BY James Farrell | April 13 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Spin the bottle and childish games: how a youth synod lost its way

JAMES FARRELL reports on an unusual Vatican conference and its confused message to young people

A game of spin the bottle, parties in dorms and a discourse on tattoos. No, these are not features of another trashy teen movie: these are the results of the pre-synodal meeting for the youth in Rome.

305 young people met from March 19-24 for a week of discussions to produce a final working document on the experiences of young people and how they can better engage with the Church. Its findings will ultimately inform a synod of bishops scheduled for October 2018 on the topic ‘Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment.’

I was able to follow the synod from Scotland thanks to the increasingly wacky updates from Glasgow Archdiocese’s youth officer, Sean Deighan, as he represented the Scottish faithful in Rome.

He set out full of youthly optimism that he could share his ideas on how the Church can be more effective in its evangelical mission among the young. That optimism soon faded over a week spent with atheists, Muslims and a number of young Catholics surprised to hear that he ‘believed in the Church’s teachings.’

I first got a taste of Sean’s unique experience from a text, sent from Rome in the early hours of the morning. One text, two sentences long: “Sharing a room with a Ukrainian guy here. He snores like an industrial machine” (though Sean said later, I should add, that he was a nice guy when he was awake).

Later that day, Pope Francis would open the meeting with an address followed by a Q&A. The Pope implored the young people ‘to express yourselves frankly and freely,’ urging them to ‘be brazen.’ The Pope reminded the delegates that they would be listened to and that anything was up for discussion.

The delegates took the Pope at his word. Cue tattoo discourse.

Responding to a question, the Holy Father said that priests shouldn’t be scared to use tattoos as a way to connect more with young people. The final document prepared by young people, which is to be used by bishops as a ‘navigational aid’ at the October synod, didn’t mentions tattoos. You could be forgiven for thinking the delegates didn’t make full use of their time with the successor to St Peter.

The day concluded with some social time and ‘entertainment’ provided by ‘a group of 65-year-old Italians singing.’ The Scottish delegate took an early night. “I had to leave,” Sean said. “They were making us hold hands.”

Sean returned the next day, but one group member had already had enough. He wouldn’t be the last to leave.

The groups were made up of a mix of people from all over the world and of many faiths and none. There were two atheists and a Muslim in the discussion group with our Scottish delegate. This was to ensure that they would be included in the Church’s strategy for ‘reaching out to all young people.’

Upon hearing from Sean that a delegate in his group was a Muslim, a representative from Nigeria took up the Pope’s words to ‘be brazen’ and, in a fit of pain and anguish, exclaimed: “Why? They are killing my people back home!”


Lacking focus

This group of young people produced a final document with views as diverse as their whole. The document was introduced as a means ‘to give the bishops a compass, pointing towards a clear understanding of young people: a navigational aid.’

What becomes clear when reading this document, however, is that it lacks focus. It was written by many young people with a spectrum of views on the Church, and, if you can navigate your way through it, you will notice its statements are riddled with caveats: ‘many young people,’ ‘others,’ ‘some,’ and ‘sometimes.’ There is no sense that concrete agreements were reached during the discussions.

This leaves a ‘navigational aid’ open to interpretation as to where young people are at in relation to Church teachings. For instance, on issues such as contraception, abortion, homosexuality, cohabitation, marriage and priesthood there is, the document says, ‘often disagreement.’

“As a result, [young people] may want the Church to change her teaching or at least to have access to a better explanation and to more formation on these questions,” it says.

It goes on to state that ‘many young Catholics accept these teachings and find in them a source of joy.’ The document also addresses young people and their ‘varied’ relationships with Jesus, saying that for the average Joe, Christianity is out of reach.

Understand? No, neither do I.

Away from the pre-synodal discussion, Sean found himself at what might have been a primary school party, playing spin the bottle. “It’s not what you think!” Sean blurted out when he noticed my brow furrow upon learning of this.

Side-stepping the risqué version of the game, the delegates—adults, remember—chose to spend the evening playing truth-or-dare. When the bottle spun Sean’s way, he was asked, curiously, ‘Do you believe in the Church’s teachings?’

He was met with a stunned silence when he answered, unsurprisingly you might think, with a firm ‘yes.’ Sean said he was unsure who felt more ­awkward at the time: other delegates at his answer, or himself at being asked such an incredible question.


Comfortable encounter

But enough of Church teachings. What of ‘the Church’ itself?

The synod’s final document says: “It can seem that the Church forgets that the people are the Church, not the building.” The young people then go on to admit that they aren’t ‘comfortable’ in going to Church.

“Above all, the place in which we wish to be met by the Church is the streets… the Church should try to find creative new ways to encounter people where they are comfortable.”

Where are young people comfortable? “Bars, coffee shops, parks, gyms, stadiums and any other popular cultural centres,” the document says. Personally, I am not much of a gym goer but ‘treadmill Mass’ does have a ring to it!


Role of women

The document devoted three paragraphs to the role of women in the Church. It says that while there are great examples of women having a place in the Church, for some ‘these examples are not always visible.’ To solve this, it proposes: “The Church can approach these problems with real discussion and open-mindedness to different ideas and experiences.”

What would be a ‘visible’ place in the Church? One can be drawn towards thinking that this is raising the ­possibility of ordaining women. Indeed, during discussions it was proposed that female deacons would solve this problem immediately. Is this Vatican-approved document proposing that ordination is the path we should all, men and women, be taking?

It’s possible that the words of the youth are already finding effect amongst senior Church figures.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna used language that could be ripped from the pages of the synod’s final document when speaking about the role of women in the Church on April 1. ‘One of the key issues is the role of women’ when looking at how organisation in the Church can be improved, he said.

He added that there should be more women in senior positions and suggested that the ordination of women as ‘deacons, priests, bishops’ could ‘only be clarified by an [ecumenical] council.’ When asked if he wanted to see such a council he stated: “I wish that we continue along the path of the Church’s synodality. I trust in a next council whenever it comes.”

After the final document had been submitted, anger at how things had been handled spilled out on Facebook.

Some claimed that ‘that their voice had not been heard during the pre-synodal meeting.’ A response from the synod’s Facebook steering group said there ‘had not been any kind of conspiracy’ against those who ‘prefer more traditional forms of Liturgy.’

“We did sense a kind of lobby during the course of the week, which contributed to the appearance that there were more voices talking about traditional forms of Liturgy than what was actually the reality,” it said. “In the end, one voice commenting more frequently than other voices doesn’t give that voice more than its equal share.”

One young, traditional Catholic replied: “Did the fact that so many people were sharing the same viewpoint actually hurt our chances for having that view included in your work? While I completely understand the need to include all voices, it seems like you did this to the detriment of the largest cohort of voices calling for one thing: authentic experiences at Mass through appropriate reverence for the Eucharist.”


Lost direction

Ultimately this document can be used in whatever way the bishops see fit. They can use it as a ‘navigational aid’ to find Catholics who want to see the Church affirm its teaching, or use it to bolster the views of those who want radical change.

Sean, reflecting on his experience, said: “We forgot the reason we went there. The conversation at the pre-synod focused more on which teachings of the Church she should change as opposed to how we can really minister to young people and facilitate them in finding their vocation. The question ‘what do you want?’ was definitely in the air in many of the conversations in Rome, where as what I think people needed to hear was ‘we have what you need—we have Christ.’

“The way the Church’s message is communicated will always be different, and that’s why a synod is in theory a good idea. But the reality is that this sense of direction and this sense of mission is easily lost if the Church is not clear as to her intentions.”


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