Hopes for the October Synod on Young People

Being met with hope by some and suspicion by others, in light of the recent sex-abuse scandals and the nature of the topics being discussed, the Synod of Bishops on the theme of “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment” set to take place in Rome Oct. 3 to 28, will feature bishops and representatives from around the world to address the needs of young people ages 16 to 29.

Young adult leaders from the Archdiocese of Denver and the United States shared with the Denver Catholic the challenges they have seen in their ministries and the response they hope to see from bishops in the Synod.

“One of the biggest challenges we have as a Catholic Church is our young people leaving their faith. The reasons they leave the faith are as simple as not feeling welcome in the Church and as complex as not believing anymore; lack of faith, commitment and interest,” said Alejandra Bravo, Hispanic Youth Specialist for the Archdiocese of Denver. “Not only is there a lack of faith from our young people but there is also a lack of attention from us, the Church, to them.”

“I think secularism has hit young adults and millennials particularly hard, more so than other generations or age groups,” added Mary McGeehan, Young Adult Ministry Specialist for the Archdiocese of Denver. “Because the secular culture appeals so much to our senses and emotions, it’s hard for many young people not to just drift with it.”

Nonetheless, McGeehan also holds that one of the reasons why young people are leaving the Church has to do with the misconceptions they have of it and the lack of authentic friendships that can help them overcome these challenges.

“I think most people leave the Church not because of what the Church really teaches but because of what they think the Church teaches. For young adults we often have to address a lot of these misconceptions,” she said. “Also, I think for the people that have fallen away from the Church what they need the most is authentic friendships with other Catholics their age. They need to see the truth of what the Church is and not what they think the Church is.”

Moreover, Katie Prejean, author, catholic speaker from the Diocese of Lake Charles in Louisiana and one of the three young adult delegates chosen by the USCCB to attend the Pre-Synod Gathering in March 2018, highlighted the impact of relativism and the wide variety of problems that young people from ages 16 to 29 face.

“In general, a big challenge is that young people are living in a culture that is so blatantly relativistic, [in which] everybody says that you can believe anything,” she said. “So, young people, I find, are often trapped in the thought,  ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to believe.’”

She also said that young people in high school are in a different stage from young adults, in the sense that they are searching for something and at the same time don’t want to be told, which brings a particular challenge for that age group.

The preparation for the Synod included a Pre-Synod working document presented to Pope Francis by 300 young adult delegates that participated in the Pre-Synod Gathering on March 25, 2018.

The document touched on the many topics that affect young people throughout the world, ranging from questions on the use of social media to sexuality, gender, the role of women and the need for accompaniment and authentic witnesses in the Church, among others.

“The result was a valuable experience of dialogue and learning — so valuable that I think that continuing the process of listening to a wide range of young adult experiences is important,” said Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia on an article published by First Things.

Seven bishops from the United States will attend the Synod. Five of them were elected by the USCCB: Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Archbishop José H. Gomez, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, Bishop Frank J. Caggiano and Bishop Robert Barron. Two of them were appointed by Pope Francis himself: Cardinal Blase Cupich and Cardinal Joseph Tobin.

A faithful response

The preparation for the Synod on Young People has not been without controversy. Some Church officials said the document that sealed the meeting by the 300 young adults gave room to heterodox teaching and to the implementation of “agendas” by some bishops, since the document stated that some young adults wanted the Church to change her teaching on issues related to morality.

Prejean, who partook of the Pre-Synod Gathering, considered it a “heartfelt letter of young people written to bishops,” and that it showed the wide range of questions and difficulties young people are facing throughout the world.

“Prudence is obviously necessary. We want to make sure that agendas are not being pushed forward, and that this is not an opportunity to change church teaching,” she said. “[But] if we approach the Synod with an attitude not properly placed … then we’re not leaving room for goodness to come out of it.”

Prejean hopes that bishops address the issues of sacramental preparation as a way to a relationship with Christ and the accompaniment of young people in the most important stages of transition, among other topics.

McGeehan thinks that an important step is that bishops “acknowledge the reality of the problem. Young adults are not attending Church as much as we would want to. A special outreach needs to happen for this age group,” she said. “As a Church we need to focus on how we can better support young adults in the changes and transitions, whether that is looking for a job or discerning their vocation.”

Bravo hopes that the Synod brings forth a plan of action: “The young people spoke up; we have heard them. We know their needs, fears, challenges and desires. What can we do to bring them into a deeper encounter with Jesus Christ? … A plan of action that nurtures and advocates for love, patience and caring for our young people; a plan of action that encourages young people to be leaders, to follow Mary’s example and to be not afraid.”

While the faithful should be paying attention to what is being said at the Synod, Prejean also encouraged all to pray intentionally for the guidance of bishops during the 25-day meeting.

“The future of the Catholic faith belongs to those who create it with their fidelity, their self-sacrifice, their commitment to bringing new life into the world and raising their children in truth, and their determination to walk Christ’s ‘narrow way’ with joy,” Archbishop Chaput reminded in his column. “May God grant the 2018 synod fathers the grace and courage to lead young people on that path.”

COMING UP: Saving Synod-2018 from itself

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Anyone looking for a remedy for insomnia might try working through the Instrumentum Laboris, or “working document,” for the XV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, to be held in Rome next month on the theme “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.” The IL is a 30,000+ word brick: a bloated, tedious door stop full of sociologese but woefully lacking in spiritual or theological insight. Moreover, and more sadly, the IL has little to say about “the faith” except to hint on numerous occasions that its authors are somewhat embarrassed by Catholic teaching – and not because that teaching has been betrayed by churchmen of various ranks, but because that teaching challenges the world’s smug sureties about, and its fanatical commitment to, the sexual revolution in all its expressions.

A gargantuan text like this can’t seriously be considered as a basis for discussion at the Synod. No text of more than 30,000 words, even if written in a scintillating and compelling style, can be a discussion guide. The IL for Synod-2018 reads, rather, like a draft of a Synod Final Report. And that is a prescription for a failed Synod.

So what might the participants in Synod-2018 do to salvage a useful discussion in October?

They might challenge the IL’s oft-repeated claim that young people want a “Church that listens.” That is so obvious as to be a thumping banality: no one, young or old, wants a Church that’s a nagging, unsympathetic nanny. And yes, young people (and the rest of us) want a “Church that listens” in spiritual direction and confession to the difficulties we all experience in living and sharing the Gospel and in obeying God’s law. But above all, and perhaps especially in this time of grave troubles, what young people want (and what the rest of us want, at least in the living parts of the Church) is a Church that lives joyfully, teaches clearly, manifests holiness, offers comfort and support to the needy – and answers our questions clearly and honestly. Young people (and the rest of us) do not want a pandering Church, but an evangelically-vibrant Church that manifests and offers friendship with Jesus Christ.

Synod participants might also emphasize that the clarity of Catholic teaching on life issues attracts many young people today, precisely because that clarity is in sharp contrast to the incoherence about what makes for human happiness that people of all ages increasingly detect in the lifestyle libertinism of contemporary Western culture. Someone at Synod-2018 should, for example, talk about the experience of the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., which, for years now, has become both larger and younger.

Success stories in youth ministry should be persistently, even relentlessly, lifted up at Synod-2018. The IL betrays a soured sense of incapacity, even failure. Yet the past 30 years or so have seen a renaissance in young adult ministry. So let someone at Synod-2018 talk about the impressive record of Christian formation compiled by campus ministries like that at Texas A&M University. Let someone at the Synod tell the world Church about the intellectual and spiritual achievements of orthodox, academically vibrant Catholic liberal arts colleges and universities in the United States. Let someone bear witness to the great work being done on over a hundred campuses by FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, which singularly embodies the “Church permanently in mission” of which the Pope speaks. And let’s hope there’s room at Synod-2018 for churchmen to learn about the work of the World Youth Alliance, an international network of pro-life young adults on all continents, whose work is explicitly based on the Church’s teaching about the dignity of the human person.

Synod-2018’s IL contains no reflection on why St. John Paul II was a magnet for millions of young people, which surely had something to do with both his compassion and his clarity about the truth. Father Karol Wojtyla, who later became John Paul II, led a young adult ministry of challenging spiritual accompaniment a half-century before “accompaniment” became code in some Catholic circles for “This [hard teaching] is really a goal or ideal.” So let Synod-2018 rescue “accompaniment” and link it to the truth that liberates.

That’s the least the Church deserves in this time of purification.

Featured image by Daniel Ibanez/CNA