VATICAN CITY — At the end of a weeklong meeting held at the Vatican, young people from around the world have urged the Church to be more authentic, modern and creative in the way it interacts with young people and in addressing controversial contemporary issues.
“We want to say, especially to the hierarchy of the Church, that they should be a transparent, welcoming, honest, inviting, communicative, accessible, joyful and interactive community,” the youth delegates said in the final document of the pre-synod meeting in Rome.
“A credible Church,” they said, “is one which is not afraid to allow itself be seen as vulnerable.”
The document, released March 24, is the product of discussion with some 300 young people, from different cultural and religious backgrounds, who gathered in Rome for a March 19-24 pre-synod meeting, which is a precursor to the October Synod of Bishops on “Young People, the Faith and the Discernment of Vocation.”
Youth were divided into 20 different languages groups, in which they reflected on several questions throughout the week. Those who weren’t able to attend the meeting took part via social media, specifically through six different Facebook groups in different languages, which were moderated by other youth and discussed the same topics addressed in the Rome gathering.
Between the Rome gathering and social-media participation, some 15,300 young people took part in the discussion. Drafting groups were tasked with taking the conclusions of the 26 different groups and compiling them into one comprehensive text.
An initial draft was written and presented to the group Thursday, and several of the youth participants made comments. Adjustments were made, and the final draft was approved Saturday morning. It was given to Pope Francis during his Palm Sunday Mass, which also marked the diocesan celebration of World Youth Day.
The 16-page document is divided into three sections: the challenges and opportunities of young people; faith, vocation, discernment and accompaniment; and the Church’s formative and pastoral activities.
According to the document's introduction, it is not intended to be “a theological treatise” and nor was it written “to establish new Church teaching.” Rather, it is meant to serve as “a compass” for bishops in their October discussion as they seek to understand the reality of youth today.
The text said that young people want to be listened to and taken seriously, and it noted that they often seek communities that are supportive and which “empower them,” giving them a sense of identity and belonging.
"Young people look for a sense of self by seeking communities that are supportive, uplifting, authentic and accessible: communities that empower them," the document said, while noting that, for some, religion is now “a private matter,” and it said that, at times, it seems that “the sacred appears to be something separated from our daily lives.”
“The Church oftentimes appears as too severe and is often associated with excessive moralism,” they said, adding that “sometimes, in the Church, it is hard to overcome the logic of ‘it has always been done this way.’”
Rather, the text said that “we need a Church that is welcoming and merciful, which appreciates its roots and patrimony and which loves everyone, even those who are not following the perceived standards.”
“Sadly not all of us believe sainthood is something achievable and that it is a path to happiness," the document said.
Young people, they wrote, “are deeply vested in and concerned about topics such as sexuality, addiction, failed marriages, broken families as well as larger-scale social issues such as organized crime, human trafficking, violence, corruption, exploitation, femicide, all forms of persecution and the degradation of our natural environment.”
However, one paragraph mentioned that, among young people, there is clear disagreement on certain “controversial” Church teachings dealing with issues such as contraception, abortion, homosexuality, cohabitation, the permanency of marriage and the priesthood.
The paragraph noted that many don’t understand Church teaching on these issues, and that, of those who do, not all of them are in agreement. Young people “may want the Church to change her teaching as a result, or at least have access to a better explanation,” they said, but “even so, they desire to be part of the Church.”
Other young Catholics, the document said, “accept these teachings and find in them a source of joy. They desire the Church to not only hold fast to them amid unpopularity but also to proclaim them with greater depth of teaching.”
Youth disagree on the topic of migration, the document said, but converge on the need to promote social justice, saying that “although we acknowledge our common call to care for the dignity of every human person, there’s no consensus on the question of welcoming migrants and refugees.”
They also pointed to specific challenges such as globalization, an increase in secularism, racism, the difficulties faced by people in countries where Christianity is a minority, and the increasing number of Christian martyrs.
“As we grapple with these challenges,” they said, “we need inclusion, welcome, mercy and tenderness from the Church — both as an institution and as a community of faith.”
On new technologies, they outlined both the benefits and the risks, noting that while there are endless possibilities for increased connection, education and knowledge, there is also the danger that technology leads to “isolation, laziness, desolation and boredom.”
They also pointed to poor uses of technology, such as online pornography, which will “distort a young person’s perception of human sexuality” and creates a “delusional parallel reality that ignores human dignity.”
In this regard, the document at one point makes two key suggestions, first encouraging the Church to view technology, particularly the internet, as a “fertile place for the New Evangelization.” Reflections on this point, they said, “should be formalized through an official Church document.”
Second, they requested that the Church “address the widespread crisis of pornography, including online child abuse, and the toll it takes on our humanity.”
On the role of women, the youth said women are still not given equal spaces in the Church or in society and questioned how and where women can “flourish” in these environments. They said the role of women often isn’t clear and asked the Church to specify what their role entails.
The document stressed that youth want to be taken seriously and that, despite often being accused of not having a vision for life, young people do envision a better future for themselves.
“Sometimes, we end up discarding our dreams,” they said, adding that “we are too afraid, and some of us have stopped dreaming. At times, we have not even had the opportunities to keep dreaming.”
Young people, the document said, “value the diversity of ideas in our global world, the respect for others’ thoughts and freedom of expression.” At the same time, youth want to preserve their cultural identity and “avoid uniformity and a throwaway culture.”
They said that many young people frequently feel “excluded for being Christians in a social environment that is adverse to religion” and highlighted the need to “encounter ourselves and others” in order to form deep bonds.
False images of Jesus — that he is out-of-date, distant or rigid — often make young people unattracted to him, making Christian ideals seem “out of reach to the average person,” they said. “Therefore, for some, Christianity is perceived as an unreachable standard.”
"Ultimately, many of us strongly want to know Jesus, yet often struggle to realize that He alone is the source of true self-discovery, for it is in a relationship with Him that the human person ultimately comes to discover him or herself," the document said.
“Thus, we have found that young people want authentic witnesses — men and women who vibrantly express their faith and relationship with Jesus while encouraging others to approach, meet and fall in love with Jesus themselves.”
Scandals within the Church damage the confidence young people have in it, the delegates said, but stressed that the Church can still play a “vital role” in ensuring that youth are accepted and no longer marginalized.
In terms of vocation, youth said the concept is still “abstract” to many and, therefore, doesn’t cross their minds.
“Young people understand the general sense of bringing meaning to life and being alive for a purpose, but many do not know how to connect that to vocation as a gift and call from God,” they said, and they voiced their desire for mentors who are able to accompany them with wisdom and without judgment.
Youth also voiced their desire for more authenticity, transparency and openness in the Church’s life and structures, saying at one point that “a credible Church is one which is not afraid to allow itself be seen as vulnerable.”
“We want to say, especially to the hierarchy of the Church, that they should be a transparent, welcoming, honest, inviting, communicative, accessible, joyful and interactive community,” they said, adding that the Church should also be “sincere in admitting its past and present wrongs, that it is a Church made up of persons who are capable of error and misunderstanding.”
The document encouraged the Church to be firm in condemning scandals such as sex abuse and the “mismanagement” of power and wealth. If the Church does this with humility, they said, it will “undoubtedly raise its credibility” among young people.
Young delegates also voiced their desire for a Church that is capable of spreading its message through modern means of communication and which is also able to answer young people’s questions in a way that isn't “watered-down” or “prefabricated.”
Rather, “we, the young Church, ask that our leaders speak in practical terms about controversial subjects such as homosexuality and gender issues, about which young people are already freely discussing without taboo.”
The document underlined a desire that youth would become leaders in their communities and asked that young leadership programs offering continual formation and development be established. Specific mention was made of the lack of young female role models in the Church, who also wish to contribute with “their intellectual and professional gifts.”
Youth said they want to be “met where they are” and stressed the need for the Church to find “new and creative” ways of encountering people outside of the usual setting, such as in bars, coffee shops, gyms, stadiums or cultural centers.
They asked the Church to engage with “the right instruments,” which the document listed in bullet-point format as having a multimedia approach; service in movements or charities; beauty and the arts; adoration and contemplation; testimonies and the synod process itself.
Going beyond practical, functional and institutional decision-making roles, youth said that, ultimately, they want to be “a joyful, enthusiastic and missionary presence within the Church.”