Synod on the Young People: No ordinary Synod, no ordinary time
Preparation for the Synod assembly on young people was marked by far greater inclusion of non-bishops than any previous gathering
Bishops and cardinals during a papal Mass in St. Peter's, Rome, on the occasion of the synod assembly on the family, in October 2015. (Photo by Andreas Solaro/AFP)
Pope Francis will convene the XV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops next Wednesday, focusing on the theme “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment.”
But there is nothing at all “ordinary” about this Oct. 3-28 gathering for a whole host of reasons. Not least is the fact that it’s taking place at an extraordinary and particularly historic moment in the life of the Catholic Church.
There are reasons both trivial and epoch-making that distinguish this as an out of the ordinary gathering.
For example, it will be only the sixth time since 1967, when Pope Paul VI convened the Synod for the first of its now 28 ordinary, extraordinary and special assemblies, that this cross-section of bishops ceremoniously begins its summit in the middle of the week.
Since 1994 the popes have routinely held the assemblies’ opening Mass on a Sunday. The lone exception was in 1991 when John Paul II began the first Special Synod Assembly for Europe with a Eucharistic celebration on a Thursday. No pope has ever convened the Synod on a Wednesday.
It’s not clear why Pope Francis chose to do so this time, although the date -- October 3rd -- is the 742nd anniversary of the death (and day before the official feast day) of his papal namesake, St. Francis of Assisi.
And Wednesday is general audience day, which means an additional 25,000 more people could show up for the outdoor Mass in St. Peter’s Square.
But that’s just trivia.
There are far more monumental reasons why this Synod assembly is destined to be manifestly different from all those the recent popes have convened up to now.
In this moment of reform
First of all, the Catholic Church is currently undergoing a dramatic and, for some of its members, terrifying season of radical Church reform that Pope Francis launched five years ago with his apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium.
Small, but very loud and influential sectors of the clergy and laity have given the document a less than warm reception.
Some have even spared no effort to oppose its indications and block the reforms that have slowly begun to emerge.
One of these is the decentralization of Church authority and Francis’ desire to restore ancient decision-making powers to local bishops.
The pope’s critics are doing all they can to oppose his efforts to grant doctrinal authority to national and regional episcopal conferences.
They are trying to hinder his determination to give the very Synod of Bishops (of which the Bishop of Rome is president) a more deliberative, rather than consultative voice.
The critics have also bristled at Francis’ invitation to question and debate long standing customs, laws and disciplines in the Church that are not strictly rooted to the Gospel or the proper reading of the evangelical texts.
The pope has invited such debate among the bishops gathered in Synod, but also among the people.
His innovative decision to canvass the People of God in the run-up to the three Synod assemblies held during his pontificate has alarmed traditionalists and “doctors of the law.”
The preparation for next week’s Synod assembly on young people was marked by far greater inclusion of non-bishops (and even non-believers among the youth) than any previous gathering in history.
It was prepared through greater, more frequent and widespread participation of the subjects involved (young people themselves) than even the previous two assemblies Francis convened on marriage and the family.
And remember that those gatherings, and especially the apostolic document (Amoris laetitia) that it helped produced, were determining factors that stiffened the resolve of the minority of clerics and lay people currently opposing the pope’s project of ecclesial reform.
The voices and concerns of young people promise to be even more important and decisive in this upcoming Synod assembly than the viewpoints expressed at those other two gatherings.
Much will depend on a reformed set of operating procedures (Ordo synodi) for the Synod that are expected to be unveiled next week.
They come in light of a brand new apostolic constitution (Episcopalis communio) that Francis published with immediate effect on Sept. 18.
The text, which was released only in Italian, is a complete up-dating of the Synod of Bishops’ structure. It abrogates all previous legislation pertaining to this permanent structure that Paul VI created in 1965 at the end of the Second Vatican Council.
Pope Francis’ main reason for reforming the Synod’s constitution is to ensure that it “become ever more a privileged instrument of listening to the People of God,” because, while he recognizes that the Synod is essentially an episcopal institution, he insists that it cannot exist “separated from the rest of the faithful.”
And, in an effort to give the Synod more deliberative powers, the new apostolic constitution states:
If expressly approved by the Roman Pontiff, the (Synod assembly) final document participates in the ordinary Magisterium of the Successor to Peter.
This likely means that the pope will no longer write his own post-synodal apostolic exhortation, which has been the custom for most of the Synod’s 50-year history, but will publish the assembly’s final document as a magisterial (or teaching) text.
Clergy sex abuse, lack of credibility
The second reason this Synod gathering will be like no other pertains to the period of upheaval the Church is currently experiencing.
Much of this has to do with the corrosion of credibility among Church leaders -- bishops and priests, locally and at the Vatican -- due to the mishandling of clergy abuse of youngsters, women and other vulnerable people.
It is now crystal clear that, as historic (and even recent) cases of widespread abuse are being unveiled in more and more countries, this phenomenon is a pandemic infecting the Church on every part of the globe.
Young participants at the upcoming Synod assembly will certainly have something to say about this now full-blown crisis.
“I marvel that, for all our lack of witness, you continue to discover Jesus in our communities,” Francis told young people on his recent visit to Baltic countries.
Quoting the working paper for the upcoming Synod assembly the pope acknowledged that young people “are upset by sexual and economic scandals that do not meet with clear condemnation, by our unpreparedness to really appreciate the lives and sensibilities of the young, and simply by the passive role we assign them.”
In a remarkable passage that pre-sages the concrete contribution he would like to receive from young people at the upcoming assembly, Francis said:
When we adults refuse to acknowledge some evident reality, you tell us frankly: ‘Can’t you see this?’ Some of you who are a bit more forthright might even say to us: ‘Don’t you see that nobody is listening to you any more, or believes what you have to say?’
We ourselves need to be converted; we have to realize that in order to stand by your side we need to change many situations that, in the end, put you off.
Young people will surely call for change regarding the abysmal way that bishops and other Church leaders, both lay and clerical, have responded to the sexual abuse crisis. And they may call for many other changes, too.
If the pope is serious about willing to be converted by the young, the Synod assembly could very well be the catalyst for that conversion. Because Francis is no different from any other bishop in the Catholic Church. He like the others has been negligent and slow in dealing with this problem.
Suspicion, crisis and risks
A third reason that this assembly of the Synod of Bishops is likely to be extraordinary is linked to the perceived crisis of deep division within the Church.
The letters and interviews of a former papal nuncio to the United States (Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò) who has called on Pope Francis to resign because of willfully turning a blind eye to criminal sexual assault committed by the deposed cardinal Theodore McCarrick, have been embraced by the pope’s critics as if they were a “silver bullet” that will finally doom his pontificate and reforms.
Neither the pope nor the Vatican’s Secretariat of State has responded to Viganò’s long list of accusations, but a response is expected soon, possibly before the Synod assembly begins or while it is in session.
The young people and their bishops in that assembly could play a role in helping Francis and his aides make that response more credible and believable.
Or the pope could consider responding to Viganò in a way that entrusts young people with specific responsibilities for helping find solutions to mistakes that were and continue to be made by him, his predecessors and all bishops in the Church. Because it is clear, mistakes were made long before Francis became pope.
In any case, the air of crisis and uncertainty, which seems to be affecting some regions of the Church more than others, will in some way be hovering over the three-and-a-half-week gathering. It could have a direct or at least indirect impact on its proceedings.
And, finally, the Holy See’s recently announced agreement with the Chinese government over the appointment of bishops also makes this an extraordinary moment in the life of the Church.
Pope Francis and his chief diplomatic aides have taken a huge risk -- once again displaying the courage to be vulnerable -- in a long game aimed at uniting Chinese Catholics and strengthening the mission of the Church on the Communist mainland.
Italian media reports say that because of the agreement, Chinese bishops will be able to participate in the upcoming Synod assembly.
If true, it would be an historic first. And their presence and witness could further help the pope to nudge reluctant Eurocentric bishops and all Catholics to focus less on internal, “churchy” matters and broaden their line of vision.
One thing is for sure, Pope Francis will preside over the Synod of Bishops assembly on young people just as he has tried to guide the entire Church through the sometimes painful, sometimes exhilarating process of reform up to now -- under the principle of “time is greater than space.”
As he says in Evangelii gaudium:
This principle enables us to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results.
It helps us patiently to endure difficult and adverse situations, or inevitable changes in our plans.
It invites us to accept the tension between fullness and limitation, and to give a priority to time… Without anxiety, but with clear convictions and tenacity.