Synod fathers: Young people must be welcomed—but also challenged

Bishops and cardinals attend a session of the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment at the Vatican Oct. 18. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

As the Synod of Bishops enters its final week, a message to the young people of the world is being prepared and will be released in both written and video formats. The synod’s final document, which will contain specific resolutions to be voted on by synod fathers, will be presented to the plenary assembly for comment on Oct. 23 and for final approval on Oct. 27. Pope Francis will celebrate the closing Mass of the synod on Oct. 28.

Last Saturday, the rapporteurs for the 14 working groups presented their reports to the plenary assembly. The texts were subsequently released to the press in the original languages: English, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and German.

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The four English-language reports contained a number of common themes and topics, including young people as missionary disciples and agents of change, liturgical renewal, sexual abuse and the need to continue the work of the synod at the local level.

This article presents some of the main points from the four English language reports.

“The Holy Spirit is rejuvenating the church through this synod,” Group A, moderated by Cardinal Oswald Gracias of India, stated, echoing a common sentiment. It reported that the 34 young people at the synod, between the ages of 18 and 29, “accompanied us, helping us to ‘scrutinize the signs of the times’ and ‘to discern in the light of the Gospel’ what the Holy Spirit is saying to the church.”

It said, “The Spirit…reminded us strongly at the Synod that young people are not simply the OBJECTS of our evangelization and pastoral ministry; they are also the AGENTS of evangelization to each other and, indeed, to the whole Church,” and “with proper formation and accompaniment” they “can be missionary disciples who will bring the light of faith to their peers and even to those who are far away from Church.” Group A added, “They are PROTAGONISTS, called and gifted by the Spirit in their own right to be active participants in the new evangelization” (emphasis in the original report).

Group C, moderated by Cardinal Joseph Coutts of Pakistan, expressed concern that the synod’s working document “flits between an inclusive approach that emphasizes that youth are part of the church and an approach that seems to wonder what the church can do for youth.... The approaches are inconsistent.” This and other groups emphasized that young people are members of the church, not outsiders.

Many groups felt that “this synodal journey should not end here,” as Group A reported. Group C insisted, “This synod and its resulting document is not the end of the process, but a beginning.” Group D, moderated by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop of Galveston-Houston, agreed. Groups said the local churches—bishops conferences, dioceses and parishes—have to take the results of the synod and, in the words of Group A, “seek to mirror for our particular churches at diocesan, regional and national levels, the methodology of: ‘Recognize,’ ‘Interpret,’ ‘Choose.’” They emphasized the need for participants to share the synod’s insights and ideas with their local churches.

Group D captured a theme that ran through the plenary sessions, working groups and private conversations when it affirmed that “young people crave holiness of life and desire practical training that will help them walk the path of sanctity.” It recalled that Pope Francis wrote on this in his apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” where he emphasized that the family is “the privileged place” in which this fundamental training in holiness takes place.

“This synod and its resulting document is not the end of the process, but a beginning.”

Group C called for the synod to affirm that “Jesus himself, in his person and life, is our overall ‘paradigm for action’. All individual actions need to connect to him.”

Group B recommended that the synod highlight the sacrament of confirmation and its role in the life of young people.

Several groups called for a renewed liturgy for young people because, as Group D acknowledged, “for many young people, in various parts of the world, the liturgy can seem tedious and distant from life. In some cultural contexts, this has led the young [person] to abandon the Catholic Church and to embrace the livelier worship offered in the Pentecostal churches.” Group C said it’s necessary “to improve the actual celebration especially in preaching and music, so that the participants feel the action of Christ in the liturgy—a bigger dose of joy!”

There were many calls for what Group A described as “the need for the re-imagination of parishes and structures so that young people are heard, listened to, appreciated and encouraged.” It underlined the importance of this as they face challenging situations “from poverty and persecution to violence and human trafficking, migration, their vulnerability on social media, their compulsions and addictions, their loss of bearings and their longing for stable reference points and a sense of direction and purpose in life.”

Group B, moderated by Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago gave considerable attention to the need for formation of young people, including through chaplaincies and youth ministry, and emphasized the need “to form those who form the young.” It “spent a lot of time discussing seminary formation” and about “the need to train future Church leaders to accompany others.” It said, “New models of formation have been proposed that are more experiential and community focused.”

It also spoke about the importance of “ministering to those in difficulty,” especially those suffering war or its consequences, and for “welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating migrants and refugees.” It was the only group to highlight explicitly “the need to promote the right to remain.” It also advocated addressing the situation of Catholics that are suffering persecution.

Along the same lines, Group A underlined that young people, serving “as volunteers at home and abroad…can be missionary disciples among the poor, agents of social action, advocates for the protection of life, builders of a civilization of love, contributors to ecumenism and reconciliation, apostles to young migrants, leaders and advocates in addressing grave issues like human slavery and trafficking, and carers for our common home.”

There were many calls for what Group A described as “the need for the re-imagination of parishes and structures so that young people are heard, listened to, appreciated and encouraged.”

It said, “The call to holiness of these young ‘protagonists’ includes an invitation that they might transform temporal society—their world of media, politics, the digital highways, business, commerce and healthcare—transform, from within, with the values of the Gospel and the merciful love of God.”

Group D recalled that “holiness, as Vatican II so clearly taught, shows up in the world; it manifests itself in a commitment to sanctify the secular arena. Young people especially ought to hear the summons to become great Catholic lawyers, great Catholic physicians, great Catholic journalists, great Catholic business leaders, etc. They should be encouraged to stand against corrupt and oppressive governments, to address the societal dysfunction that compels many to migrate from their native countries, to oppose ideological colonization, to find the paths of peace, to foster business practices that empower and lift up the poor.”

While the synod is focused on young people and not the abuse scandal—the meeting of the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences in February 2019 will directly address that issue—the question of abuse surfaced many times because young people have been the victims.

Group C emphasized that “scandals and pastoral attitudes and approaches that lead to a counter-witness need to be purified” and asserted that “the Church can and must reform so that it is truly a safe and trustworthy environment.” It insisted on two things: First, “we need tools of good governance in our institutions to make them be (and seen as) trustworthy”; second, “we must be visibly proactive in dealing with these scandals (and future ones).” Group B strongly recommended that “pastoral structures for accountability, safe environment, regular reviews and ongoing formation for those accompanying young people must be provided by the Church.” The synod’s final document is expected to refer explicitly to this question of abuse.

Group A “discussed extensively the challenges and questions surrounding the Church’s vision of the body and human sexuality” and called for the synod’s final document “to present the Church’s beautiful, yet challenging, vision, teaching and anthropology of the body, sexuality, love and life, marriage and chastity.” In what appeared to be a reference to the church’s attitude to L.G.B.T. Catholics (though, like all the other English working groups, it does not use the word), Group A called on the synod “to restate the church’s opposition to discrimination against any person or group, and her insistence that God loves every young person, and so does the church!”

Group D said it, too, “spent a good deal of time reflecting on the motif of the Church’s stance of welcome and inclusivity.” It declared, “we fully and enthusiastically acknowledge that the Church of Jesus Christ reaches out in love to absolutely everyone. Like the Lord on the road to Emmaus, faithful disciples of Jesus accompany even those who are walking the wrong way.” For this reason, it said, “no one, on account of gender, lifestyle, or sexual orientation, should ever be made to feel unloved, uncared for.” But it added, “authentic love by no means excludes the call to conversion, to change of life.” In St. Mark’s Gospel, it said, “practically the first word out of the mouth of Jesus is metanoiete (convert, turn your life around).... Jesus finds people where they are, but he never leaves them where they are; rather, he calls them into the deep, into fullness of friendship with him.” It concluded that “part of the pastoral genius of Catholicism is precisely the maintaining of this delicate balance between welcome and challenge.”

Group C emphasized that “scandals and pastoral attitudes and approaches that lead to a counter-witness need to be purified” and asserted that “the Church can and must reform so that it is truly a safe and trustworthy environment.”

Group C also discussed “the issue of [young] Catholics who experience same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria.” It proposed that the final document include “a separate section for this issue and that the main objective of this be the pastoral accompaniment of these people which follows the lines of the relevant section of the Catechism in the Catholic Church.”

The question of young people in the digital age has been a constant theme throughout the synod, and the reports on the discussion on Part III were no exception. Group D, for example, emphasized “the digital media as a means of evangelization,” particularly to the “nones.” It highlighted the fact that “in most of the Western countries, the fastest-growing religious group are the ‘nones’, that is those who claim no religious affiliation.” It noted that in the United States, “fully 25 percent self-identify in this way, and among those under the age of thirty, the percentage rises to 40.” It said that “for armies of our young people, Jesus is a fictional figure from an ancient myth, God is a superstitious holdover from a pre-scientific time and religion simply a source of conflict and violence.” It asserted that “most of the ‘nones’ are, at best, indifferent to the faith and at worst hostile to it.”

But, the report emphasized, “by a kind of miracle of divine providence, we have, through the social media, a tool to reach these young unaffiliated who would never darken the doors of our churches or participate in any of our catechetical or spiritual programs.” It reminded the synod that “a video posted on YouTube or Facebook is permanently available 24 hours a day, seven days a week—and it can find its way into the most remote and even hostile corners of the contemporary world.” It suggested that “it would be wise for bishops to equip both clergy and laity to engage the social media world for evangelical purposes” and added that “young people, who have digital skills in their blood and their fingers, ought to be lifted up for this ministry.”

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John Mack
1 year 1 month ago

The same can be said of bishops and cardinals. They certainly need to be challenged, in different ways, mostly with charity, on a regular basis.

Phil Lawless
1 year 1 month ago

It seems to me that Church fails to present the goodness of God to all human beings. That there is no way that any ordinary human being might be able to approach God outside the strictures/structures of the RCC The whole church needs to be able to express an openness to God that accepts almost any person's individual approach to Him or Her as valid and worthy and having something to teach us. It is not something to be encoded as dogma, but an attitude that even the Church has much to learn from all human beings as the Body of Christ. I do not see this attitude in this presentation of the synod..

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
1 year 1 month ago

Challenge and counter-challenge are vital to produce conduct and counter-conduct.

Michael Barberi
1 year 1 month ago

The term "challenge" is a euphemism for "follow all the sexual ethical teachings of the magisterium regardless of the reasons or the signs of the times".

As I read all the news emerging from this Synod, it is obvious to me that the Bishops are listening to young people but they will not modify or change any teaching. The reason?...because of the Church's long-standing exaggerated fear of changing a teaching on sexual ethics or the pastoral application of such teachings. This is too high a barrier they can or want to overcome.

Equally important, it is irresponsible for the Bishops to repeat the Church's opposition to discrimination, in particular against LGBT Catholics, given that:

> homosexual teachers continued to be fired and not hired by Catholic schools if it is known they are in a civil marriage,
> Catholic adoption organizations continue to deny gay couples from adopting a child, even when no other couple will adopt them,
> homosexuals cannot serve on parish councils, as CCD teachers, Lectors or as leaders in a Youth Ministry,
> mature and well-adjusted homosexuals, who are honest and acknowledge their sexual orientation, continue to be denied entrance to a seminary and become priests.

These are examples of the Church's inconsistencies and contradictions to the clarion call by the Bishops against discrimination.

There is another reason the Church will not change the teachings or the pastoral application of a teaching that young people want changed and modified. Let's be honest here. The Bishops don't know how to treat homosexuals with respect, compassion and sensitivity without telling them that they must follow a lifetime of sexual abstinence to be a good Catholic and save themselves from damnation even if they are in a permanent, faithful and loving relationship.

Any change in any sexual ethical teaching or in the pastoral application of such teachings will start a fire-storm of controversy within the heirarchy like the one Amoris Laetitia enkindled.

IMO, very few, in any, of the teachings young people want modified will materialized. I hope and pray that I am mistaken.

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