Synod-talk, again

George Weigel

On January 13 the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops published a “preparatory document” for the 2018 Synod on Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment. The document begins well enough, with a brief meditation on St. John the Beloved as the model of a young person who answers the call to follow the Lord and makes a gift of himself in evangelical witness. Sadly, things go downhill from there. Rather than pursuing that Johannine biblical imagery to explore the dynamics of youthful faith in the twenty-first century world, the Synod general secretariat reverts to the sociologese that marred the Instrumentum Laboris [Working Document] of the 2015 Synod, wandering rather aimlessly through prolix discussions of “A Rapidly Changing World,” “New Generations,” “Young People and Choices,” etc., etc.

It’s also noteworthy, if strange, that the preparatory document comprehensively ignores the contemporary saint who was a powerful magnet for young people during his twenty-six-year pontificate, John Paul II. But surely there is something for the world Church of the twenty-first century to learn from that experience.

I’ve been asked dozens of times why John Paul was such a Pied Piper for the young, especially when, in his latter years, he didn’t look like what youth culture imagines to be a “celebrity.” Two reasons strike me.

The first is that John Paul II transparently believed and lived what he proposed. He didn’t ask young people to bear any burden he hadn’t borne, risk anything he hadn’t risked, stretch themselves as he hadn’t been stretched. Young people have a good nose for fakery and there was nothing false about John Paul II’s catechesis and way of life: he transparently walked the walk, living out the talk.

Then there was his refusal to play the Pander Bear with a generation long accustomed to being told how amazing it was. He held up a higher standard, summoning the young to risk the lifelong adventure of heroic virtue. He knew they would fail from time to time, just as he had. But that was no excuse for lowering the bar of expectation. Rather, it was a reason to seek out the divine mercy and re-encounter God’s truth: to repent, confess, be forgiven, and then try again, with the help of grace, to grow into the sanctity that is everyone’s baptismal vocation. Never, ever settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral grandeur that the grace of God makes possible in your life: that was John Paul II’s challenge. A lot of young people found it irresistible, at a historical moment when youth ministry in the Church seemed moribund and perhaps even impossible.

The Synod preparatory document ends with a proposed global survey of the Catholic youth scene, full of generic (and, alas, dull) questions. As the Church prepares for Synod 2018, there are at least two more urgent lines of inquiry for our reflection.

The first involves All-In Catholicism vs. Catholic Lite. Why are the growing youth movements in the Church those that have embraced the symphony of Catholic truth in full? How do those movements create vibrant microcultures in which young people grow in their relationship to Jesus Christ and are formed as missionary disciples, offering healing to the battlefield casualties of the post-modern world? How does the Church summon young people to be countercultural Catholics, precisely for the sake of converting the cultures in which they find themselves?

The second set of questions touches the Synod’s theme of vocational discernment and accompaniment. Here, the Church should ponder why Catholic Lite religious orders are dying, while religious orders that try to live the evangelical counsels and the consecrated life in a distinctive way are growing. The same seems true for seminaries. In their case, how can rediscovering the sacred character of the priesthood as a unique participation in the priesthood of Jesus Christ be disentangled from temptations to clericalism, understood as a kind of ecclesiastical caste system?

And as most young people will live their Christian vocations as married couples, not as priests or consecrated religious, might Synod 2018 take the opportunity to lift up the vocation to marriage, not as an impossible ideal, but as a holy challenge that can be met through the power of the grace that Christ never denies his people?

COMING UP: A papal tutor of heroic virtue

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On January 20, Pope Francis authorized the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to publish decrees acknowledging the “heroic virtues” of six men and one woman: two diocesan priests, three priests in religious orders, the foundress of an Italian religious community, and a Polish layman. It does no disservice to the holy memory of the other six men and women who now bear the title “Venerable” to suggest that the Polish layman, Jan Tyranowski, had the greatest impact on the Catholic Church throughout the world – and by orders of magnitude.

By the end of May 1941, the Gestapo had systematically stripped the parish of St. Stanislaus Kostka in Cracow’s Dębniki neighborhood of its clergy; eleven of the priests who once served there were eventually martyred. One of the remaining Salesian fathers asked a layman in the parish, a tailor who spent hours in contemplative prayer and meditation, to take responsibility for what we would call “youth ministry” with the parish’s young men. Since organized Catholic youth work was banned by the Nazi Occupation, the request was an invitation to risk deportation to Auschwitz – or worse. Jan Tyranowski, the tailor with an eighth-grade education, said “yes,” and began to organize the young men of the parish into what he called “Living Rosary” groups: fifteen teenagers or young adults (for the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary as then constituted), each group led by a more mature young man to whom Tyranowski gave spiritual direction.

One of those first group leaders – “animators,” as Tyranowski called them – was a manual laborer with intense literary interests named Karol Wojtyła. In a memorial essay written after Tyranowski’s death in 1947, Wojtyła remembered his spiritual mentor’s greatest lesson: that “religious truths” were not “interdictions [or] limitations,” but the guideposts by which to form “a life which through mercy becomes [a] participation in the life of God.” How did Jan Tyranowski do this? By demonstrating with his own life that, through contemplative prayer, “one could not only inquire about God…one could live with God.”

To do this with edgy adolescents was no small achievement. To do it under the pressures of a homicidal Nazi Occupation was remarkable. To do it with a future pope meant that Jan Tyranowski’s lessons extended far beyond Dębniki and touched the entire world.

It was Jan Tyranowski who introduced the future Pope John Paul II to the spiritual theology of the great Carmelite reformers, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross (on whom Wojtyła would write his first doctoral dissertation). And it was Tyranowski who showed Wojtyła a path beyond the simple Marian piety with which he had grown up, introducing him to the Marian theology of St. Louis Grignon de Montfort – and to Montfort’s idea that all true devotion to Our Lady is Christ-centered and Trinitarian, for Mary points us to her Son, who leads us into the life of the Thrice-Holy God.

It’s not difficult to trace the influence of Jan Tyranowski on the papal teaching of the young man he helped discern a vocation to the priesthood. But when the news came that the mystically-gifted Dębniki tailor at whose tomb I’ve frequently prayed was now “Venerable Jan Tyranowski,” it struck me that his tutelage and the Tyranowski-Wojtyła relationship remind us of something important about the papacy.

John Paul II, who had a tender pastor’s heart, was also tough-minded and strong-willed. That could have led to trouble if he were not also a man of deep humility, who knew what he didn’t know and was prepared, as pope, to learn from those who had something to teach him – like Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. That pattern of humility and receptivity in his papal life finds one of its roots in Wojtyła’s providential relationship to Jan Tyranowski, to whom John Paul remained profoundly grateful, sixty years after they first met.

The willingness to learn from others is an essential quality in any great leader; it is certainly an essential quality in a pope. For the charism of papal infallibility, which only touches fundamental matters of faith and morals under clearly specified circumstances, is not a charism of omniscience. Anyone tempted to imagine otherwise might ponder the friendship of the Venerable Jan Tyranowski and Pope St. John Paul II.

Image used with permission of Father Eric Augenstein.