News Focus

Is the Youth Synod hearing everyone?

Pope Francis with participants in the pre-synod meeting in Rome (Getty)

Damage control was once again the order of the day at the Vatican, in the wake of a week-long gathering of young men and women who came to town last month to help with preparations for the upcoming Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment”.

The meeting was supposed to provide young people with the opportunity to express their view of the state and trajectory of the Church, articulate their feelings and make recommendations to the synod fathers ahead of their scheduled sessions in October. Criticism of the modes, methods and procedures that led to the final document – as well as criticism of the final document itself – was so vocal that the “pre-synod” meeting organisers and participant-leaders found themselves countering claims that the whole process was manipulated and even rigged.

Three hundred people divided into 20 different language groups worked over five days on a wide array of questions and issues. Some 15,000 virtual participants contributed to the discussion via social media. The drafting team had no more than two working days to produce the final document, which brought together the contributions of 26 discrete working groups. That there was anything to show after that is remarkable. That the text they produced is not only readable but also competent in form and style is quite an achievement.

Some of the major complaints came from young people devoted to traditional forms of worship. John Monaco, a graduate student at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and a participant in one of the meeting’s English-language Facebook forums, described the tenor of comments for the Catholic Herald: “[T]he youth’s ordinary experience of the Sacred Liturgy in the post-conciliar Church left them wanting something ‘more’, and many of these young people found their desire for transcendence and awe within the Extraordinary Form, a desire that could not be satiated by banal folk music and anthropocentric liturgical behaviour.”

The specific term “Extraordinary Form” was conspicuously absent from the 12-page final document, which did refer however to “reverential traditional liturgies”. An Anglophone member of the drafting committee, Isaac Withers, explained the absence: “There was a huge online community asking for the Extraordinary Form to be represented in the document, and I realised going through these comments that we as a writing team had not been shown the wealth of online commenting.

“We were given only a summary of these comments, and so I was saddened to see that many in this group felt disheartened or not listened to. I had turned to my Lebanese and Latin American editing colleagues and had asked them if the phrases ‘Extraordinary Form’ or even ‘Latin Mass’ translated for them. They both said that they did not know what I meant, so I included the phrase ‘reverential liturgies’, hoping to express those things, but looking online, I really saw that the document would have been different had the online world been represented properly.”

So, the claims of dissatisfied parties have some basis in fact. Whether that basis in fact can support the more adventurous claims of a conspiracy to exclude traditionalists from the process is quite another matter (Withers insisted in an update that there was “no Vatican cover-up”). In any case, it is far more likely that the vicissitudes of writing by committee and the need to produce something “good enough” led draftsmen to make decisions with which even they were not happy or minimally satisfied.

The whole process from start to finish, including the content of the final document the young people produced, might nevertheless be considered just a little too pat. Explaining the “paradigm shift” under Pope Francis at the turn of the year, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, quoted John F Kennedy’s famous line from his inaugural address:

[President Kennedy] said: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.’ I believe that this is, at the end of the day, also the innovative approach, that is the one the Church asks [of] young people: the Pope, the Church [both] ask young people what they can do for the Church, what contribution they can give to the Gospel, the spread of Gospel, today. And I believe that young people will be able to respond to this invitation with their generosity and also with their enthusiasm.

That may be the case. However, there is an awful lot of talk in the document about what young people want from the Church.

The reader might also feel that the document offers comparatively little expression in the way of practical ideas for harnessing the generosity and enthusiasm of young people. Heading into the home stretch, the question will be whether that is a bug or a feature.