Germany’s Clout and Some Other Final Observations on the Youth Synod

COMMENTARY: Pope Francis desires a ‘poor Church for the poor,’ but in his papacy it’s the wealthy German Church that holds a privileged position.

A shot of the closing Mass of the youth synod
A shot of the closing Mass of the youth synod (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — Unlike the twin synods on the family, where the refutation of doctrinal errors required vigorous disagreement, the recently concluded synod on youth proceeded amicably and without major confrontations, doing little good and little harm, though there is enough ambiguity in the final document for mischief-makers to make mischief.

Thus, there was no great drama at synod 2018. But there were notable moments along the way. Herewith some observations from being in Rome covering the synod.

  • For the third straight synod, there was a preferential option for the rich. Pope Francis famously dreams of a “poor Church for the poor,” but it remains only a dream in Rome. The best rule of thumb to figure out where the synod is headed is to follow what the German-language group says and compare it to what the French-language group with the African bishops says. There will be a lot of strategy and speculation, but the final result will favor the former and disfavor the latter. Such has been the case in this pontificate, even outside the synod, on Amoris Laetitia, liturgical translations and admitting Protestants to Holy Communion.
  • At the synod, the direction is provided by the wealthy and worldly Germans, and the drafting of documents is done by the slightly less wealthy Italians. So the Germans got what they always want in the final document, wiggle room on sex. Last time, it was divorce and remarriage; this time, it was homosexuality. The Italians craft texts with a certain artistry; the language can be given an orthodox reading, but with sufficient ambiguity to permit alternate readings.
  • Perhaps that it is why all the synod draft documents are circulated only in Italian, as that language permits a certain flexibility in meaning, as evidenced by how Italians understand such terms as vietato — “forbidden” — and subito — “immediately.”
  • Ostensibly to prevent leaks, the draft of the final report is given only in hard copy, making electronic transmission more difficult. So how do English, French and Spanish speakers cope? They photograph the 60 pages and then run it through whatever software they can get that can turn a digital image into electronic text. Then they run that through a rough translation program, as they only have a few hours before they have to vote on approving the text.
  • “Synodality,” presumably meaning decentralization of authority, perhaps even including doctrinal questions, emerged as the surprise issue of contention at synod 2018, despite it having nothing to do with youth or vocational discernment. The synod secretaries inserted it at the behest of Pope Francis — at least according to Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India, who was on the drafting committee. Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, led the charge against “synodality,” fearing that it was Anglicanism in disguise. But it got through, with its meaning clear neither in Italian nor English.
  • In practice, “synodality” will mean that rich episcopal conferences that wish to experiment will have greater latitude to do so. Another bonus for the state-funded Churches in Germany and Italy.
  • The instrumentum laboris (working document) was roundly criticized as being too unwieldy, and bishops from all quarters spoke in favor of a final document that would be much shorter. The instrumentum was a mammoth 30,000 words. So, too, was the final document, reflecting a total rejection of the will of the actual synod participants by the synod secretariat.
  • On another matter, though, the consensus of the synod hall was taken into account. While the original working document took as its point of departure a social-science evaluation of the world facing young people, the final document was framed in biblical terms. The encounter on the road to Emmaus was chosen, though with an understandable lack of attention to the rebuke of Jesus to the disciples: You foolish men!
  • The final document surveyed an enormous array of subjects, but in a way that occasionally did not reflect the priorities of young people, but their elders. In the section treating the “dark side of the internet,” there was only a passing reference to pornography, by far the greatest scourge facing young adults, teenagers and even children. There was more attention given to “fake news,” including when used against the “Church and her pastors.” An odd proposal to certify Catholic websites as being authentically Catholic was even floated, though it is hard to imagine any young person desiring that. It is easy to imagine some officials in the Roman Curia would think that a good idea.
  • The synod made it clear which party thinks it has the upper hand in the recent Vatican-China deal. Days after it was signed in September, China — where religious matters are now the jurisdiction of the Communist Party — announced that two bishops, including one whose excommunication was only lifted a few days beforehand, would attend the synod. Usually it is the Holy See that makes such announcements, not secular, let alone atheist, governments. But no matter, Pope Francis gave them a warm welcome, even choking up with emotion as he mentioned them during the synod’s opening Mass. Having achieved the propaganda coup of having Holy Father visibly moved by their “goodwill,” the Chinese promptly announced that the bishops would not be able to stay for the entire synod after all, returning home after the first week due to “prior” commitments. The Holy See’s chief of communications was thus forced into the humiliating position of pretending that it was the case all along, even though nobody had mentioned the scheduling conflict before. The ease with which the Chinese Communists outmaneuvered the Holy See on the synod does not bode well for the future appointment of bishops.
  • A perennial danger at Catholic youth events is the idea that the beauty of the Church’s Tradition has to be set aside to reflect a supposedly youthful vibe; witness the vestments sometimes seen at World Youth Day. The synod’s version of that was a new crozier or “pastoral staff” used by Pope Francis, which look liked a rudely carved walking stick with a large nail at the top. It was a gift from some young people, but it was ridiculously out of place in St. Peter’s Basilica. Thankfully, for the canonization of Pope St. Paul VI, Pope Francis used the iconic pastoral staff of the new saint, the same that St. John Paul used throughout his pontificate.
  • Another longtime issue: On the matter of liturgical propriety, at the final Mass, five young people representing the different continents were chosen to be embraced by the Holy Father at the high altar. Four dressed suitably, but the young man from Oceania wore a traditional long wrap instead of trousers, complimented by a Levi’s brand T-shirt. The former was fine; the latter unacceptable. A diligent pastor would not allow such attire in the sanctuary of a parish church, let alone in the Vatican basilica to greet the Supreme Pontiff. It usually would not be allowed for such an occasion in St. Peter’s either, but evidently standards were lowered for young people — a message exactly contrary to what they desire, and need, to hear.
  • Each ordinary synod concludes with the election of the “synod council” for the next three years. Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, was elected, despite skipping the synod altogether due to the unfolding McCarrick crisis at home. The ancient rule of volunteer associations applies even in the synod; the one not present is chosen for the post that needs to be filled.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

‘The 7 Last Words of Christ’ aired on EWTN on Good Friday 2023.

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