How the Church Can Get the Youth Synod Right

A U.S. youth delegate tells the Register that the Church has an opportunity to connect with youth, but the Pope and bishops have to ‘man up’ and address the sex-abuse crisis with honesty.

Katie Prejean McGrady, who attended the pre-synod gathering last March, is a wife and mother who is committed to sharing the faith as a youth speaker.
Katie Prejean McGrady, who attended the pre-synod gathering last March, is a wife and mother who is committed to sharing the faith as a youth speaker. (photo: Courtesy of Katie Prejean McGrady)

Katie Prejean McGrady, the married 28-year-old author of Follow: Your Lifelong Adventure With Jesus, who formerly taught high-school theology and now travels nationally and internationally speaking to youth audiences, was a U.S. youth delegate to the pre-synod gathering last March that prepared for the 2018 Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment in Rome Oct. 3-28. She spoke with Register staff writer Peter Jesserer Smith Sept. 19 about her hopes for the upcoming synod and the need for the Church to respond squarely to the abuse crisis, in order to propose the Gospel to young people.


Katie, in your own personal experience with youth and young adults, and working with other youth delegates for this upcoming synod, what are young people looking for from the Church today?

Young people across the world — from Lake Charles, Louisiana, where I’m from, all the way to Ghana, Africa, and everywhere in between — are looking for a Church that is welcoming and a Church that is honest.

We’re looking for a Church that is home, and homes are welcoming places, right? Homes make you feel comfortable; homes make you feel like you belong; homes make you feel like you have a right and a purpose to be there. So we’re looking for a Church that sees us, the young person, as important and valuable and wanted. I think a lot of young people are seeking to be part of the Church, are seeking relationship with Jesus Christ, and are seeking the teachings of the Catholic Church because they need somebody to tell them, “This is how you’re invited and you’re called to live.”

We want a Church that proclaims truth profoundly. We want a Church that proclaims the teachings of our Church honestly. We want a Church that proclaims those teachings in an articulate way that we can understand. And even if we disagree or don’t understand fully, many, many young people still want the Church to teach those things to us. Over time, when the young person is loved and when the young person is taught well, he or she begins to see “this truth and this teaching is good for me,” and “this truth and this teaching is what I’m called to believe and how I’m called to live.”


What do you think are the top challenges facing young people in the Church today?

Obviously, the elephant in the room: We need to talk about those young men and women who identify as homosexual, right? We need to talk about how we can live the teachings of the Church authentically and how those people who identify as same-sex attracted are invited to bear a different cross — and how the Church needs to articulate to them what they are invited to do and how they are invited to live according to the teachings of the Church … what that looks like to live as somebody who identifies in that way, but still wants to be completely and totally incorporated into the life of the Church and the teachings of the Church.

We also need to talk about in a very real way why young people have left. It’s not just because they disagree with what the Church teaches. So why have they walked away? Have they been met with a Church that’s hostile? Have they been met with a Church that’s confusing? Have they been met with a Church that doesn’t seem to value them? We need to address that.

I would love to see in this document an entire chapter about how young people should be invited to participate in leadership roles in the Church.


We are seeing a lot of research that many people love Jesus but do not see how the Church’s teaching relates, or are even repelled by what they see as the “institutional” Church. What do you think the Church (and the synod in particular) really needs to do to bridge these gaps in people’s understanding of how having a personal relationship with Jesus goes with the Church and its teachings?

What we have to do with young people is tell them it’s not Jesus and the Church — it’s that Jesus is the Church. We are the Body of Christ, and I know that’s kind of simplistic theology in saying this, but it’s not “You come to church, and then you have a relationship with Jesus.” It’s “you come to church, and we are the Church because of our relationship with Jesus.”

So the challenge of this gathering is for the bishops and the laymen and women who are gathered there to come up with some very simple and practical ways that we do that. And I’m not saying that I want this document to have an entire chapter on youth-ministry programs that need to be adopted. I think a lot of that unpacking is going to happen in various countries, based on the realities, long after the synod is over. But I want to see every bishop say unanimously and thunderously, “It is a priority to teach young people how to pray, to give them the language of prayer. It was a priority to articulate well to young people why Mass and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament should be critically important in your life.” And when bishops say that with passion and then show us how it may be even effective in their own lives, influenced their own lives, in their own discernment and their own vocation stories, well, stories matter, and they connect with young people.


What role do you believe the Synod on Youth, and young Catholics in general, can have on the global sex-abuse crisis in the Church?

There’s a line in the pre-synod document that I was really profoundly proud of being in there. My group, “English Group Two,” was the one that wrote it in our summary, and it made it into the final document. It talks about how we need a hierarchy that’s transparent, that’s authentic, that’s honest; that’s unafraid to show their own warts and scars, so to speak, so then young people no longer see the hierarchy or “the Church” as this other institution, but see “we the Church.”

I think that’s what we need from our hierarchy, and we need the hierarchy to honestly say, “You know what guys? We screwed up — no bones about it.” I’m tired of statements that sound like they were written by lawyers. I’m tired of people saying, “Oh, we need to fast and pray.” Obviously, yes we do. But justice must also be served. Don’t just listen to me. But hear me, and pull out all the rot, and let’s see it on full display so we know it never happens again.

What I think the hierarchy has to address at the synod is the fact that young people are not satisfied by platitudes. That’s why we distrust institutions, because institutions give you the PR statement. We are satisfied by human people who stand in the mess and the filth and say, “We’re sorry,” and “Never again. And here’s how it’s never going to happen again.” And so I think the youth synod needs to address the authenticity problem we have as a Church. We have an honesty problem as a Church. We have a transparency problem as a Church. And this synod document needs to include a section that talks about that in a very real way. Articulate: We do not stand for abuse, obviously. That goes without saying.


A lot of the bishops all throughout the world tend to talk about sex abuse in terms of happening to minors (those under age 18). There seems to be a mental disconnect that sexual abuse also happens to adults who are over 18 — priests, seminarians, nuns and parish men and women — and that abuse also demands “zero tolerance.” What are your thoughts on this?

You’re absolutely right. I think sometimes we compartmentalize it in our minds: It’s the “abuse of minors.” And the term I keep seeing right now is “the abuse of seminarians.” … By definition, an abuse is the use of power against another in a coercive and wrong way. That’s kind of a messy definition. But, when we address abuse, we’re saying outright it’s wrong for any person in a collar, or in a position of power — so even laymen and women who have positions of authority in the Church, or religious sisters who have positions of authority — to use that power for a selfish gain against another. … We as a Church unequivocally must say we obviously don’t stand for that, and we will protect against that. We will research and investigate and either confirm or deny any claim that that has happened.

This is not a sound-bite issue. It’s a very black-and-white issue with very little gray in between. And we cannot be afraid. I think the synod is 25 days long. There is plenty of time in the course of this month to spend an entire day talking about the abuse of power within the Church and how that has led to the distrust of so many in the Body of Christ.


What would you like to say to the Church’s leaders about the crises that the Church faces today?

This is going to come off as really blunt, but it’s what I would say, and it’s what I have said to the faces of some priests that I’m good friends with. It’s the same thing I would say to a male student when he was kind of feeling down on his luck or scared of something. I’d look them straight in the eye and say, “Man up!” “Be a man!” In this moment, we need fathers who recognize that the children, the sheep, are hurting. We need shepherds who are protecting us against the wolves. And we need honest men who are unafraid to say, “We have done wrong, and we will never allow this to happen again, and tell us and help us understand how we can make that happen.”

I think they need to know that the Church is not going to hang you out to dry if you were honest. In fact, I would say that many of us right now want that honest father who’s unafraid to say, “We royally messed this up. We have failed astronomically; we have failed, and we need the help of the entire Body of Christ to protect against this from ever happening again.”

I think it is a crisis of fatherhood because there haven’t been a whole lot of mothers allowed in the room. This is not a referendum on women’s ordination, by any means. I think women in positions of leadership and power within the Church could help with some of this. I think laymen and women in the room, religious sisters in the room, voices outside “clerics talking to clerics,” is very helpful at this moment. And I think the synod needs to talk about that. I think this document that Pope Francis dropped the other day, which said that it is no longer just bishops allowed to vote in synods, but the Pope could allow for other people, leaves room for women to have a greater voice. And I really do think that that will help the Church address this and heal from this.
Every single one of us has fears and is scared a little bit of our reputations being harmed, and I think right now we can look at some of the silence coming out of the Vatican as a legitimate fear of “people are going to run away because they’re going to see what we’ve done.” And what I would say to Pope Francis is, “No we’re not. We want honesty.” 


Going back to women in the Church — are there ways in which we can incorporate their voices in the Church without them becoming co-opted into the clerical structure?

Absolutely. I think careerism is a big problem we’re facing right now, both on the lay side and the priestly side. I mean, there’s kind of a joke — and it’s not entirely wrong — that if a guy goes to the NAC [North American College], it means he’s on the shortlist for bishop, or, you know, he’s going to be a bishop someday. Well, that’s a joke, and we say that, but because it’s the trend, right, sometimes there’s this careerism that happens within the Church. I think we have to protect against that careerism to ensure that women are not co-opted into that same attitude of “I’m just going to try to ‘rise in the ranks’ and get a little bit more power so that I can have influence.” I think the issue is when we isolate men and women in chancery offices, we put them behind desks, and we tell them, “You’re in charge.” And I’m saying this as somebody who has worked a lot with dioceses and has been employed by dioceses for various conferences. I’ve witnessed this firsthand. [When] we lock them away into the office; they forget the people that they’re serving.


What’s the alternative you envision?

Maybe this isn’t practical, and against canonical standards, but I think any priest working in a chancery should also be assigned in a parish. And I know that maybe that’s not always practical because they’re very busy. But I have priest friends who have worked in chanceries and have jokingly said to me, “Hey, I work in the chancery; you can lose your faith [there] because you become so locked into the desk and the management, instead of the people and the ministry.” And so I think we have to think about that when we incorporate laymen and women into the work of the Church.

We incorporate men and women into the leadership, into the decision making, but we also make sure that our priests and our laypeople in those positions are still very connected to the life of the parish themselves. It’s really hard to become bureaucratic if you know people’s names. It’s really hard to become swept up in the organization if you’re sitting in the pew just like everybody else on Sunday, throwing your 20 bucks in the plate and pounding the pavement for Jesus Christ.


What words of encouragement would you offer to young people who are looking at the crisis in the Church today?

What I would say to young people is: You are the Body of Christ, and when one part of the body hurts, we all hurt. Which means we have to be here to hurt together. And when one part rejoices, we all rejoice, but you have to be here to rejoice — and so to not walk away merely because of the wound, but to recognize that the body can only heal as every part of the body is working together.


What follow-up needs to happen after the synod? A lot of people in the Church look at synods as producing documents that end up left on the shelf.

I think we have to read this one. I think we have to highlight it. I think we have to look through it with a fine-tooth comb and see and recognize that practical things have to come out of it. So once we read it, I think every person in the Church, especially those who are involved in youth and young-adult ministry, need to fill out a sheet of paper and come up with a bullet-point list of 10 to 15 things that we can do in the next year to incorporate the principles laid out and get super specific and super practical, and very, I mean, it can be simple.

So look at your initial parish and your initial diocese and say: How can I incorporate these things next week, next month, next year, in five years and 10 years?


What should we be doing now?

I’m not trying to over spiritualize it when I say this, but every single day of the synod should be a day of prayer. I mean, I myself will be praying and fasting throughout the entire synod, for the bishops and for those who will be there; and then, long after it’s over, to pray and to fast for this work to take effect.


What would you like to see as the final takeaway from the synod ?

Let’s all love Jesus together; and the Church is home. That’s what I want to see happen out of this.  

This interview has been edited

for length and clarity.

A shorter version was published in

the Register’s print edition.