The synod on young people needs to listen to all voices—Catholic or not

Pope Francis poses for a selfie during a pre-synod gathering of youth delegates at the Pontifical International Maria Mater Ecclesiae College in Rome March 19. Also pictured are Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, and U.S. Cardinal Kevin J. Farrell, prefect of the Vatican's Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life. The meeting was in preparation for the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment this October at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

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.

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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.”

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Edward Graff
3 weeks 2 days ago

Katie, the document you and the rest of the young people produced was a genuine work of art and I thank all of you for it. It hope it be widely read and pondered.

Reyanna Rice
3 weeks 2 days ago

Thanks, Katie for this article and for your work at the pre-Synod meeting. I saw on Twitter your posting about your little girl. As a mother of two, I had to travel to a week-long training course when my daughter was just about the same age as yours. I know how hard it must have been for you to leave her. I am glad you have elaborated on the makeup of the young people who were at this meeting. That helps me have a better level of confidence that ALL young people were heard, especially those you brilliantly described at “ardently disaffiliated”. When I first read about the selection process for the attendees, I was concerned that there would be only the “good Catholic kids” there, chosen by their bishops mostly because they are compliant. I covered the 2015 Synod as a freelance reporter, obtaining Vatican Press credentialing. I attended all but 3 of the news conferences for the 3-Week duration of the Synod. It seemed to me that was how the lay representatives were chosen. They were people recommended by their bishops because they were noted mainly for their complete compliance to church teachings. I think only a few every brought up anything controversial. I hope this fall’s session follows the format of this pre-Synod so there are young people who will continue to ask some tough questions for the bishops to consider. I am also hoping to once again be there as a freelance reporter again. Who knows? Maybe you will be asked to come again and maybe we could meet for a chat.

Jay Kay
2 weeks 6 days ago

Good comment. The official church has a quandary here. They have their "business as usual" thing going on, as always, but at the same time have finally realized how big a world of hurt they're going to be in shortly if they follow the same insular path they've been on for the last 40 years or so--basing everything on divisiveness, formality, privilege of certain groups and sex instead of Gospel values. They have the task of trying to do something about the consequences of their policies and protecting their butts at the same time--let's see what wins in the short-term.

Vatican II is going to be fulfilled on some time frame. It can't be stopped, only deferred temporarily by men who like things the way they are. Make no mistake: This is a big thing. This is one of the church's "Galileo moments." The church can no longer continue doing what it's currently doing than it can legislate that the sun to revolve around the earth--and then cause the sun to obey. The only show is watching to see how long it's going to take some of these schlerotically-minded churchmen to realize that.

People who object to how things are going yell about change. This isn't change. Just like the "Galileo moment," this is only recognition of what really is, and must be recognized. We have been wrong about some things. We are not God. The sun does not revolve around the earth and never did. God's design is what it is. When we stopped insisting that the sun revolved around the earth, nothing changed except our opinion, which had previously been erroneous, incomplete but nevertheless used as a comprehensive analogy for the purpose of insisting on our way of doing things.

None of this represents any great loss. This is the Holy Spirit guiding us through history. We'd be better off if we learned to listen to it better.

Mike Theman
3 weeks 2 days ago

For nearly all of its history, the Church led the people, or if you will, the Church was the shepherd and the people its sheep. In the 1960s, the Church gave up its leadership, reacting to the false mid-century prophets like Freud and Marx who claimed to have all the answers to life. Who needs the Church when government could act as savior of the masses? And so the Church changed, and in changing, showed its weakness to the power of public whim.

No longer a leader, the Church is now, pathetically, chasing the culture. The Protestants seemed to have the best chance with the youth, its feel-good, no rules, socially focused platforms being more in touch with modern culture and less intimidating and restrictive to the youth than Catholicism. But the Protestants are failing, as much if not worse than Catholicism.

The icing on the cake for how the Church's failure to lead has impacted its future is the homosexual priest pederasty scandal, thanks to the relaxed rules on recruiting homosexual priests.

Forget listening to the kiddies; they're fickle and follow the latest sparkly thing. The Church needs to do a self-assessment and figure out what it is, regardless of what people think it should be. Once it has found itself again, it can figure out how to lead again. Then it can worry about getting people to follow.

Jay Kay
2 weeks 6 days ago

It's actually not true that the church is only a top-down institution. Many of the people with the greatest influence on the church over the centuries--our great reformers and innovators--have not been clerics. A few examples: St. Catherine of Siena, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Joan of Arc, St. Scholastica, St. Clare.
You are operating in a very American-based very conservative paradigm that's popular now in the US. It's short-sighted, ahistorical and ill-informed. It's been perpetuated by those who like things the way they imagine that they used to be. It's been perpetuated by those who'd like to roll back Vatican II. It's been perpetuated by those largely ill-informed about church history at large or the Gospels as they are.
This moment will pass because this neo-nostalgia will pass. It's not sustainable either in the church or the world. It's a fairy tale, a Disney movie set, a theme park for formalists, disgruntled old men and the well-connected. The church herself isn't, at her heart, any of the above. That's why this moment will pass.

Mike Theman
2 weeks 5 days ago

Coca Cola came out in the late 1800s. It started to lose followers in the late 1900s and so it changed to New Coke after 100 years in business. New Coke was off the shelves after about 10 years (despite its popularity in Los Angeles). Today, soda pop sales have been on the decline for the last 10 years and replaced by....water.
You say "neo-nostalgia;" I say that when a product withstands competition claiming to be better over many years, the reason is that it is objectively good, notwithstanding some lulls in the market. Truly good things withstand the pressure from those who think that everything must change over time and that change is always good. My bet is on water.

Dionys Murphy
2 weeks ago

"is the homosexual priest pederasty scandal, thanks to the relaxed rules on recruiting homosexual priests."
Thank you for presenting your ignorance and bias so succinctly. Luckily those "false mid-century prophets" along with their brethren throughout the following decades have shown that pedophilia, even where a male attacks a young boy, is committed primarily by people who are heterosexual. The attack is one of violence and power, using sexual violence as a show of power.
"Forget listening to the kiddies; they're fickle and follow the latest sparkly thing. " - No. They are intelligent human beings, and deserve respect and to be treated with respect. Perhaps when you become an adult, you will realize that.

Thomas Farrelly
3 weeks 1 day ago

It seems to me that a great deal is lost when 300 people have to come up with a single document. Surely there were widely different opinions among the 300.
btw, when will we old people get a chance to give our opinions? They would be based on decades of experience.

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