Youth Synod 1st Week: Wide Variety of Topics Discussed, Concerns About Transparency

Challenges ranging from migration to absence of fatherhood have been addressed, but the decision not to release detailed information may point to a “surprise” at the end of the synod.

A synod father takes a photograph at the Synod on Youth, Oct. 4, 2018
A synod father takes a photograph at the Synod on Youth, Oct. 4, 2018 (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

As the Synod on Youth comes to the end of its first week, many of the challenges facing young people have already been discussed, but precise details about the proceedings are scarce as heavy restrictions continue to be placed on public access to information. 

The media is given daily verbal summaries of what has been talked about in the synod hall, but each synod father is not identified, unless they publicly circulate their interventions, which they are free to do. No printed summaries of the interventions are issued at media briefings and, unlike in previous synods, individual language briefings are briefly given ad hoc in the press hall rather than in individual rooms as in the past. 

Pope Francis spoke briefly in the free discussion on Thursday, but news of this only trickled out later, and the media was not allowed to know what he said. 

On Friday, the president of the synod’s information commission, Paolo Ruffini, shared a little more information by providing a list of who was speaking that day, but in effect, this synod is being held under a kind of Chatham House Rule whereby information disclosed during a meeting may be reported, but the source of that information may not be identified.

Perhaps sensing a backlash against this appearance of secrecy and lack of transparency, the secretary of the information commission, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, spontaneously interrupted Thursday’s press briefing to remind reporters this is a synod “not a parliament but a place of discernment.” Delegates must “feel free to say whatever we want,” he said, and “know what they say will remain in the hall.” If everything "were repeated externally,” he added, “it would limit freedom, as it’s a spiritual context.”

Although unsaid, another, probably more likely reason, is that the synod organizers want delegates to feel free to express all kinds of views no matter how heterodox, and don’t want the negative publicity that might result. The Pope’s call at the beginning of the synod for parrhesia (to speak with courage and frankness) is also seen to allow a wider array of views to be aired while at the same time revealing where synod fathers stand on various issues.   

Particularly useful information has nevertheless come into the public domain thanks to several synod fathers handing the full texts of their talks to reporters, or publicly sharing their synod experiences.

Had they not done so, there would have been no public information, for example, that Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia had spoken against using ‘LGBT’, the term used by the homosexual lobby, in Church documents, or any other contents of his speech. Instead media were merely told that poverty, war, despair and unemployment were “big themes” and that the issue of homosexuality was “present.” Ruffini said the LGBT question was not discussed the following day but added that this term “was used in some papers from bishops’ conference sent into synod, and in some remarks received, which is why it was included in the instrumentum laboris.” 

The issue is significant as many believe this synod is being subtly used as a vehicle for introducing heterodoxy and, in particular, acceptance of the ‘LGBT’ homosexual agenda in the Church (the term was controversially used in the synod’s working document). Observers also believe this issue will find its way into the final document which, for the first time under new rules, could become part of the papal magisterium depending on the Pope’s approval. According to some sources, the main substance of that document is actually already written, hence the lack of transparency, the absence of a mid-term report, and ambiguities over voting procedures at the end of the synod.

Possibly connected have been words from Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of the Italian bishops’ conference and known to be close to Pope Francis, who said Oct. 5 that he is “convinced that Pope Francis will give us some surprise” and “will for sure invent something before the conclusion of the Synod.”

Meanwhile, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, said the synod is truly an opportunity to "to change not only the mentality but also structurally" the way of being the Church. 


Topics Discussed

Despite the concerns over what has been left out of the flow of public information, plenty has been already discussed at the synod. Ruffini has given fairly extensive verbal summaries of the interventions and free discussions. These have included an emphasis on “listening to young people where they are,” the family being the place “where faith can be transmitted,” that religion needs to be “open to dialogue and witness.” More has been said about the “prophecy of the young” and some have called for forgiveness of the Church and not just for clergy sexual abuse — an appeal most notably made by Archbishop Anthony Fisher who released his speech in full. 

Greater “empathy of the Church” has been mentioned, as has the importance of intergenerational relations and the role of grandparents. The Church “shouldn’t be paternalistic or have a hypocritical attitude,” should “fight against attraction to luxuries,” and instead stress “values that lead to happiness.” 

The question of migration, and the significant challenges this poses to young people, has appeared to figure highly, in particular how young people come to the west but end up losing their faith, don’t have families or marry much later, and do not find what they are seeking their host countries.

Ruffini said the synod fathers spoke about the young feeling “victims of the lies of politicians and the media,” and see society as being largely “based on lying.” They feel a “loss” due to “excessive liberalism, a loss off motherhood, fatherhood.” Some underlined the importance of music and sports which the young are deeply involved in, that the Church must speak the language of these areas, and also the “digital language.” 

Others have said the young “expect to be engaged in debates, in environmentalism, ecology, and the Church needs to support them” in these arenas. The young, a synod father said, “want to be taken seriously, challenged, and if they make mistakes, they want adults to help them” and “to trust them.” The young also “need to pray, to rediscover silent prayer, mystical prayer, and the Church must also pray for the young.” Praying for the young, a synod father said, “means listening them to them.” 

Also discussed have been pre-marital sex and the issue of chastity and abstinence. Failing to be chaste before marriage “could either urge people to marry before they’re ready for marriage, or lead them to abandon the sacrament [of marriage].” Ruffini denied there was a desire to weaken the Church’s teaching on pre-marital sexual relations among any of the synod fathers; rather, he said, the synod father in question raised this “topic that we’re faced with,” adding that the instrumentum laboris “insists on listening and understanding what happens in society.” 

Also mentioned has been “the loss of the idea of a father” among many young people, and one synod father made the point that it is the father “who transmits faith more than the mother.” 

Another synod father spoke of the “challenge posed by the digital era,” what he called “information obesity,” while another quoted Pope St. John XXIII to much applause: “Tell the young the world existed before them, but tell older people it will also exist after them.”

The young “need to listen to older people” but “this is at risk,” one synod father from Africa said, and losing this would “involve losing memory of one’s roots.” 

Others have spoken about how multiculturalism and diversity can be “agents for change” for the young, how it is “important to ensure Church’s doctrine is better known to the young,” and that some mothers and fathers “should ask for forgiveness” from their children because they don’t have time to support or properly raise them. “We all need to be forgiven and children themselves will need to be forgiven,” the synod father said. 

The liturgy has been discussed, with one bishop calling for  “a liturgy that is better suited to present times, so it can be more participatory, more understandable, otherwise the youth might consider it dull.” Another suggested the Church “must learn from the Pentecostals about the kinds of worship music that attracts the young and kinds of homiletics that excite them.” 

Asked if the traditional form of the liturgy was discussed, Archbishop Fisher told reporters Friday that it was as young people’s tastes are “very diverse, also within cultures” and that even if some are wanting “Pentecostal, loud and very catchy tunes, there are others that love Gregorian chant and all between and all other aspects of liturgy.” But he said what is held in common is a “real appreciation that beauty matters” and it is not just about argumentation and giving reasons for the faith, although that is very important. He said young people also want good, well prepared homilies, and “likewise they don’t want bad music that makes them feel uninspired” or people who are “unwelcoming to them.” 

Several synod fathers also spoke about the “reduced effectiveness” of marriage and the family “in transmitting faith, identity, vocation, mission” in societies with many broken families. 

One bishop observed that the Church needs new models, rhetoric and media to “speak our perennial truths, being aware that young people are not just a ‘demographic’ or a ‘market’ but a ‘theological place’ where the Word of God is revealed, pondered and communicated.” 

Archbishop Fisher told reporters he had “great hope” for young people in this synod as people are “not just talking about challenges but what’s working” and “suggesting ideas of what we could do that was new, and a better version of what we’ve been doing.” 

He also said he had been observing Pope Francis “with great affection and reverence,” saying he welcomes each person every day, listens to all the presentations, and is “clearly very engaged.” It is a “wonderful thing for us to know and see,” he said. 

Tahiry Malala Marion Sophie Rakotoroalahy, one of 36 young auditors at the synod and president of the Catholic students of Madagascar, thanked the Pope for the youth synod, “for having made this moment special and a blessing for the young.” 

Mariano Germán García , auditor, a pastoral youth worker of the bishops' conference of Argentina said Oct. 6 the synod is a “tree about to blossom and will continue to grow, even through storms, because the young are the future of the Church and the world.” 


Here below are the moderators for the language working groups which are meeting at various times during the synod and will be discussing themes raised in the general congregations.