I giovani! Yes, the young people! It seemed as if every synod speech, media interview and commentary exalted over the presence of the young “auditors”, some three dozen 20- and 30-somethings invited to spend the three-plus weeks of the synod with the Holy Father and the bishops.
They were protagonists, not merely spectators, we were told. And the insertion of the young people into what remains, in large part, a bureaucratic exercise was supposed to inject a measure of energy and model of evangelisation.
Perhaps, but I have my doubts. Admirable though they were in their own faith and leadership, I found their approach more bureaucratic than I had expected. Many of the auditors, when asked what they planned do upon returning from the synod, spoke of urging their bishops to do this or that, or working with the youth commission of their bishops’ conference. Their own personal testimonies of faith were inspiring, but they often sounded like those employed by a commission rather than being seized with the urgency of missionary discipleship. I have worked for 15 years in campus evangelisation with many zealous missionaries, and have never heard any speak about collaborations with agencies of an episcopal conference.
The young auditors addressed a concluding message to the Holy Father. It sounded a lot less like the Acts of the Apostles than it did promotional material from the Dicastery of Integral Human Development.
“New ideas need space and you gave it to us,” they wrote to Pope Francis. “We share your dream: an outgoing Church, open to all, especially the weakest, a field hospital Church. We are already an active part of this Church and we want to continue to make a concrete commitment to improve our cities and schools, and the social and political world and working environments, by spreading a culture of peace and solidarity and by putting the poor at the centre, in whom Jesus himself is recognised.”
Jesus just barely made it into the message, which meant the auditors were not listening very carefully to the bishops. The synod fathers themselves had decided to write a message to the youth of the world, and the first draft was soundly rejected for not clearly beginning with Jesus. So they fixed it.
“In these days, we have gathered together to hear the voice of Jesus,” the bishops’ revised text began. “And to recognise in Him your many voices, your shouts of exultation, your cries and your moments of silence.”
Or perhaps the young people were listening. The mammoth final document, though organised around the biblical encounter on the road to Emmaus, meandered through so much material that the simple urgency of the Gospel proclamation was lost.
St John Paul II was the (deliberately) forgotten figure of this synod, so it was never likely that we might have heard from him, but one longed for something like what he said at World Youth Day in Paris in 1997:
It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you ﬁnd satisﬁes you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is He who provoked you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise…
Pope Francis himself – who spent hour after heroic hour in the synod hall – seemed to catch that something of that urgency was missing. “How often, instead of making the Lord’s words our own, have we peddled our own ideas as his word,” he preached at the closing Mass. “How often do people feel the weight of our institutions more than the friendly presence of Jesus.”
The synod is a weighty institution, a place more inclined toward procedural intrigue than Spirit-filled proclamation. So there was a genuine freshness in the novel presence of the young auditors, though some Vatican officials gushed so profusely about it that it made me wonder if they had ever been around young people before. But I rather suspect that many of those chosen were rather more at home in Church institutions than at work in the vineyard itself. To use the language of Pope Francis, more in the sacristy than out in the street.
My entire priesthood has been spent with young adults, a true mission field. And even if the labourers may be few, there are very impressive missionaries out gathering in the harvest. Their contributions were missed at the synod.
Much was made of the young auditors’ cheers and applause in the synod hall, a departure from the usual practice of keeping a respectful silence during the speeches, all the better not to disturb those who wish to sleep. But the bishops who were gathered, much less the Holy Father, do not need cheerleaders. They need the witness of those who have found that “Jesus that you seek”, rather than those who are eager to “improve our cities and schools”.
The synod is likely to do little harm. But it was a missed opportunity.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca