Pope Francis convenes bishops for monthlong synod on youth

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Thursday, October 11, 2018

Pope Francis speaks during a gathering with young people and members of the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican Oct. 6. CNS photo/Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters

VATICAN CITY —  A church unable to listen “cannot be credible,” Pope Francis told bishops from across the world who have gathered in Rome for a synod on youth Oct. 3-28.

Inside the synod hall in the Vatican, young people are making themselves heard. Along with the 267 synod fathers are 36 people aged 18-29 who act in an advisory capacity during the meeting.

The young people sitting at the back of the assembly hall have developed a “clap-o-meter,” in which a bishop’s intervention in the gathering is greeted with whoops, cheers or just polite applause, depending on what is being said.

The bishops say they are using the reactions of youth as a gauge for suggestions to put forward during the assembly.

Francis says he wants the synod to come up with concrete pastoral proposals for how the church can better connect with young people rather than a document “only read by a few and criticized by many,” he joked.

Here he was referencing “Amoris Laetitia,” his apostolic exhortation on marriage and family life, produced after two synods held in 2014 and 2015. That text was criticized by a vocal minority in the church for offering an opening to some divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. Running to more than 200 pages, it gives a detailed rendering of how the church can better support families.

Unlike previous synods, this assembly broke up into small discussion groups, known as “circuli minores,” in the first week of meetings. The new approach, one cardinal explained to me, is to break through the long period of contributions from individual participants.

Francis wants synod fathers to focus their efforts on the working text of the synod document, the “instrumentum laboris,” which will form the basis of the final message of the synod, which is meeting on the theme of young people, the faith and vocational discernment.  

Gathering into small groups focuses the discussions, although one of the challenges for any synod is bringing together the vast array of viewpoints from across the global church. For the first time, the synod includes two bishops from China, a direct result of the historic accord recently signed between the Holy See and Beijing on the appointment of bishops. 

The initial small-group discussions covered a wide range of topics from migrants fleeing Myanmar, Catholic education in Africa, and video games to the need to “make sure we are clear that young people who don’t agree with the church on sex are still members of the church.”

There is also a suggestion that, along with a final document, that the synod issues a special message to the “Youth of the World” that would be “missionary in character” and include an apology for past failings.

Synod discussions have included the sexual-abuse crisis. Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Australia, apologized to young people “for the failure of too many bishops and others to respond appropriately when abuse was identified, and to do all in their power to keep you safe.” He also urged them “never to give up on Jesus because of our failures” and “never give up on the church that you can help make more faithful.”

On the first weekend of the synod, the Vatican announced that the pope had ordered a “thorough study” of documents in Holy See departments relating to Archbishop Theodore McCarrick. “We will follow the path of truth wherever it may lead,” the Vatican statement explained, adding, “it may emerge that choices were taken that would not be consonant with a contemporary approach to such issues.”

The following day Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Vatican body that oversees the appointment of bishops, issued an open letter to Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. On Aug. 26 Archbishop Viganò accused the pope of ignoring allegations that McCarrick had “corrupted” seminarians, and called on Francis to resign for allegedly lifting sanctions placed on the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., by Benedict XVI. Archbishop Viganò suggested Francis had used McCarrick as an informal adviser on episcopal nominations in the United States. 

Contrary to Archbishop Viganò’s claims, Cardinal Ouellet wrote, a review of his congregation’s archives could find no documentation from Benedict issuing sanctions. Nor had Cardinal Ouellet ever heard Francis talk about Archbishop McCarrick as an adviser on episcopal appointments.

“I think it is abhorrent, however, for you to use the clamorous sexual-abuse scandal in the United States to inflict an unmerited and unheard of a blow to the moral authority of your superior, the Supreme Pontiff,” the cardinal told the former papal diplomat.

The letter is being seen in Rome as a highly effective riposte to Archbishop Viganò.



  • pope francis
  • synod on young people

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