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José Maria BritoAugust 11, 2023
World Youth Day pilgrims from Spain making their way to Campo da Graça in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 4, 2023. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

After the intensity of our experiences at World Youth Day, the act of descending from the mountaintop—leaving behind the elevated emotions, profound sense of communion and boundless joy—is neither easy nor immediate for the participants. To process what transpired and what lies ahead for each participant and for the church requires time. The way Pope Francis led this World Youth Day can help us integrate our lived experiences of these days. By revisiting the various moments, we might identify some ways we still need to walk together if we are to make effective the pope’s call for a church that is “for all.”

It has often been said of the pope that he is like a parish priest who knows each person by name and asks after them. It is admirable how he can preserve this way of being even at large gatherings like World Youth Day. But there was another side of the pope that was evident during this time: Francis was also serving as a spiritual director.

Can the synodal approach of World Youth Day authentically persist in the church beyond this exceptional week of festivities and prayer in the pope’s presence?

The pope spoke directly to each pilgrim. Even amid the avalanche of applause, songs and dances, he led them in prolonged periods of silence. He invited them to notice the presence of God within themselves. He invited all to entrust their tears, dreams and fears to the Lord. He invited them to recognize their principal identity: as beloved daughters and sons of God. He invited them to recognize that God speaks to and through each one.

It is only by contemplating these deeper and enduring emotions that we can cultivate the capacity to discern our “inner movements,” as St. Ignatius says in the Spiritual Exercises. This heightened state of discernment empowers us to identify impulses that either bring us closer to or distance us from God and others, thereby distinguishing between those that lead to harmful, self-isolating behavior and those that foster community and connection.

As we entered the final moments of this World Youth Day experience, Francis implored the young people. “Indeed, never forget who you really are,” he said, “the faithful holy People of God walking in the joy of the Gospel!” These words were not merely intended to stir and rouse those who heard them. They hold a significance beyond mere inspiration. They underscore the active presence of the sensusfidei within these young people—a presence capable of deepening the faith of the entire church. This presence opens the church to the invigorating breath that emerges from encountering among God’s people new realities and desires different from our own.

Recognizing this “inner movement,” the work of the Holy Spirit within us and others, is an initial step toward any path that seeks to embody a synodal approach, wherein we talk together as Christians, discerning in common and seeking new ways of discipleship. To ensure that the impact of World Youth Day extends beyond the days of the event, a straightforward question must be raised: Can the synodal approach lived there, one that incorporated the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, authentically persist in the church beyond this exceptional week of festivities and prayer in the pope’s presence?

A substantial journey lies ahead, especially in European and more Western societies where the church has held political and social authority for centuries.

The marks of synodality at World Youth Day

It is easy to find examples of such a lived synodality throughout World Youth Day. Significant moments on stage with the pope were shaped by thoughtful listening beforehand, well before World Youth Day began. These preparations allowed both those present in person and those watching from home to understand the hopes and fears of the young participants, and even connect them with their own experiences—a key element in any synodal process.

Consider the ceremony on the second day, welcoming the pope: Instead of showcasing testimonials from five pre-selected young representatives chosen to stand for different continents, the pope responded to letters from 50 young individuals from 21 countries who collectively formed a group of volunteer artists called “Ensemble 23.” These letters described the challenges faced by those invited to perform on the World Youth Day stage, including experiences of rejection within the church and the world.

TheWay of the Cross led by Pope Francis at World Youth Day was also written, staged and choreographed after extensive consultation to genuinely reflect the deep wounds affecting many young people. These wounds were not merely observed from a distant office or a single Western perspective.Before composing the text, 20 young individuals from five continents were consulted. These individuals constitute a consultative council established years earlier at the Vatican after the Synod on Young People.

Even theRise Up moments, which replaced World Youth Day’s traditional catechetical moments usually headed by a bishop, were marked by a process of consultation. Throughout the world, groups of young people met to discuss and reflect on the themes proposed: “Integral Ecology,” “Social Friendship” and “The Great Message of God’s Love.” These contributions were collected and offered to the young people present as a starting point for discussion before a presentation by a bishop. In addition to these options, the pope also held an open and frank dialog with the young people ofScholas Occurrentes, an international organization that works to encourage social integration ‎and a culture of encounter among high school students through sports, arts and technology, and has its headquarters in Portugal.

Our approach to teaching should remain untainted by preconceived condemnations of unfamiliar realities.

Looking forward to the Synod

These listening processes offer a glimpse and a hopeful sign of what could unfold at the forthcoming month-long meeting of the Synod of Synodality, yet their realization is far from guaranteed. A substantial journey lies ahead, especially in European and more Western societies where the church has held political and social authority for centuries. This dominant position, in which the church perceived itself as the custodian of truth, historically neglected the imperative to heed the signs of the times. Now Western Catholics must cultivate greater humility and acknowledge the church’s place as merely one voice among many in a diverse public arena.

The Western church still retains vestiges of arrogance and detachment. Perhaps for this reason, resistance to the synod endures, sometimes manifesting itself more as passive inertia than overt opposition.

An exercise of humility is vital if, post-World Youth Day, we genuinely desire a humbler church—one that is vulnerable and capable of listening, a church that stands far removed from the temptation of triumphalism that a massive event like this can invoke.

Youth ministry must not simply revolve around entertainment, striving to be “cool” for its own sake.

What needs to change in our way of listening?

Our approach to teaching should remain untainted by preconceived condemnations of unfamiliar realities. Our initial steps must actively involve listening to these realities. Take, for instance, the realm of sexuality and affectivity among young people: It reveals an area of life where genuine listening is often obstructed or even entirely impeded. On one hand, the church grapples with understanding how young individuals navigate this dimension of their lives. Conversely, many young people perceive the church’s stance as an unequivocal “No!” that lacks the capacity to assist or illuminate their journey.

While it may seem an exaggeration to assert that young people are caught between the permissiveness of numerous propositions and the perceived insignificance of the church’s stance on sexuality, when we confront instances of exploitation and violence, it becomes clear that something is indeed awry in how young people are shaping their affective experiences.

The formation of a person’s affective experiences is intertwined with the influence of “anything goes” propositions; overlooking this connection would be unwise. I firmly believe that the liberating, selfless and free love exemplified by Jesus can inspire a joyful development of affectivity. However, hastily labeling everything as sin and failing to attune ourselves to the yearnings, wounds and desires inherent in how young people explore their affectivity obstructs genuine listening and meaningful dialogue, leaving young people to navigate their paths without guidance.

Yet there is still a considerable journey ahead. Youth ministry must not simply revolve around entertainment, striving to be “cool” for its own sake. Through thoughtfully crafted aesthetics, as evidenced in the events of this World Youth Day, young people should be guided to recognize that God loves them, communicates with them and invites them to participate in Jesus’ reconciliatory mission based on their authentic selves, without fear. The hierarchical church needs to embark on this journey alongside them, free of paternalism, granting them responsibilities and active involvement in decision-making processes. It is imperative to heed their aspiration for an all-encompassing church and to be willing to learn from them how to inclusively welcome them, in harmony with Jesus’ emancipating teachings. Such an approach respects the sensusfidei that guides them.

The repeated refrain of “for all, for all, for all” is not mere rhetoric; it signifies a transformative journey.

What does it really mean to say ‘for all’?

The pope’s reminder that the church is “for all” was the most repeated expression during World Youth. But simply repeating it many times can empty a phrase of meaning. Many individuals in the church still encounter closed doors. Think of people with disabilities, whose access to places of worship is difficult or impossible. What happened in Fátima, where young people with disabilities led the various mysteries during the recitation of the rosary, is an exception rather than the norm.

Consider the numerous communities insensitive to poverty, and Catholics resistant to welcoming migrants. Reflect on how easily we narrow the defense of life to significant issues like abortion and euthanasia, yet overlook being equally emphatic and prophetic about matters like domestic violence, migration and or racism. The discourse on equal dignity for women frequently stifles dialogue. Our unity falters when addressing emotional and sexual aspects, such as premarital relationships, sexual orientation, the L.G.B.T. community, gender dysphoria or even people who have remarried after divorce.

The number of doors that remain closed are so many that we cannot unlock them all at once. Yet it would be contradictory to disregard any of these situations if we are earnest about heeding the pope’s call for an inclusive church. The repeated refrain of “for all, for all, for all” is not mere rhetoric; it signifies a transformative journey. This path is not swift; it requires time, patience and vigilance, to evade the trap of replacing intricate realities with preconceived ideologies. It will be a voyage that demands the involvement and participation of all—each as a humble traveler and attentive listener.

Any participant in World Youth Day can assure you that it was a remarkable and intense period. We recognize that the profound impacts of these interactions often unfold in the personal stories of countless pilgrims. There is limited proof that World Youth Days have a deep and lasting influence on the ecclesial structure, but this is not a confirmed certainty. With humility, we can embark on a gradual, feasible journey that leads us to authentic listening and a church free from fear and barriers, embracing all. Step by step, we can learn how to embody synodality.

Editor's note: This article is partially based on a text by the author that was written in Portuguese and appeared on Ponto SJ, the online portal of Portuguese Jesuits.

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