Pope Francis meets with young people ahead of October synod

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Pope Francis poses for a photo at a pre-synod gathering of youth delegates at the Pontifical International Maria Mater Ecclesiae College in Rome March 19. Seated next to the pope are Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, and U.S. Cardinal Kevin J. Farrell, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has often called for a “listening church,” in which bishops, cardinals and popes do not just transmit the faith, but also receive wisdom from the people they serve. The pope is trying to put this into action with a “pre-synod” gathering in Rome ahead of a Synod of Bishops meeting this October on helping young people discover their vocations. 

This is the first pre-synod meeting of its kind and has seen 300 youngsters from all over the world gathering at the Pontifical International Maria Mater Ecclesiae College in Rome to give their input. Pope Francis has insisted that young adults take a central role in the synod deliberations by informing a much older hierarchy about what is going on in their lives.   

On March 19, Francis opened the meeting, spending four hours in an intimate listening session where young people were encouraged to ask questions and speak “bravely.” The pope offered them a simple message: “We need you,” since young people are the “living stones of the church.”  

While the Vatican has much experience carefully managing encounters between popes and young people, this one had a fresh, open atmosphere to it. Difficult topics were on, not off the agenda. 

“There is a tendency in the church to avoid matters that are not so easy to talk about,” Angela Markas, a delegate from Australia, told Francis. “This includes same-sex marriage, our sexuality and also the role of women in the church.” 

After she spoke the pope got out of his chair, greeted her and thanked her for her remarks. 

Inside the hall, he mingled with the crowd, posed for selfies and a big group shot. But this was about more than taking getting a photo with the pope. Participants put to him series of questions on everything from how to make big life choices, maintaining a spiritual life and even the popularity of tattoos, which the pope said not to be afraid of, and to use as a talking point on what they signify. 

This is a classically Jesuit approach of seeking out the good in a culture first and building on it rather than falling back into the comfort-zone rhetoric of condemning the unknown. 

Where Francis was willing to issue a condemnation, however, was over the growth of human trafficking and prostitution. Blessing Okoedion from Nigeria asked Francis how the church could allow Catholics to be clients for the many Nigerian women in Italy like her who are forced to be sex slaves by the traffickers who got them here. 

“I ask myself, and I ask you: Is the male chauvinistic church able to truthfully ask itself about this high demand by clients?” she said.
The pope replied forcefully, arguing men who frequent prostitutes are criminals with a “sick mentality” who think that women exist to be exploited. 
“This isn’t making love. This is torturing a woman. Let’s not confuse the terms,” he said.

Opening up the discussion is just the start. For Francis, it is crucial to bring about a “synodal church,” that is, one that faces problems and collectively discerns its mission together rather than leaving everything in the hands of a select group. Yes, the bishops are required to lead by showing the way forward, but they are also, the pope says, required to walk with people in their midst, which means sometimes “walking behind them, to make sure no one gets left behind.”

In March Francis marked five years in the papacy, with some arguing that despite the gestures and promises, little had been achieved in terms of concrete change. But there are five distinct shifts that have taken place under this pope that show this papacy has revived the spirit of reform unleashed at the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-1965 gathering of bishops that set the blueprint for contemporary Catholicism. This ushered in a new era of a more compassionate, mission-focused church dedicated to serving those on the margins.

The first change can be described as a reform of the papacy from a monarchical to a servant-leadership model. The second is a decentralization away from Rome, giving greater responsibility to local churches. Third is a focus on discernment — with a stress on listening — while fourth is conversion of those inside the church to a more pastoral, less bureaucratic, approach. The fifth shift is the global statesmanship Francis has shown, as he uses the universal mission of the papacy to mediate and heal conflicts. 

While other reforms inside the Vatican take time, a bigger and broader trajectory of reform has been set in motion by Francis, and it is one that will be very difficult to reverse.


  • pope francis
  • youth synod

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