Salesians and the synod
In October2018 the church gathered to listen to the experience of all young people across the world. That gathering included many catholic young people from sixteen to twenty-nine years of age, but also many young people of other faiths and of no faith. This synod on youth is the fifteenth ordinary synod since 1967 and follows on from a synod on new evangelisation in 2012 and one on the family in 2015. Each of these synodal moments are part of a pattern of renewal of the church under the leadership of Pope Francis.
But what is a synod? The word is Greek and is translated as “meeting” or “assembly.” In the Catholic context it is an authoritative meeting to decide issues of belief and practice. The process for the youth synod began two years ago and young people have been consulted across the world about their views. The results of the survey have then been considered by professionals in many disciplines and young people have been involved at every stage in meetings expressing their views. Some of those young people have reported that it took a lot of determination to stop the older clergy in the meetings talking and really begin to listen to the voice of the young. At one point the young adults had to go away and make a video overnight to show to the whole assembly in order to have their voice heard. It worked. The whole agenda and process was reviewed and a more collaborative approach was adopted.
That instinctive response by the young adults illustrates some of the themes of the synod which include listening to the young and also engaging their strengths as “digital natives” in a very different world from their elders. The importance of this synod in the church is captured in the statement of purpose put forward by Pope Francis:
"to examine herself on how she can lead young people to recognize and accept the call to the fullness of life and love, and to ask young people to help her in identifying the most effective way to announce the Good News today."
There are two parts to the aim: an invitation to fullness of life which continues the theme of family and evangelisation and the second part which is probably the most striking. The second part is an appeal to young people to help the church to make the Gospel more accessible in a rapidly changing world. The church is asking for advice, admitting that it does not have the answers! The church is also asking guidance from young people who in the past have been seen as passive recipients of the faith. This is the emerging voice of a humbler church that needs to move into the future as a pilgrim people and ready to listen to the experience of all ages and especially the young.
The synod has established three themes for listening and reflection.
The world of the young
Faith, discernment and vocation
Listening is the core activity of this synod. How we listen to each other across the generation in a way that unlocks the fulness of life in listener and speaker. Francis de Sales writes:
Truly, the chief exercise in spiritual life is to speak to God and hear God speak in the bottom of the heart; it is a silent conversation. Eyes speak to eyes, and heart to heart, and none understand what passed between them save those who speak. (Book 6 Treatise on the Love of God)
So, all good listening has a spiritual dimension. It is a heart to heart conversation that the church is seeking with young people for the good of young people yes, but also for the church which needs guidance. This turn towards young people is great news for the Salesian approach to work with young people because it amounts to a charter for youth ministry and a recognition of a way of evangelising, a way of proclaiming the Gospel, that reaches back to Don Bosco’s experience in Valdocco. But it also suggests that the gradual way of listening, accompanying and drawing out vocational gifts is a valid model of bringing the Gospel to everyone whatever their age. Evangelisation is about relationship, walking with others, understanding, appreciating rather than presenting rules and explanations that do not connect with the lived experience of those involved. Evangelisation is an invitation to authentic relationships that are the only sacred space where the Gospel can be proclaimed.
In the process of preparations for the synod the Bishops of England and Wales made a survey of the views of young people. They published the results in 2018. Here are my top ten highlights:
1. Relationships are central to young peoples’ personal world view. The church is not part of that world.
2. For young people the best church events are those that invite them to an adventure and an encounter, perhaps surprising, with Jesus Christ.
3. There are two distinct groups: A small vocal group looking back to an era they have been told was better, and a much larger group who are embedded in the culture and want the church to engage more. The first group wants clarity and second authenticity.
4. Young people are asking the church in England and Wales for a monumental change in attitude orientation and practice.
5. We lack integration between the youth desire for solidarity with the poor and their baptismal vocation.
6. Educators identified what young people most needed from church: exploration, encounter, purpose.
7. Catholic schools create the largest face to face contact with young Catholics with 350,000 secondary pupils in daily contact with catholic adults.
8. The word vocation has become toxic to some Catholics as it seems too narrow in the way that it is used.
9. The church is good at laying out the steps that lead to a well-lived life, not so good at explaining why anyone would want to do this in the first place.
10. Six in ten young people brought up as catholic currently affiliate with the church.
For the church in this country these ten items point to a sense of disappointment in young people with the way we are proclaiming the Gospel. But they also promise idealism, energy, flexibility and renewal. The key lies in establishing good listening relationships at every level so that young people can guide our church to a new engagement with the culture that they regard as normal, as their home. Only if our church enters that world and listens to the honest hungers of young adults can we break open the treasures of the Gospel and Sacraments for a hungry and sometimes superficial world. That is a challenge in England and Wales.
The final preparatory stage for the synod was the production of a working document that was drawn up with young people from across the world. This is the content of the synod and again, I would like to offer my top ten points from this world view of young people:
1. Young people are major seekers of meaning.
2. Religion is now not the preferred gateway to the meaning of life.
3. Music is a fundamental language for young people.
4. It is a great problem that women are still not given an equal place.
5. Religion needs to be less institutionalized and more “liquid.”
6. Homilies are inadequate.
7. Young people rage in the face of rampant church corruption.
8. Young people are asking for effective and reliable mentors.
9. Vocation is like a hub integrating all the dimensions of a person, making them fruitful.
10. Young people are more sensitive to experiences rather than concepts.
When I read through these statements I wonder to myself, who is evangelising who? At times it seems that young people are challenging the church to be faithful to the Gospel, to avoid corruption, to establish relationships based on loving kindness and build the kind of church envisaged by the apostles. In this experience of listening I believe that young people are rubbing salt into the wounds of an aging church, healing and renewing it for a new age of witness in the world. A church that does not adapt its approach to changes in culture becomes afossil and its churches become museums with the parishioners as curators. The synod offers the church a gateway to renewal, a source of energy for change and above all an invitation to a new relationship with the people of God.
The final synod meeting on youth took place in October and included bishops from all over the world. Each of them will discuss and vote on the working document and advise Pope Francis on how to move forward. Early in 2018 Pope Francis, having reflected on the synod, will publish an apostolic exhortation summing up the outcomes of the synod and suggesting some ways forward for the whole church. It is important that we keep this synod process in our prayers because it is not complete until the document is received, reflected upon and then implemented in our own church in England and Wales as well as our church in Scotland.
The theme of listening must not be lost because it is the life-blood of healthy relationships. Listening outwards to the world around us and listening within, to the heart, is the core of a discerning life and a vital missing element from some aspects of church life. As Don Bosco used to say “young people need to know that they are loved.” It is that love that breaks down barriers between people and establishes the heart to heart conversation that is never far from the Gospel and from Jesus’ presence in our lives. That is why Pope Francis has been so insistent on listening and I end this article with his words from world youth day in 2017.
Every young person has something to say to others. He or she has something to say to adults, something to say to priests, something to say to bishops and even the Pope. All of us need to listen to you!”