Our task was seemingly impossible: to write a document that summarized the current experience of youth and young adults around the world. We were told to capture what they think about faith, how they understand Jesus Christ, what they do to discern their vocation and how they find and maintain identity. Three hundred young people gathered in person while thousands more participated in online forums to discuss these topics. We were encouraged by Pope Francis to be bold and unafraid to speak our minds honestly, without fear of judgment. And so we did.
After hours of conversation, days of writing and more than a few plates of pasta, the pre-synod gathering of young people produced an 11-page document that will inform the October Synod of Bishops on “young people, faith, and vocational discernment.” This document not only fulfilled our assignment but also helped establish a new norm in the way the church’s leaders prepare to have conversations on immensely important topics.
I think it is precisely that “new norm” and the difficulty of the assignment that has caused some to speak out with harsh criticism about the pre-synod gathering, some even going so far as to call it rigged and to declare the document unnecessary and weak. As one of the 300 delegates who sat in the room, I can confidently say that this was not a Vatican conspiracy to set a preconceived agenda so the bishops would be prompted to discuss certain topics (and avoid others) in October.
The young people who gathered had moving conversations that revealed just how challenged, hurt, confused and lost many youth and young adults are around the world. Each language group contributed a summary, and the final document truly reflected our voices. We read through each draft carefully. This was not merely a thought experiment, an attempt to see if young adults from around the world could do something useful. Nor was it an attempt to make young adults “feel heard,” just to be ignored and written off later. This was an invitation to share our thoughts and ideas in an effort to help the bishops understand precisely what is going on with people of a certain age so that they can then better understand how to preach to, teach thoroughly and accompany youth and young adults.
Pope Francis and the bishops truly want to understand what is driving young people today.
Think about that for a moment: Pope Francis and the bishops truly want to understand what is driving young people today. They want to know why young people are leaving the church and why they are drawn to social media. They want to understand how to deliver messages to young people that are relevant, attractive and understandable. They want to more successfully and effectively share the Gospel with young people. To do that well, they knew they needed to hear from the very people they are trying to do this for.
This request was a sign of humility among the hierarchy of the church. It was also a great honor for those of us gathered to share and write. We took seriously the opportunity that was set before us, and we were able to respond with a document that represents the many young people around the world: those who are passionately Catholic and those who are ardently disaffiliated, those who identify as Christian and those who classify themselves as faithless, those who desire a relationship with Jesus and those who do not even consider him real.
Those who might doubt that this document is an accurate representation of young people today fail to see the breadth and depth of experience that was brought to the meeting. Critics of the document may not see themselves in every aspect of it, but that is because no text can sum up one person’s experience with and in the church. All young people are not alike, as I quickly discovered through conversations with my fellow delegates.
There are many young people who love the church, her liturgy and Jesus Christ, and their passion and joy for the Gospel is inspiring and a great encouragement to those still searching for faith of their own. The bishops need to know those young people are here and celebrate their faith, helping them to expand it. But there are also many young people who question church teaching and doubt whether what the church asks us to believe is true. The bishops need to know those young people are not only out there, but are seeking answers.
If the document did not include a wide perspective, including both those who are already engaged with the church and those who are not, then we would have handed the bishops something useless. It would have sent the message that “business as usual” is working fine and that no one ever leaves the church, questions the church or doubts what she is doing. To limit the document to a series of affirmations would have done a great disservice to our bishops and our church. It would not have been a true fulfillment of the Holy Father’s request. It would have been pandering and insulting to highly educated, faithful people who asked us to be honest.
And so we were: We tried to capture the joys and the struggles of young people, to shed light on the confident faithful and the doubting questioners, and to help our bishops understand what we think they can do to accompany all young people on their journey to discovering Truth, encountering Christ and living a life of dutiful and passionate faith in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church.
Reading the document may cause discomfort for some people. That may be a good thing, challenging readers to expand their understanding of others’ experience. Some readers may never have given much thought to the reality of those who do not have a relationship with Jesus or a love of the liturgy. Yet to hear that there are young people who do not have your experience or worldview should not anger you, but rather should inspire you to ask the bishops to work on winning their hearts and minds to the faith—and maybe inspire you to do the same.
Perhaps you have never struggled to find companions along the journey—people who help you walk the path with Christ each day—and if so, how wonderful for you. But throughout the world, there are so many who find it remarkably difficult to find mentors in faith, and the bishops need to know how desperate many young people are for vibrant expressions of joyful faith so they can have it as well. Perhaps you are lucky enough to live in a place with beautiful liturgies that elevate your spirit and give you immense joy as you encounter Jesus in the Eucharist. But many young people do not have the same experience, nor understand the Mass at all, and the bishops asked us to tell them how they can make our source and summit something accessible and desirable to those who do not have the same devotion to the Eucharist.
Perhaps you are lucky enough to live in a place with beautiful liturgies—but many young people do not have the same experience.
I have read this document nearly a dozen times, and each time I am more and more excited by what it is trying to do: capture the experience and attention of young people from around the world so that the bishops, tasked with guiding and leading us, can do their jobs better and for a wider community. This document is a heartfelt, honest, challenging plea from the young people of the world to the hierarchy of the church—to help us more fully find our identity in Jesus, aid us in our journey to love him with all that we are, and become faithful members of the Body of Christ. My hope is that we, the church, trust our bishops to read it well, and join them in their efforts to confidently respond with passionate resolve and Spirit-led wisdom to, as the document says, help all young people, in every state in life, “approach, meet, and fall in love with Jesus.”