The 2018 Synod on Young People celebrated the boldness of young people and the transformational role they can play in the Church. In Christus vivit, his post-synod exhortation to young people, Pope Francis wrote that they help the Church remain young.
[They] stop her from becoming corrupt; they can keep her moving forward, prevent her from being proud and sectarian, help her to be poorer and to bear better witness, to take the side of the poor and the outcast, to fight for justice and humbly to let herself be challenged.
When it came time for the 2023 Synod on Synodality, then, Church leaders recognized the need to integrate young people in all levels of the synodal process.
But how well were they actually included? How faithfully were their ideas and concerns represented? In many places, they were sought as participants during the first phase of the synod—the listening/consultative phase—that took place in dioceses and parishes around the world. I examined the synodal processes in the Dioceses of San Bernardino and San Diego, both of which have been intentional in their inclusion of young people in national consultative processes and often serve as a pastoral model for the rest of the country. But what I found as I listened to the experiences of young ministers who participated in or conducted listening sessions is that we still have a long way to go before we can call ourselves a synodal Church. The young people I spoke with expressed their distrust in the Church, which hindered their ability to participate fully and freely in the synodal process.
Alexis Guzman, an active community leader and educator in the Diocese of San Bernardino and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, was skeptical about the synodal listening sessions. As part of his diocesan minister–formation program, he was assigned to listen to three individuals implementing the synodal-listening method. He recalled that there was a lack of communication from diocesan leaders about the proceedings of listening sessions, whether the note takers would be able to keep contributions confidential, and how the results would be used. But more importantly, he said that leaders lacked training about what to do if stories of abuse and violence came out in the sessions. Ultimately, Guzman questioned whether the institution had the right disposition and preparation to become a real listening Church that can respond to wounds that require a legal and even a therapeutic response. Guzman himself was not trained in spiritual listening or the ethics of recording stories as a spiritual exercise, and a year later he still remembers the physical feeling of discomfort he had at the beginning of these sessions.
As a diocesan employee, Guzman was also required to be a participant in a diocesan listening session. He wanted to share his opinion about the ways he has been hurt in the Church, but he was afraid to share honestly for fear of losing his job if he violated his employee code of conduct. When he raised the issue with the program’s director, she did not give him an alternative or even reassurance that his job would be safe; she just urged him to just put aside his “employee hat” and participate as a member of the Church. Guzman was not alone: the fear of losing a job as a result of speaking honestly in a listening session was mentioned by fourteen of the fifteen young ministers I interviewed.
When asking employees to express themselves, we need to consider the fear of repercussions that exists among faithful young employees who, while they work for the structural Church, do not fully trust it. I brought my findings to Marioly Galvan, Chancellor of the Diocese of San Diego. Galvan said that while it is not something she had heard from young ministers in her diocese, that doesn’t mean it’s not a concern. She insisted it must be addressed if we are to be a synodal Church: “I wonder how many people felt truly like they were in a safe space, or if they felt like it’s a pseudo-safe space” where a participant doesn’t feel that they “have the full range of liberty to be able to say things the way they really are.” Galvan also acknowledged that diocesan employees, as mandated reporters, find themselves in a “catch-22” where harm or abuse is involved. In that case, you have to “put on [that] hat”—if “something’s going on and we have to intervene, we’re going to intervene.”
We often talk about wearing many hats as ministers. Although we want to believe that we can change hats at will, we can never truly remove our hats as representatives of an institution, especially when signing a code of conduct. Sarah Marin, another parish employee in the Diocese of San Bernardino, was, as she put it, “pulled to the side” by an authority figure before going live in a listening session between young adults and Bishop Alberto Rojas: “I was briefly reminded [that] people look up to me, and they just wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going to say anything that contradicts the people who hold authority in our offices.” Marin recalls feeling restricted about what she was able to share due to her role as an employee in a process that requires freedom, vulnerability, and openness. Her husband, Josue Marin, also said that he felt uneasy because the conversation was being live-streamed. But they both voiced their appreciation that Bishop Rojas was willing to engage with young people publicly, especially after the pandemic, when many young people felt abandoned and chose not to come back to church.
The synodal model of spiritual dialogue helps to develop a safe, non-confrontational, and even anonymous space in most cases—if done correctly. But even in a well-designed space, participants can still have a strong feeling of distrust because of a lack of transparency, or the facilitators’ lack of training for listening and synthesizing ethically. The synodal method involves collecting and discerning the voices of the participants prayerfully. But the young adults who functioned as facilitators reported not being trained in discernment, and instead being encouraged to follow a rote list of steps. Sarah Marin described it as more of a “transactional process, where we took the person out of it.”
Several of those I interviewed also pointed out a lack of diversity in the participants. Despite Pope Francis and local bishops’ call to get out of our comfort zone, we continue “fishing in the tank”—reaching out mainly to the people who show up in the pews or those enrolled in Catholic school or sacramental prep—rather than seeking out Catholics less formally involved in the diocese. All the young adults interviewed recalled seeing the same familiar faces at the listening sessions. Melissa Acosta, youth and young adult ministry coordinator for St. Peter and St. Paul Catholic Church in Alta Loma, explained that although many parishes were intentionally offering listening sessions after Mass, not enough ministers “put enough effort into seeking out the people that needed to be heard.” Josue and Sarah Marin were concerned that leaders sometimes failed to consider the availability of potential participants—for example, Josue says, the one diocesan listening session for youth was offered on a weekday at 10:00 a.m. at the pastoral center. Inclusivity demands flexibility and a willingness to adapt to the schedule of those we aim to listen to. In a synodal process that proclaims a desire to listen to those on the margins, it is unethical to offer opportunities for spiritual dialogue out of the people’s reach.
Some ministers also raised the issue of ethnic and generational diversity and lamented that they were always “seeing the same faces.” In many parts of the country, the Hispanic-Latino presence is the minority, but in California, the majority of participants were Hispanic-Latino and largely first and 1.5-generation. Interviewees expressed a need to incorporate the second-plus generations of young Latinx voices and to intentionally build bridges between ethnic and racial communities in California—to include African Americans, Asian Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and others. In an increasingly diverse Church, that is the only answer to a call to journey together.
Pope Francis’s pontificate has been characterized by a strong call to encounter those on the margins and to allow ourselves to be transformed by the stories of those we perceive as “the other.” In Christus vivit, he describes a direct correlation between truly seeing the other—rather than simply looking at them—and recognizing their pain, allowing that pain to transform us, and then being able to help others. The Holy Father describes weeping as a sign of a real encounter with the suffering of the other since “some realities in life are only seen with eyes cleansed by tears.”
Pope Francis’s theology of tears is connected to his theology of encounter. Something moves in us when we recognize the presence and individuality of our brothers and sisters. Thus, our inner transformation is based on our ability to incarnate others’ suffering “because the harsh reality can no longer be concealed.” However, to allow the suffering of the other to touch us deeply, we need to recognize what is moving within us and what God is inviting us to do with it. To simply hear others’ sufferings and joys while being silent and recording transactionally is unethical in a spiritual dialogue. What is worse is to leave the room without talking about it again, without inviting the Holy Spirit to continue steering our hearts.
Some of the pains expressed in the synthesis of Region XI were the disaffiliation of young people, the need to include those in the margins and outside the Church, and “the paucity of homiletic preparation.” But there is another excruciating wound that hurts the body of Christ: the increasing polarization in the U.S. Church as a result of differing political commitments and liturgical preferences. Marycruz Flores, director of the Office of Youth and Young Adults for the Diocese of San Diego, sees the synodal process as an opportunity to bridge that gap because
it comes back to that core component of just listening to one another. Why do people have different preferences when it comes to how they hear the Mass? How do they celebrate their Mass...[and] why? Once we know the why, it’s something that can be very beautiful.
But some participants, particularly those with views and practices that are often termed “traditionalist,” reported not seeing their voices reflected in the post-listening-session synthesis. This only increases distrust between groups, especially when there is no transparency about how the diocesan leadership made synthesis decisions. Hilary Hui, a young-adult ministry leader in the Inland Empire known among ministers in the Diocese of San Bernardino for his initiatives to gather young Catholics and ministers for faith growth self-identifies as a Catholic who likes both charismatic worship and Latin Mass. Hui says that he recognized the potential to be heard as a member of what he called a marginalized spiritual community. He invited twenty young adults who share his love for Latin Mass and take a more traditional approach to liturgical expressions and Catholic teachings to participate in the synodal listening sessions. It took some convincing, but his friends agreed to attend. Hui says that while they felt a sense of peace at the opportunity “to speak their piece,” and express that “they are not radicals, but simply like chanting and want their faith to be more intellectual and [to have] the option for Latin Mass,” they felt disappointed reading the synthesis report. Hui pointed out that in the synthesis you cannot find the words “tradition” or “traditionalist” or anything else that reflects the participation of this community. On the contrary, the diocesan synthesis states that “youth and young adults especially raise the concern that the presentation of the faith at all levels has become too complex and technical, and occasionally even too divisive” and “the People of God, both within and at the peripheries of the Church, voice a deep longing to get ‘back-to-basics.’” But this isn’t what Hui and his peers expressed. Ten out of fifteen interviewees—only one of whom identified as a traditionalist—brought up their disagreement with the synthesis report regarding “going back to the basics,” which suggests that they would rather go deeper into the specifics of Catholic teaching.
Hui said that when he questioned diocesan leadership about the synthesis proceedings, he was dismissed with the response that the synodal method is not quantitative research and so it is inexact. At a diocesan presentation, he asked an official about transparency in the creation of synthesis reports. The official responded, “Well, even if I tell you, you wouldn’t understand anyway.” Such responses demonstrate that young people continue to be underestimated and undervalued as active members of the Church. Moving forward, we cannot hide behind the spiritual component of communal discernment. It can be easier to say that the Spirit is leading us than to explain and defend a method of discernment, but it’s possible to be led by our biases instead of the Spirit. Young people deserve to know who is at the table as part of the discerning committee and what steps are followed in communal discernment. Synodal listening isn’t quantitative research, but providing data and literature might encourage a higher sense of transparency and earn young people’s trust. (I reached out to Synod Committee representatives from the Diocese of San Bernardino to discuss the listening sessions. As of this writing, I have not received a response.)
Many mainstream Catholics criticize the liturgical preferences of conservative or traditionalist Catholics. Hui believes that the synodal process has the potential to bridge the gap between Church members who differ in their way of worship or political ideologies. But this would have required transparency in the proceedings and a concrete demonstration of listening on both sides. The lack of a transparent, respectful process can do the opposite: increase the aversion toward synodality and drive groups of people farther apart.
We must overcome the tendency to objectify and dismiss the other if we are to fulfill the promise of synodality. In Totality and Infinity, philosopher Emmanuel Levinas insists that one can never fully apprehend the other; the other cannot be brought into “sameness” or fully perceived by me. No qualities or characteristics can contain who the other is; her identity will always escape me, because she remains radically other to my consciousness. In synodal listening, then, we can never grasp the full picture of the person to whom we are listening, even if they were to present their stories themselves.
To pretend otherwise—that I can fully know, categorize, and apprehend another—would be to fall into John Paul II’s definition of utilitarianism and egoism. In Love and Responsibility, John Paul warns against using the other as an object or being mere consumers of what the other has to offer. Love is the antidote to utilitarianism “as the only distinct opposite of using the person in the role of a means to an end or of a tool of one’s own actions.” Synodal spiritual listening involves an encounter with the other without totalizing who they are or merely consuming another’s joy and sorrow in a transactional way. True listening that respects the other’s individuality helps me to humanize them and find God through them—in other words, it is to respect their imago dei and sensus fidelium. Doing anything less—trying to control their story or denying them their voice—is to deny their imago dei.
The fruit of a genuine encounter is also a liberation of ourselves. When I encounter the other and see her truly for who she is, I am freed from the need to control and possess her intellectually or spiritually. A real encounter liberates me from the preconception of the other I have adopted or created for myself. Such an encounter also entails a commitment, because, as Levinas puts it, “to hear a voice speaking to you is ipso facto to accept obligation toward the one speaking.” The other will continually surprise us and call us into question, and their otherness is an invitation to a relationship that questions my notion of power and control. The manifestation of the other calls me to rise to responsibility; liberated of wrong preconceptions of the other, I can act ethically toward them.
The stories recounted here have not been told to diminish the efforts of diocesan employees, but to improve our ability as a Church to listen. My hope, and the hope of those who bravely shared their stories, is that we can reconsider how we listen to the diversity of young voices and incorporate them better into the life of the Church. When young people tell us about their discontent with the lack of authenticity and representation in listening sessions and planning committees, it is imperative to pay attention to their prophetic warnings.
What I have learned from talking with these young people is that we need to invest time in spiritual formation, discernment, and healing wounds of distrust before we ask people to be vulnerable. The only ethical way to conduct synodal listening sessions is to go beyond domination and control and to recognize where our own blind spots might be imposing on others. It is necessary, as participants told me, to diversify the group that discerns and synthesizes the results. It is also clear that, once there is a synthesis, organizers should provide an opportunity for the people of God to give feedback about how well their stories were represented.
Ethical dialogue is based on a conversation between individuals who do not reduce the other to their own opinions and instead make room for each other. This is what Pope Francis is inviting us to do in Christus vivit. Young people crave the vulnerability, authenticity, and transparency that ethical dialogue requires. In their boldness, they can help us to remain young as a Church: renewing our hearts while remaining faithful to our roots.