In the final document from the Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, the synod fathers wrote about the great diversity of situations of young people in a globalized world marked by grave injustices, poverty and violence, as well as the opportunities and the challenges they face in the new digital world. The document also covers the phenomenon of migration, sexuality in the lives of young people, the various kinds of abuses in the church, the role of women in the church, synodality and what it means to build a synodal church, and the importance of discernment in the life of the church and of young people as they seek to find their vocation in life.
The final document was approved on the evening of Oct. 27 by a majority vote. But not everyone was happy with the result, which was released to the press in Italian at the end of the session, together with the voting results. A two-thirds majority (166 votes) was required for its approval, and the text was approved by a vote of 191 (in favor) to 43 (against). The opposition to the text did not come as a complete surprise as many synod fathers were distinctly unhappy that the text was only available to them in Italian, a language not all are fluent in, while others do not want change in the church’s approach to some issues.
The synod fathers voted on the final text paragraph by paragraph, 167 paragraphs in all. A sizable minority voted against several paragraphs, for a variety of reasons. Some were not satisfied with the content or language relating to abuses in the church (Nos. 29 and 30), women in the church (Nos. 55 and 38), or “the condition of single persons” (No. 90). Others were dissatisfied with the paragraphs on synodality (Nos. 119-124) because the topic had not been much discussed. There was discontent, too, over the questions relating to sexuality and especially homosexuality (No. 150), which attracted 65 votes against, the highest negative vote in the synod.
When he spoke at the end of the final working session, Pope Francis began by defending the synod process against those who criticized the perceived lack of transparency regarding the proceedings inside the synod hall. He explained that “the synod is not a parliament; it is a protected space in which the Holy Spirit can act.” He described the final text as “a martyred text” and the drafting commission as martyred too. But said it was now up to everyone to study it, pray and work with its conclusions.
How to Read the Final Document
The introduction to the 55-page final text offers an important interpretative key to reading this text. It explains that the final document and the working document, known as the instrumentum laboris, are to be seen as “complementary”; they are “to be read together, because there is a continuous and intrinsic reference between the two.”
It should be noted, too, as several synod fathers have told America, that since the text seeks to be universal, it does not address in depth the issues of a given country or region. It is intended as a springboard or basis to be adapted at the national and local level in different countries.
One synod father explained to America that it is necessary to understand well this interpretative key because there are some things in the working document that are not found in the final document, and if readers were to criticize the final text for not having fully dealt with an issue, without taking into account what is also written in the working document, then they risk reaching unwarranted conclusions.
The more than 260 synod fathers from all continents and most countries in the world stated that the final document is “offered” to Pope Francis and the entire church as “the fruit of the synod.” He will decide whether to write an Apostolic Exhortation as he did after the synod on the family.
What the Final Document Says
The final document takes as its paradigmatic text the Gospel story of the meeting of Jesus with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24, 13-35), and it emphasizes what has been the mantra of this synod: “Young people want to be heard.” It recognizes that “many” young people feel the adult world, both secular and in the church, do not do this, and there is “a lack of attention to their cry, in particular to those who are the poorest and most exploited.” The text speaks against providing “pre-packaged answers” and emphasizes the importance for pastors to listen to young people and to prepare persons “to accompany” them.
The final document endorses the need for greater decision-making roles for women in the church and says “young people have asked for a greater recognition and appreciation of women in society and in the Church.” It recognizes that “many women play an irreplaceable role in Christian communities, but in many places it is a struggle to give them a place in decision-making processes, “even when these processes do not require specific ministerial responsibilities.” It declares that “the absence of women's voice and point of view impoverishes the discussion and journey of the church, and removes a precious contribution from discernment.” The synod recommended to “make everyone more aware of the urgency of a necessary and inevitable change, also starting from an anthropological and theological reflection on the reciprocity between men and women.”
It speaks again about women in the context of “a synodal church” (No. 148) and says “a church that seeks to live a synodal style cannot help but to reflect on the condition and role of women within it, and consequently also in society. Young men and women are strongly asking for this.” It calls for change “through courageous cultural conversion and a change in daily pastoral practice.” It says “an area of particular importance in this regard is the presence of women in ecclesial bodies at all levels, including in leadership functions, and the participation of women in ecclesial decision-making processes, while respecting the role of the ordained minister. This is a duty of justice, inspired as much by the way in which Jesus related to the men and women of his time, as well as by the important role some women have played in the bible, in the history of salvation and in life of the Church.”
An area of particular importance in this regard is the presence of women in ecclesial bodies at all levels, including in leadership functions.
Speaking about the digital world, the final document recognizes that it offers young people “a major opportunity for dialogue, meeting and exchange between people, as well as access to information and knowledge” but also contains a down side involving “solitude, manipulation, exploitation and violence”, “cyberbullying” and “the dark web.” It highlights the “gigantic economic interests” that operate in the digital world and create “mechanisms for manipulating consciences and the democratic process.” It points to “the proliferation of fake news” which “has generated a culture in which the truth seems to have lost its strength to persuade.” It expresses concern too that “people's reputations are jeopardized through online summary processes.”
The final document speaks about the phenomenon of migration as “a structural problem at the global level, and not a transitory emergency” and says the church is particularly concerned about “those who flee from war, from violence, from political or religious persecution, from natural disasters due also to climate change and extreme poverty.” It says young people are the majority of the migrants and often are exploited by “unscrupulous traffickers.” It highlights “the particular vulnerability” of unaccompanied minor migrants, and the situation of those who are forced to spend many years in refugee camps or who remain stuck in transit countries for a long time. It notes that the church must react to “a xenophobic mentality of closing and folding in on oneself.”
The final document devotes three paragraphs (Nos. 29-31) to abuse in the church. It treats the abuse scandal under the title “Recognize and react to all types of abuse” and advocates that the church “Do truth and ask pardon” (No. 29). It recognizes “the suffering that the different types of abuses committed by some bishops, priests, religious and laity cause in those who are victims, which includes many young people: sufferings that can last a lifetime and which no contrition can remedy.” It says “the phenomenon of abuse is widespread in society and affects the Church as well, and represents a serious obstacle to her mission.” It “reaffirms the firm commitment to adopt rigorous measures of prevention to ensure they are never repeated, measures beginning with the selection and formation of those who will be entrusted with tasks of responsibility and education” in the church.
Paragraph 30 recognizes different kinds of abuse: abuses of power, economic, of conscience and sexual. It calls for “uprooting the various forms of exercise of the lack of responsibility and transparency with which many cases have been handled.” It says the “desire to control, the lack of dialogue and transparency, the forms of double-life, the spiritual void, as well as psychological fragility are the terrain on which corruption prospers.”
The church must react to “a xenophobic mentality of closing and folding in on oneself.”
It denounces clericalism by quoting Pope Francis, saying it “arises from an elitist and exclusivist vision of vocation that interprets the ministry received as a power to be exercised rather than as a free and generous service to be given. This leads us to believe that we belong to a group that has all the answers and no longer needs to listen or learn anything, or that pretends to listen.”
The synod thanked victims for their “courage in denouncing the evil they were subjected to” and for “helping the whole Church to become aware of what has happened and of the need to react with decision.” It concludes by saying, “the Lord Jesus, who never abandons his Church, even today offers the strength and the instruments for a new journey.” It confirms the line of timely “actions and necessary sanctions” and “recognizes that mercy demands justice” and that “to tackle the question of abuse in all its aspects can, with the precious help of young people, can be an opportunity for a reform of epoch-making scope.”
Referring to the question of young people and sexuality, it notes that “frequently” the church’s teaching on sexual morality “is the cause of incomprehension and distancing from the church, because it is perceived as an area of judgment and condemnation.” It says young people are sensitive to the “values of authenticity and dedication” but are disoriented, and “want to discuss openly and clearly the issues related to the differences between male and female identity, reciprocity between men and women, and homosexuality.”
It recognizes (No.149) that ‘in the current cultural context the Church is struggling to transmit the beauty of the Christian concept of corporeity and sexuality” and says “there is therefore an urgent need to find better ways of communicating, which will be translated concretely into the proposal of renewed and appropriate paths of formation.”
God loves every person and so does the church.
Addressing sexual orientation (No.150) the final document says, “there are questions related to the body, affectivity and sexuality which require a deeper anthropological, theological and pastoral elaboration, which should be carried out in the most convenient ways at the local and universal levels of the church.” It mentions among these questions “those relating in particular to the difference and harmony between male and female identity and to sexual orientations (inclinations).” In this regard it “reaffirms that God loves every person and so does the Church, renewing its commitment against all discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation.”
At the same time, “it also reaffirms the decisive anthropological relevance of the difference and reciprocity between man and woman and considers it reductive to define the identity of persons solely on the basis of their sexual orientation.” It recognizes that “there are already in many Christian communities paths of accompaniment in the faith for homosexual persons.” It notes that “these paths can help in reading one's personal story, in adhering with liberty and responsibility to their own baptismal calling, in recognizing the desire to belong to and contribute to the life of the community and to discerning the best ways to achieve that.”
The final document emphasizes that young people, through the different vocations, are called to holiness. It returns to the call to holiness in very striking way when referring to the abuse scandals (No. 166). It says: “We must be saints in order to invite young people to become saints. The young people have loudly asked for an authentic, luminous, transparent and joyful Church: only a Church of saints can live up to these demands! Many of them have left the Church because they have not found holiness there, but rather mediocrity, arrogance, division and corruption. Unfortunately, the world is more outraged by the abuse committed by some members of the Church rather than enlivened by the holiness of its members: for this reason the Church as a whole must make a decisive, immediate and radical change of perspective! Young people need saints to form other saints, thus showing that "holiness is the most beautiful face of the Church" (cf. “Rejoice and Be glad” No. 9). There is a language that every person, of every time, place and culture can understand, because it is immediate and luminous: it is the language of holiness.”
The final document emphasizes that young people, through the different vocations, are called to holiness.
The final document (No. 118) speaks of the need for conversion at all levels in the church and declares, “We know that to be credible we must live a reform of the Church, which implies purification of the heart and changes in style.” The final document also speaks about youth unemployment, violence and persecution, social emargination, the throw-away culture and in some countries psychological sufferings and the phenomenon of suicide. It devotes much attention to “spirituality and religiosity” and young people’s interest in these (Nos. 48 and 49), the encounter with Jesus and the desire “for a living liturgy.”
The final document recognizes that “a considerable number of young people, for different reasons, ask nothing of the church, because they do not consider it meaningful for their existence.” It says one of the reasons for this is the “sexual and economic scandals” and the “unpreparedness of ordained ministers.”
The synod fathers emphasized that the synod does not end with the concluding Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica tomorrow; they envisage an important “implementation phase” in the local churches across the world in the coming months and years, and present the final document as a “map to guide the next steps that the church is called to take.” The success or failure of the synod depends on this implementation phase.