If I can impress upon you one thing about the pre-Synod meeting of young people, it would be that the organisers of this event entirely trusted the young people present to lead it. It was my joy to be there representing England and Wales. The three hundred of us at the meeting were divided into language groups of about a dozen members that produced amazing international conversations. My group had representatives from everywhere from Austria to Iran, and from Sierra Leone to Thailand and every relevant topic you can imagine was discussed. As the Pope had invited atheists and members of other faiths, it meant that outside perspectives on the Church were also present.
After discussion the time came to create something to represent that dialogue, a document. I was fortunate to be selected to be on the writing team. We hunkered down in a library, surrounded ourselves with the minutes from these meetings, and tried to write something that represented everybody. You can read the resulting document here.
What was key to the writing of the document was the ability to state that people disagreed on things. This gave us the freedom to give some nuance and be true to the dialogues that had taken place. Given that there are so many different approaches, including some from outside the faith, it was fascinating to attempt to give them all a voice, including the secular. I cannot properly convey the energy of that writing room, how suddenly this impossible task became possible to us as we watched young people from all over the world say the same things to us on the page.
Here are a few key points that were repeated by many, and how they appear in the document.
- Dissatisfaction at the parish level: Many expressed that the parish, and its potential lack of community or understanding, is a reason why some young people leave the Church. The document records that many young people ‘leave after experiencing indifference, judgment and rejection. One could attend, participate in, and leave Mass without experiencing a sense of community or family as the Body of Christ.’
- Initiatives outside of the parish: Many also spoke of the life they had found outside of the Parish, which both engaged them in the faith and explained it to them. ‘We respond to initiatives that offer us an understanding of the Sacraments, prayer and the liturgy, in order to properly share and defend our faith in the secular world’ stating that many movements ‘have developed fruitful ways to not only evangelize young people, but also their peers.’ In my experience, and it seemed in the lives of others present, this energy often bursts out separate from the parish into these great lay initiatives.
- Breakdown of the family: discussing the formation of the young person, the family came up a lot, all seemingly noting the modern struggles of family life. The document reports that ‘traditional family models in other places are in decline. This leads to young people suffering as well.’ It goes on to suggest that the Church can model ‘healing for our families’.
- The role of women in the Church and the world: there was a big conversation around women during the Synod, with a general feeling that women were not being given enough substantive roles in the Church. The document speaks of women four times, partly because it was written in three sections by three separate writing teams, which shows how prevalent this issue is. The document states that there is, ‘a general problem in society in that women are still not given an equal place’but also that whilst there are, ‘great examples of women serving in consecrated religious communities and in lay leadership roles… for some young women, these examples are not always visible.’ The question, ‘what are the places where women can flourish within the Church and society?’ is posed, with the document asking for the Church to ‘deepen its understanding of the role of women’.
- A humble Church: in regard to the Church’s manner, the scandals of the Church’s history were discussed a lot. ‘…Scandals attributed to the Church – both real and perceived – affect the confidence of young people’, ‘A credible Church is one which is not too afraid to allow itself to be seen as vulnerable.’
- Engaging new ways of communicating: Surprisingly, it was not just western countries that spoke of struggling with ‘an increasingly secular society’, and there was a general feeling that the Church was not communicating well in this new context and with new media. The document represents this by saying ‘we desire that the Church spread this message through modern means of communication and expression’ especially through ‘social media as well as other digital spaces, to more easily and effectively offer information about the Church and its teachings’. Many recognised that social media can be dangerous in ways that manifest, ‘through isolation, laziness, desolation and boredom’ which can also create ‘a delusional parallel reality’ but there was consensus that ‘the internet offers the Church an unprecedented evangelical opportunity’.
- A willingness to lead: the section first written about young leaders was barely edited over the drafts. It states that young people in the Church feel that they‘are ready to be leaders, who can grow and be taught by older members of the Church, by religious and lay women and men’ asking for this support in the form of ‘leadership programmes for the formation and continued development of young leaders.’ Creativity surfaced a lot too, with many feeling that the creative side of the Church was, ‘often dominated by older Church members.’
What is common to these points is that young people want to know why the Church says what it does, and for it to express it in modern ways, accessible to young people of today.
My hope for the future of this Synod is that these concerns are taken seriously and are not dismissed either by the inaccurate idea that this event was stage-managed from above, or that our voices do not matter because we are young.
The document gives a picture of where young people are. If we hope to understand and evangelise young people, then talking to them is an obvious and yet ground-breaking thing for the Church to have done.