like Jesus, who was young Himself, the presence of young people at the Synod can convert the hearts and minds of delegates.

But that’s just what the Synod, over the course of an entire month and beyond, is designed to do. It closely follows the threefold structure of the Instrumentum laboris, which itself is modeled on spiritual discernment, a dynamic process with three distinct phases. In discernment, one first becomes still and listens, taking stock of reality without prejudice, just as it appears. After that, the impressions received are elaborated and digested through freewheeling discussion. Finally, once a full picture has emerged, solutions can be proposed. It’s then up to the local churches (that is, national bishops’ conferences) to choose and commit to decisive courses of action. At the current stage of the Synod, the delegates (speaking through Ruffini) have realized that it’s a mistake to think of young people as “problems to solve.” Rather, they’re “protagonists,” not only authors of their own lives, but living images of Christ, worthy of reverence, even veneration. The aspiration is that like Jesus, who (as the Instrumentum laboris notes) was young Himself, their presence here can convert the hearts and minds of delegates.

But what is the precise extent of young people’s participation in this gathering dedicated to them? One of the Synod’s chief innovations is the participation of about thirty young adults, seated as a bloc of non-voting auditors in the hall. The general feeling, articulated by various bishops at press conferences and other events, is that even though these auditors can’t vote at the end, their presence does exert an impact, influencing both the content and the reception of speeches during plenary sessions. Each auditor is also granted one opportunity to address the entire Synod. As Nigerian Bishop Godfrey Igwebuike Onah told the audience at an event hosted by the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture, the auditors function in the hall a bit like a jury, registering their approval or disapproval of the delegates’ remarks through either boisterous applause or stony silence.

Whether this amounts to a meaningful level of participation is another matter. Before the Notre Dame event, I spoke to a young employee of the Archdiocese of Vienna, a member of a diverse group of young people who had traveled to Rome with Cardinal Christoph Schönborn. He told me he was disappointed that even though he was present, he didn’t feel that his voice was heard—and how could it be, when the delegates themselves must limit their remarks to four minutes each? Other young attendees, however, were more upbeat—particularly the American college students from Notre Dame. But as they told me about a vibrant array of campus ministry and pre-professional lay leadership programs, I wondered whether their enthusiasm would persist once they left college and found themselves in less stimulating parishes. And though the evening’s speeches were pleasant enough, most speakers (with the notable exceptions of two graduate students, Alyson Cox and Wenxuan Yuan, who spoke passionately on Catholic social teaching and the Catholic mystical tradition, respectively) tended to follow standard conversion narratives: “Once I was lost amid a secular culture, but then I started going to church, and now my life is wonderful.” Even if eloquent and sincere, they lacked the critical, outspoken viewpoints (clear and unequivocal in the pre-synodal final report) that I’d been hoping to hear.

Still, the heart of the Synod is not upbeat public relations events, or Vatican press briefings, or even the delegates’ speeches in the hall. The real, consequential discussions take place in the small groups, where delegates and auditors gather each day to hash out their reactions to the speeches and the Instrumentum laboris. Here’s where young people are most active at the Synod, a delegate told me. In the English-speaking group, for example, he estimated that at least 50 percent of the talking was done by the young auditors, as charismatic hierarchs like Cardinal Joseph Coutts of Pakistan, among others, listened attentively.

But what about those whom the church doesn’t always listen to—the LGBT community, the many victims of clerical sex abuse, and women?

That young people are, as the old pre-synodal hashtag would have it, “#ActivelyInvolved” in the small groups was confirmed by Jonathan Lewis, thirty-two, Assistant Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington, and one of three young U.S. auditors selected individually by the pope. We met for an hour one bright sunny afternoon in the quiet rooftop library at the Pontifical North American College. I tried to bring a healthy dose of journalistic skepticism to our discussion, but with his sharp grasp of the issues (the sex-abuse crisis, loneliness among young urban U.S. Catholics, young people’s experience of dry liturgies and bland homilies, and the need to offer welcome even in “third spaces” like bars, cafés, and park benches) and his deep spiritual transparency, he was persuasive.

He couldn’t tell me what was said in his group—and that’s as it should be, in order to protect the freedom and integrity of the discussions—but he shared some of the thoughts that he was preparing to deliver in the hall. I was most struck by his focus on what he called “knownness,” by which he meant the quality of being recognized by others as a member of an ecclesial community, of sharing life with others week after week and year after year. It’s not something that many young Catholics experience in their parishes, especially after they leave school and begin their careers. But this is just what the U.S. church needs to demonstrate, he argued. His remarks to the delegates, then, would be about the need for a renewed “charism of mentorship” in the church, which can’t rely on ordained ministers alone. Rather, he told me, he hopes the church in the U.S. can incarnate a “culture of mentorship,” where people of different generations find it easier to experience authentic accompaniment—the informal sharing of day-to-day moments, whether in soup kitchens and service projects, through sports and the arts, or around tables in homes and coffee shops. A return to meaningful intergenerational fellowship, he concluded, could in turn evangelize and enliven the broader church.

That was Jonathan’s experience of the church thus far, which, he acknowledged, had only ever been positive and loving. And as an archdiocesan employee and now an auditor at the Synod, he’s had the good fortune of having his voice heard and recognized. But what about those whom the church doesn’t always listen to—the LGBT community, the many victims of clerical sex abuse, and women, who wish for what Francis himself called “broader opportunities for a stronger presence” in church leadership? (On the Synod’s first day, the Women’s Ordination Conference staged a protest just outside St. Peter’s Square to draw attention to the fact that no women, despite the lack of canonical impediments, will be allowed to vote; their action was quickly broken up by the Italian police.) In this sense, a deeper attentiveness and inclusivity on the part of the Synod organizers could have bolstered the genuinely positive steps that they’ve already taken toward their stated desire to listen, enabling those at the margins of the church to be heard at the center, too.


Overall, the sincerity and enthusiasm of the young people I’ve spoken with in Rome seem authentic. So how to balance that against contentions—like the one from conservative columnist Ross Douthat—that the Synod is just “a process stage-managed to give the appearance of consensus,” one whose probable outcome is “some ambiguously liberalizing statement on homosexuality, contraception or both?” Is the Synod’s final document already written, and are the proceedings, to some extent, rigged?

“That’s impossible,” one of the authors of the Instrumentum laboris told me. We were near St. Peter’s Square, where the pope’s weekly Angelus address had invoked the protection of St. Michael the Archangel against the diabolical forces trying to divide the church. “And I would know, since I have to help write it.” He exhibited a genuine enthusiasm for the task at hand. “I still have a lot to learn, and much more work to do,” he added, before leaving to continue his synodal duties. Far too eager to interpret the Synod through the black-and-white polarities of the church and politics in the United States, those with views like Douthat’s fundamentally misunderstand the concept of synodality, attributing (without evidence or reporting) to the pope and the Synod a narrow, politically focused agenda. Things look different on the ground in Rome, where it’s the Spirit, not the pope, that seems to be taking the lead among participants.

Indeed, whatever the “outcome” of the Synod, it won’t be limited to a document, which in the end could be ignored. Rather, the hope, at least among the bishops in the U.S. delegation (as I learned after speaking with Bishop Frank Caggiano of the Diocese of Bridgeport, CT), is that it results in the freedom to pursue a set of experimental pastoral practices, in dioceses around the country, which can in turn be shared nationally and with the rest of the world. The Synod, then, is not a top-down exercise of papal power. Instead, it’s an ongoing process of empowerment, of servant leadership, of bending low in order to put the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (which Francis asked the delegates to recall in his homily at the opening Mass) into real, concrete, and effective practice.

The Synod is not a top-down exercise of papal power. Instead, it’s an ongoing process of empowerment, of servant leadership.

This strategy was on display at a public event in the massive Aula Paolo VI, the space where the pope receives general audiences, that took place last Saturday night. Entitled “Noi per—Unici, Solidali, Creativi” (roughly translating to “Us For—Unique, Supportive, Creative”) and organized by the Vatican Dicastery for Catholic Education, the event featured musical performances, documentary films, on-stage conversations, and a series of what in Italian are known as testimonianze, or “testimonies,” that is, speeches from the heart, delivered by several young people, mostly from Italy. Conceived as a kind of festive encounter among young people, Pope Francis, and the Synod delegates, the event was indicative of the spirit of openness and joy welling up here in Rome. A Swiss Guard told me I had the option of sitting in the press boxes above or up front near the delegates and Pope Francis. But since I’m only thirty-two I chose to attend not as a correspondent but as an ordinary “young person,” mixed in with the  international crowd of a few thousand people.

Interesting to me was the seating arrangement of Pope Francis and the Synod delegates, who were in the first few rows of the audience, and thus physically below the stage (occupied by a few dozen young people). The audience was able to see their reactions in real time on large screens set up on either end. As I wrote in a few quick text messages that I sent to friends that evening, the event was a little silly (the tone set by its host, Italian actor Giovanni Scifoni) but also moving, especially once the stories began. First came video dispatches from young people the pope had visited years ago in prison (they’re still there). Then a young man named Daniel explained, through tears, how a lay community had helped him overcome drug addiction, homelessness, and multiple stints in jail. He was followed by Aziz, an Iraqi refugee, who rather than lamenting the bombing of his city told Francis that he’d discovered Jesus later in a camp, and had forgiven the perpetrators, the Islamic State, for their violence against him. Finally a young Italian engineer, Federico, recounted how he was offered a job designing missiles with an aerospace firm, but preferred unemployment (it stands at over 40 percent among Italian youth) to compromising his moral convictions—a refusal to be complicit with structural sin in a way that I have a hard time envisioning among recent college graduates in America.

What these stories had in common, of course, were happy endings. That’s not always the case in ministries engaging with addicts, prisoners, and refugees, as a number of delegates made a point of telling me afterward. Still, it was interesting that whenever a priest was part of a story, he was cast as an anonymous or even marginal figure, an unassuming pastor simply pointing the way to God, not to himself. This might have been a message to the clerics and seminarians in attendance—a rebuke (if subtle) of the clericalist mentality that Francis has linked to the sex-abuse crisis.

When Francis finally rose to speak, I understood that a kairos moment was taking place. His eyes were red, and his steps were slow as he took the stage and arrived at the podium. Turning to the young people with warmth, speaking off the cuff, as if he were a university chaplain leading a retreat, he told the group that they were “priceless,” warning them not to let themselves be “bought” by the cultural forces—clericalism, populism, consumerism—seeking to enslave them. The young people then presented him with an envelope full of questions, but he didn’t seem too intent on answering. “Ask them!” he quipped, pointing to the Synod delegates down below. “They’re the ones that have to respond to you!”

But he did call on them to remember something—an Instagram post of a young man who had rediscovered his faith after spending time with his grandfather. “Parlate ai nonni,” Pope Francis urged—speak with your elders, your grandparents, because “they’re your roots. That’s where you’ll find concrete guidance, not in abstract ideologies.” In choosing the name of St. Francis of Assisi, in pursuing a program of environmental, economic, and pastoral reform, in embracing a humble lifestyle, that’s what this pope has tried to do: to bring the church back to its roots in the earliest (and, in a sense, synodal) experience of Christ and the first disciples, who experienced in their shared journey with Jesus the unconditional love of God.

It was tempting to view this moment as mere sentiment, and the pope’s comments as devoid of substance. Francis, at least in an institutional sense, has never been weaker or more unpopular; he should be pursuing coherent reform, the argument goes, not staging spectacles. But I sensed something more programmatic. The young people weren’t brought there to affirm the status quo or the authority of the bishops and cardinals gathered; instead, they came to convert them, to make the hierarchy viscerally aware of the good that a more relational, responsive church might do. Maybe, then, in the current climate of cynicism and despair, Francis’s approach was the right one: to demonstrate the paradoxical claim of Christianity (power lies in weakness, vulnerability grants strength) by asking us to recall the joy of the Gospel—that ancient, life-giving “testimony” whose power and attractiveness exceeds even our determination to ignore it.

Griffin Oleynick is an associate editor at Commonweal.

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