VATICAN CITY — The nearly monthlong Vatican synod for young people got underway Oct. 3, with Pope Francis calling on the synod fathers to have an attitude of “listening” to young people, to reject “prejudice and stereotypes” and to welcome and understand today’s youth by being willing to “change our convictions and positions.”
In his discourse at the first general congregation of the synod — the theme of which is “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment” — the Pope stressed the importance of young people making the effort to “swim against the tide” and to strive for “lofty values” of “family, fidelity, love, faith, sacrifice, service, eternal life.”
“It truly is worth the effort. It is not a waste of time,” he said. “Your participation fills us with joy and hope.” Thirty-six young people will be among the 49 auditors taking part in the synod, which continues through Oct. 28, offering contributions but without a vote.
Turning to the synod fathers, Francis called the synod a “moment of sharing,” and, as during the previous synod on the family, he invited all participants to speak with parrhesia (courage and frankness), adding that only dialogue “can help us grow.” An honest, transparent critique is “constructive and helpful,” he said, and does not engage in “useless chatter, rumors, conjectures or prejudices.”
Reminding the synod fathers of his comments at the pre-synod meeting, the Pope said “everyone has the right to be heard, just as everyone has the right to speak.” Listening, he said, “creates space for dialogue,” and the “first fruit” of this dialogue is that all are “open to newness, to change their opinions.”
Speaking to reporters Oct. 1, the synod’s general relator, Cardinal Sergio da Rocha, said the synod’s working document stressed the importance of an “open and welcoming attitude” and the need to accompany people to have “the fullness of life” by knowing the reality of their lives and allowing oneself to be “challenged” by the “complex issues” they face related to “affectivity and sexuality.”
Similarly, the Pope invited the synod fathers to be open to “additions and changes” that the synod may suggest to them. “Let us feel free to welcome and understand others, and therefore to change our convictions and positions: This is a sign of great human and spiritual maturity,” he said.
He stressed the importance of “discernment,” which, he said, is not a “fad of this pontificate,” but a means of listening to “what the Spirit suggests to us.” To help with this, he announced that, after five interventions (speeches), three minutes of silence was to be observed to “reflect deeply” on what they had heard.
Francis said young people “often do not feel understood by the Church” and sometimes feel “rejected.” A Church that is “closed to God’s surprises” cannot be credible, the Pope said, and he urged that “prejudice and stereotypes” be left behind. He also warned against speaking about young people in “outmoded” ways, stressed the invaluable contribution of the elderly, and excoriated clericalism, which he called a “perversion” and the “root of many evils.” The Church “must humbly ask forgiveness for this and above all create the conditions so that it is not repeated,” he said.
But he also warned that rejecting all that has been “handed down across the ages” brings only a “dangerous disorientation” and urged the synod fathers not to listen to “prophets of doom” but to keep their “gaze fixed on the good that ‘often makes no sound; it is neither a topic for blogs, nor front page news.”
At the synod’s opening Mass that morning, the Pope called on the Holy Spirit to renew hope and dynamism in the Church in order to “transform those frames of mind that today paralyze, separate and alienate us from young people.” Hope, he said, “challenges us, moves us and shatters that conformism, which says ‘it’s always been done like this.’”
The Pope was visibly moved when referring to the presence of two bishops from mainland China, whom he invited as part of the Holy See’s provisional agreement with China on the appointment of bishops, signed in September. Both bishops belong to the state-run church and one of them, Bishop Giuseppe Guo Jincai of Chengde, was among the seven bishops whose excommunications were lifted by the Vatican Sept. 22. The Pope said their presence, the first Chinese bishops to take part in a synod (some had attended the Second Vatican Council), makes the bishops’ communion with the Successor of Peter “yet more visible.”
Although the Holy Father had invited two Chinese bishops, it is not clear if he specifically let the state-run church choose which bishops to send. “The Pope has been very merciful,” Father Bernardo Cervellera, director of Asia News, told the Register Oct. 2, but he regretted that it gave an “unbalanced message,” as it seems only the Communist Party determines who is allowed to attend such meetings.
More than 300 participants are gathered for the nearly four-week synod, including 266 synod fathers from around the world, 41 of whom have been personally appointed by the Pope. Highlights outside the meeting will include a papal audience with thousands of young people Oct. 6 and the canonization of Blessed Paul VI and Blessed Óscar Romero Oct. 14.
The synodal assembly itself will consist of a series of general congregations, during which each synod father will make his intervention followed by responses. Discussion of the topics will then continue in small groups divided according to language. Each will discuss the same themes, and auditors and fraternal delegates will also take part in both fora but cannot vote. Each working group will prepare a report at the end of the session and vote on it by an absolute majority, after which all reports will be read to the assembly.
A commission will then draft the final document, taking into account the assembly interventions and the discussions of the working groups, and present it to the synod fathers to examine and debate Oct. 24. They will have just the afternoon to make any amendments, both orally and in writing. The commission will then pull together the final document and present it Oct. 27.
Although the final document will be voted on and passed only with a two-thirds majority, the synod organizers were unwilling to confirm if the document will consist of propositions with each paragraph requiring two-thirds approval, as in previous synods. Critics say an absence of such a vote limits debate and could allow controversial proposals to pass, such as acceptance of loaded terminology used by the homosexual lobby. In a letter to Pope Francis at the previous synod on the family in 2015, 13 cardinals successfully protested against removing the vote on propositions on similar grounds.
Other wider concerns include the instrumentum laboris, the synod working document, published in June. In a Sept. 29 article in the Italian newspaper Il Foglio, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said he believed it needed to be “reviewed and revised,” because, “as it stands, the text is strong in the social sciences, but much less so in its call to belief, conversion and mission.”
Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, criticized the comments, saying such reservations could have been made earlier (Archbishop Chaput is on the Ordinary Council of the Synod of Bishops) and adding that it did not show “loyalty and honesty.”
Pope Francis said in his Oct. 3 discourse there was “no need for sophisticated theological arguments” and urged the synod fathers to focus on “concrete pastoral proposals capable of fulfilling the synod’s purpose,” rather than a final document “that generally is only read by a few and criticized by many.”