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Unfulfilled Promise: The Synod on Young People

Almost right from the start, there were many people determined to impugn whatever came from the recent Synod on Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment. I am not one of these people. I wrote a book for the occasion, wrote numerous articles, and worked with my colleagues to host a major preparatory conference. I was in.

For this reason, I was disappointed with the final document of the Synod. Like many documents assembled by committees, it lacks a consistent narrative. Yes, it is overly long, meandering with a persistent “oh-and-another-thing” quality to it. But, its length is not its sole vice. The lack of a guiding vision is apparent throughout the text.

By seeing this firstfruit of the synodal process, I have come to recognize that the failure of the Synod was in its roots. In place of a vision, this document offers an affirmation of the Synod’s own process. The Synod, it says, has been an exercise in “walking with young people,” “listening to them,” and making them “co-protagonists” in the Church. The proposal at the end is for more of the same as a way of living the mission of the Church. That is, the Synod on Young People, which grew from the premise that the only way to encounter young people is to walk beside as equals, produced a document that says more synodality is the answer.

Both the Synod and the document on young people are rooted in a false dichotomy. It has been assumed that authentically encountering young people means walking beside each other as equals or else the Church will be distant, removed, and increasingly irrelevant to them. What has been missing from the start is a sense of the responsibility of the Church to form and empower young people for the fullness of the Christian life. That changes what a real encounter is.

The false dichotomy stipulates that by critiquing the Synod’s conclusion, one must also somehow think that encountering young people and listening to them are unimportant. That is simply not the case. My own critique stems from a concern for the Church’s responsibility to young people: to form them, to capacitate them for freedom, and to empower them as witnesses to the Gospel who will communicate that gift to the generations after them.

How We Read the Word of God

The scriptural validation for the approach to “walking with” that the Synod has heralded is the action of Jesus in his encounter with the two travelers on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35). As stated in the final document, “the Risen Lord wants to walk alongside all young people, hearing their expectations, even those that are unmet, and their hopes, even those that are paltry. Jesus walks, listens and shares” (§5). This is not wrong. What it is, though, is a partial reading of this narrative that functions more like eisegesis than as a faithful contemplation of Scripture.

Yes, Jesus draws near and, yes, he does ask the travelers what they are discussing (twice) and he does indeed listen to everything they have to say (through verse 24). But then Jesus takes control of the action. He starts off by calling those two chatty, downcast, disoriented travelers “foolish” (v. 25).

The impression that the final document gives—along with the preparatory document before it—is that this conversation on the road is an exercise in mutuality, in paired sharing, and in equality. Since Jesus drew near and listened to the travelers, the Church must do what Jesus did and listen to young people. But that leaves out the truly decisive thing: Jesus does not stop at listening to them; Jesus leads them because they really do not know where they are going. His business is to communicate a gift to them. After silencing and teaching them how to listen (not unlike Zechariah who had to learn how to listen at the beginning of this same Gospel), he reforms their imaginations according to the scriptures. He illuminates for them the meaning of his suffering, and then he feeds them with his sacrifice, filling them with a mission on the basis of this intentional formation. Hope hangs in the balance, and so does salvation.

Might this complete action of Jesus actually reveal what a true, genuine encounter with young people should be? Jesus forms them, educates them, preaches to them, nourishes them, and frees them so that they may become witnesses of his Gospel. The point was not in Jesus listening for its own sake; the point was listening to them in order to skillfully heal, liberate, and empower them. The Church should do what Jesus did—all of what he did. That is how we form mature disciples.

What Are We Forming Young People For?

The guiding vision for this Synod could and should have been about what mature Christian discipleship looks like. The critical issue is not first of all that young people are lost but rather that the Church has become all too vague in what we hope for young people to become. And when I say “the Church,” I mean the gross majority of those of us called upon to form young people, including parents, ministers, mentors, teachers, religious, priests, and bishops. I also mean our institutions of formation in which young people—from their earliest years to their ripe old years—are supposed to be culturally formed: parishes, religious education programs, schools, lay associations, ecclesial movements, and the family home. Because we have lost touch with what mature discipleship looks like, what constitutes true life, and what holiness means, our ways of forming young people in the faith have become dysfunctional. This Synod should have asked and clearly answered the question “What are we forming young people for?” and considered everything else—including what young people themselves say—in view of that.

You cannot get to that question by just talking with young people and walking together, because the ultimate responsibility is actually to propose something to them, to guide them towards something, and to help them to become capable of what they are called to be.

Christian maturity is about taking responsibility for being someone in response to God’s call. Responsibility always entails sacrifice and it demands commitment, which requires the freedom to say “yes” and the power—the acquired ability—to follow through. This is the stuff of “vocational discernment” in view of which this Synod intended to consider young people. While it is true that “vocation” and even “discernment” were talked about through the Synod and appear in large sections of the final document (especially Part II, Chapter II), it does not play the central and driving role that it should. We hear pretty typical things about “the vocation to follow Christ,” “discernment in the Spirit,” the varieties of personal vocations, the interplay of divine and human freedom, and the universal call to holiness. None of that is wrong, of course. Where this Synod went wrong is in what it left out.

What is missing is the kind of critical assessment of what is needed from and for a person to actually make a vocational commitment, beginning with actually hearing a call in the first place. For example—and this is a big example—all throughout this Synod, right up to this final document, the need for “listening” is foregrounded. But all of the emphasis falls upon the need for the Church to listen to young people. Young people are the ones to speak and the Church has the duty to listen. As mentioned above, there is a place and an importance to this. What is woefully underrepresented, however, is just how rare true, deep, committed “listening” has become in the modern world. What was not addressed, but absolutely must be a clear priority for a Church that is dedicated to serving young people, is how to form and prepare them for the kind of listening that is essential for attending to God’s Word in the first place, or even to pay attention to the people around you.

Vocational discernment requires freedom (to hear) and courage (to act). To hear the Word of God and to act in it is the definition of a disciple. The end to which vocational discernment tends is for a disciple to take responsibility for being someone in response to the Lord’s call, and that responsibility will require sacrifice. Sacrifice is the cost of love. That is the fruit of the Gospel. It is beautiful and it is demanding. Young people deserve to be presented with and prepared for nothing less.

The fact of the matter, though, is that in ways both perennial and wholly unprecedented in the history of the Church, people (young people especially) are unfree to listen. Without the capacity and the dispositions, the settings and the practices to hear the Word of God, vocational discernment is stifled from the start. This unfreedom is common to affluent young people and vulnerable young people alike, though the causes and conditions of that unfreedom are distinctive for each. The first duty of those entrusted with communicating the Gospel is to free those who are unfree in all the ways that they are unfree. That says something about our responsibility to young people, and it requires far more serious measures than what this Synod proposed.

Becoming a Productive Failure

Part of the reason why this Synod has failed in this respect is that it has not adequately conducted cultural analyses. There is talk about the digital landscape, for example, and just how prominent this landscape is in the lives of young people, but except for momentary, sporadic inquiries here and there, the Synod did not consider what that landscape does to people’s capacity’s for attentiveness, compassion, remembering, intimacy, and, indeed, listening.

There was some hope that the Synod would eventually get around to this deeper kind of analysis, which is absolutely necessary if the Church is going to meaningfully serve and form young people. To cite but one example, paragraph 7 of the instrumentum laboris seemed to direct attention to considering what kinds of conditions prevent young people from listening to the voice of God (something similar recurs in Part 1, Chapter II of the final document). All of the following are cited in that paragraph: economic inequalities that generate violence, crime and drug trafficking, inducing fear and insecurity. Political systems dominated by corruption that corrode young people’s trust in institutions and authority. War and threats to life that spur migration and refugee crises. All manner of social exclusions and performance anxieties—of not measuring up, not achieving enough—that fuel a cycle of addictions and isolation and prop up false comforts of narcotics, video games, and pornography.

Of course, not all of these circumstances are manifested in disparate cultures around the world, nor are they manifested in the same ways when they are. We cannot expect a global Synod to perform the close cultural analysis for each culture and each item listed above. But what we needed was for a global Synod on young people to uplift the importance of identifying broader cultural forces, to show how the local churches might go about assessing the consequences of those types of cultural formation, and then to recommend how the local churches might begin to foster intentional cultures of formation.

You will not get to this kind of thinking and leadership just by walking alongside each other. The Church must consult but the Church must also lead. Consultation is part of leadership. An approach that leads to an investigation and renewal of “cultures of formation” is precisely what the preparatory conference our institute hosted for the Synod explored with pastoral leaders and scholars from across the United States. By failing to take the needs of young people and the beauty of the Gospel seriously enough to engage in a process as contemplative and bold on a global scale, the Synod on young people failed young people.

My intention here is not to offer a full-blown proposal about how to pick up and redo this process from here (I have tried to offer some contributions to that end elsewhere)—all I intend here is to argue that this particular Synod has been a failure as judged by the very criteria it set for itself. The basic criteria were in its chosen theme: “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.” It has not taken young people seriously enough, it has not proclaimed the faith boldly enough, and it has not considered vocational discernment creatively enough.

The Synod on Young People has been a failure, but it can become a productive failure if we commit ourselves to doing something far better now. The gift and the challenge of focusing on young people is that if we take this seriously enough as a Church—on the local and global level—it will force us to bring everything to bear. We will be compelled to address liturgical formation: what it is, what it requires, and what it produces. We will evaluate and re-imagine our catechetical ministries: what they do, what they do not do, and what they should or could do. We will address the dynamics of media, our educational systems, how we do or do not form young people for family life or religious life, and our commitment to the works of mercy.

If we intend to really take young people seriously in the Church, then we have to stop treating them like children. Let us take them seriously. Let us propose the hard things. Let us show them the tremendous beauty of the whole faith. And let us do our part to form them to grow into Christian maturity, where sacrifice and love go hand-in-hand.

Editorial Statement: This essay is part of a running series by the faculty of the McGrath Institute for Church Life about exigent issues surrounding Church formation. 

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Featured Image: Han van Meegeren, Supper at Emmaus, 1937; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

Leonard J. DeLorenzo

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., serves in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. Among his published books is Work of Love: A Theological Reconstruction of the Communion of Saints and What Matters Most: Empowering Young Catholics for Life's Big Decisions.