Saving Synod-2018 from itself

George Weigel

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

COMING UP: Full-immersion Catholicism

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As this Catholic annus horibilis continues to unfold, perhaps some good news is in order; first, a little background.

In late 1991, Italy’s Rocco Buttiglione and America’s Michael Novak had an idea: create a summer seminar in which young Catholic adults with leadership potential could immerse themselves in the social doctrine of the Church, and especially the social magisterium of Pope John Paul II. Rocco and Michael recruited Father Richard John Neuhaus, the Polish Dominican Maciej Zieba, and me to the faculty team, and in July 1992 we went to Liechtenstein (where Rocco then taught) for several intensive weeks of intellectual work with some 40 graduate students from Europe and North America.

We repeated the experiment the following July. But after two weeks during which the resonant cowbells of some lovely Liechtensteiner bovines woke me every day at 4 a.m., as they meandered beneath my hotel window, I made a suggestion to my colleagues at evening prayer one night (First Vespers being celebrated from the Liturgy of the Hours and Second Vespers with W.L. Weller Special Reserve): Were we to continue this initiative, we should head east, planting our flag in one of the new democracies of east central Europe. The brethren agreed; we considered the possibilities of Prague and Cracow; John Paul II made it quite clear that he favored the latter; so the “Centesimus Annus Seminar on the Free Society” began meeting in Poland’s cultural and spiritual capital in July 1994 — and has met there every summer since. Renamed the “Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society” in 2000, the seminar has graduated some 900 students; its 27th annual assembly this past July included young adults from the United States, Canada, Poland, Slovakia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Slovenia, and Russia.

When Mike Novak handed me the leadership reins in 1999, I was asked by one sponsoring donor how I measured the seminar’s success. My reply was probably frustrating, but it was accurate: “Ask me in 25 years.” The seminar’s purpose was, and is, to help prepare Catholic leaders of the free and virtuous society of the 21st century; it takes time for that leadership to express itself and leadership impact is difficult to quantify. Now, my faculty colleagues and I can look back on more than a quarter-century of work that has helped form great priests and religious; parliamentarians and civil servants; journalists and academics; doctors and lawyers; successful businessmen and philanthropists; impressive marriages and families; and, most importantly, Catholics who live the joy of the Gospel as missionary disciples in many walks of life.

Over two and a half decades, TMS (the seminar’s shorthand moniker) has evolved programmatically. Intellectual immersion in Catholic social doctrine remains the program’s substantive core. But my colleagues and I have come to understand that TMS becomes a life-transforming experience for many because study is embedded in an experience of Christian community (the students and faculty live, dine, and pray together) that also includes rich cultural encounters and, above all, the liturgy. Our daily TMS Mass is celebrated with simplicity and reverence. We sing various ancient and modern chants, and our priest faculty provide excellent, expository preaching that helps our students see the world through biblical lenses. A lot of learning — philosophical, theological, historical, and cultural — happens during TMS. What ties it all together is our shared experience of the Eucharist as the source and summit of the life of faith.

Our curriculum has changed over time to meet the new pressures on missionary discipleship in the early 21st century. Centesimus Annus and Catholic social doctrine remain the seminar’s framework. But we now spend more time on a Catholic analysis of the sexual and biotech revolutions than we did in the early 1990s, more time on the question of what Benedict XVI called “human ecology,” and more time on understanding the New Evangelization and what it means to live out the meaning of one’s baptism.

This year’s TMS XXVII — we’re now so venerable that we date ourselves like the Super Bowl — was full of impressive young men and women who have met and embraced Jesus Christ, who have zero interest in Catholic Lite, and who want to explore everything that vibrant Catholicism means, personally and in their civic and professional lives. Their eagerness to know and live the faith fully is encouraging in this time of trial and purification — and something October’s Synod on youth ministry should take seriously.