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The 2018 Synod and the “new approach” to youth in the Church

The recently released preparatory document on the subject of “Youth, Faith, and Vocational Discernment” is heavy on sociology and psychology and light on Scripture and Tradition.

Pope Francis waves as he arrives for a welcoming ceremony during the 2016 World Youth Day at Blonia Park in Krakow, Poland. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

In January, the Vatican made a formal announcement of the convening in October 2018 of a synod of bishops from across the world on the subject of “Youth, Faith, and Vocational Discernment”.  At the same time, the Vatican sent a 25-page preparatory document to all the dioceses in the world.  The document sets forth a method for dealing with issues and also requires dioceses to submit answers to a series of questions.  The Vatican also intends to set up a website proposing questions online for young people to answer directly.  The preparatory document is dedicated to Mary and St. John the Apostle.

“Youth” are said to be those 16-29 years old, but “bearing in mind that the term needs to be adapted to local circumstances.” The emphasis of the preparatory document is what youth themselves are experiencing in the modern world and what they themselves can do about it.  Youth themselves are “agents of change;” many are “major, leading characters” in today’s climate of change and involvement.  “The Church is called to learn from young people” as many young saints provide both “testimony” and “inspiration”.

The approach of Francis

The preparatory document announces at the start “a new approach” for the Church concerning youth. That new approach is the approach of Pope Francis: “the Church, beginning with her Pastors, is called to make a self-examination and to re-discover her vocation of caring for others in the manner recommended by Pope Francis at the beginning of his pontificate.”  It is said that “[o]lder approaches no long work and the experience passed on by previous generations quickly becomes obsolete.” What is deficient is “a complacent pastoral attitude” that says “we have always done it this way.”

Following the introduction, there is a short section on the beloved disciple, the Apostle John, who is presented as “both an example of a young person who chooses to follow Jesus and ‘the disciple Jesus loved’.” It is one of the few sections that reflects on Scripture or saints from the Bible. (As a general point of comparison, St. John Paul II’s 1985 Apostolic Letter to youth on the occasion of International Youth Year contains over 70 references to Scripture. Notably, the current preparatory document contains no references to John Paul II.)

The preparatory document is divided into three parts.  The first part is entitled “Young People in Today’s World” and is said to be “the result of research in the social sphere” and “of studies conducted at the international level.”  But no such research or studies are cited.  Except for one reference to an obscure two-page letter on education of Pope Benedict in 2008, the section is devoid of references to Scripture, Church documents or documents of prior popes, the Catechism, or the lives of the saints.  The citations are to the writings of Francis.

Youth are said to live in a “rapidly changing world” which is “different from that of their parents and educators.” They look at life as a series of “options which can be always reversed” rather than as leading to certain “definitive choices. There several other accurate but obvious points about the contemporary world, as for example, how “a hyper-connected generation” is involves in “a rapid process of change and transformation.”  Besides the words of Pope Francis (who is quoted a half dozen times in the document), the language is all from the realms of sociology and social psychology.

About “discernment,” the subject of the second part, the preparatory document quotes Francis’ 2013 Evangelii gaudium, which states that discerning it should be done by recognizing, interpreting, and choosing.   “Recognizing” means understanding how experience affects the interior life.  Not the life of the spirit, but “desires, feelings, and emotions.”  At this stage, it is said, the Word of God is of prime importance because meditating on it can mobilize the passions and make the passions emerge.  “Interpreting” means understanding “what the Spirit is calling the person to do through what the Spirit stirs up in each” person.  It includes the Word of God and “the moral demands of the Christian life.”  “Choosing” places great emphasis on the individual and singular aspect of making the choice.  The individual’s conscience is “inviolable.”  “Forces outside oneself” and “practices of the past” are specifically criticized. There are a couple of scriptural citations, but no Church documents, or references to saints, save for one mention of St. Joseph, are included in the discussion of recognizing, interpreting, and choosing.

This second part contains a most emphatic section on Pope Francis’ “accompaniment.”  “The ideal profile of the person accompanying a young person is said to be, citing the Gospels of Luke and John, a person of a “loving look . . . authoritative word . . . [being a] neighbor . . . walk[ing] with . . . an authentic witness.”  Such a person “collaborates” with young people rather than attempting “to take control of their faith.”  Accompaniment is said to be “the Church’s spiritual tradition,” but no references to or backgrounds of that tradition are cited.  By contrast the pope had rather strongly implied in Evangelii Gaudiam (169) that accompaniment was new, for “everyone – priests, religious, and laity” in the Church, he said there, had to be “initiated” into the “art of accompaniment.”

The themes of the third part, on pastoral activity, are also from Francis’ Evangelii gaudium.  Three factors are said to guide the new “pastoral style:”  going out, seeing, and calling.  The first is for the purpose of having “young people . . . be leading characters in their own lives.”  To accomplish that, “rigid” and “outdated” attitudes of the Church must be given up.  The second, “seeing,” means peering into the depths of the heart “without being intrusive or threatening.” To “see,” a pastor must begin “by setting aside [his] own mental framework.”  The third, “calling,” means going on a journey with the Gospel “asking questions that have no ready-made answers” and “not by passively respecting norms.”  There are no Scriptural citations or references to the many texts and addresses by John Paul II on youth.

Scripture, conscience, and “people of reference”

Overall, Scripture plays a very minor role in the document.  This absence is especially noteworthy with respect to the document’s statement that “the Bible has numerous accounts of young people receiving a call and their making a response.”  Not one example from the Bible is the cited, and besides Samuel, David, and Jeremiah, it is hard to think of passages in the Bible where youth explicitly state a response to the call of the Lord.  And when the Lord calls Jeremiah in his thirteenth year, Jeremiah protests that he is “only a youth,” but the Lord says that he will put His own words in Jeremiah’s mouth. (Jer. 1:6-9).  That, then, is different from the synod’s document wherein it is stated that the Church must do the opposite, that is, “listen” to young people. In fact, most biblical passages about youth are focused on instructing young men who might easily be misled by sinful friends, lust, or sloth (Prov 1:8-10; 2:1; 3:1, etc). While the Apostle Paul does tell Timothy, his son in the faith, to let “no one despise your youth,” he also instructs him to be an example of faith, love, and purity (1 Tim 4:12), and strongly exhorts him to “shun youthful passions and aim at righteousness, faith, love, and peace” (2 Tim 2:22). Such passages are not mentioned.

As in other documents and statements of Francis, individual conscience is stressed.  The preparatory document cites Amoris Laetitia (37) wherein Francis says that people respond to the Gospel “as best they can” . . . amid their limitations” and “are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations.” The document also quotes the Second Vatican Council to the effect that conscience is “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. “There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths” (Gaudium et Spes, 16), but omitted in the preparatory document is Gaudium et Spes’ elaboration that the purpose of conscience is to “detect a law, which he does not impose on himself, but which holds him to obedience.” Otherwise, conscience can become “sightless” as a result of “habitual sin.”

Elsewhere in the document, we are told that youth “would like the Church to be closer to people and more attentive to social issues.”  The Church must go beyond “a preconceived framework.” “Rigid attitudes” must be abandoned.  The Church must give up any “way of acting” that is “out-dated.”  The Church must not treat young people as “objects;” they are “agents.”  Pastoral activity must not “dominate spaces” and should become “less standardized” and “more attentive to the individuality of each person.” “Gender” is mentioned as a determinant of different, masculine and feminine, “perceptions of reality,” but gender is also accused of being “the basis of various forms of domination, exclusion and discrimination, which all societies need to overcome.”

The document says “various research studies” show that youth need “people of reference,” who are said to be “those able to express empathy and offer them support, encouragement and help in recognizing their limit, but without making them feel they are being judged.” These reference people can be peers as well as adults. They can also be parents whose role is “crucial yet sometime problematic.” Parents have “irreplaceable educational role,” but they often “underestimate” and emphasize the “weaknesses” of their children and can be “overprotective” and lacking in “a clear idea of how to help young people focus on the future.”  Reference is made to Chapter Seven of Amoris Laetitia, wherein the pope states the same kinds of criticisms of parents. There, parents are told that “obsession” is “not education.” Parents should not be “domineering.”  Children should be taught “inductively” rather than by the imposition of “absolute and unquestionable truths.”  In “proposing values” to children, “the valuable contributions of psychology and the educational sciences” are needed.  The preparatory document holds that parents make mistakes about their children.  What parent will disagree with that?


The preparatory document ends with a series of questions for dioceses to answer.  Besides statistics gathering, almost all the questions are based on themes and concepts of the preparatory document.  Two of the questions require the dioceses to evaluate what kinds of youth “group gatherings” have been successful both within and outside the Church.  A separate database and website assembling all the answers to these “what works with youth” questions could be a most interesting result of the synod—that is, if the Vatican would compile and allow such a database.  And it would represent dioceses making their own decisions about this subject.

The structure and content of the preparatory document is clearly based on Pope Francis’ thought and his art of accompaniment.  How that will be applied to young people and more precisely to youth activities and organizations remains to be seen.  As for “vocation,” the document’s “new approach” is on the vocation of youth as youth.  The document contains almost no mention of the priesthood or the vocation to the married life (there are two passing references to both despite over 50 references to “vocation”).  In addition to the comprehensive Francis theme, the document uses the language of social psychology, presumably taken from the unnamed “studies.” It lacks any specific sections on the sacraments, catechesis, moral guidance, and growth in the spiritual life.  One short and very general subsection on evangelization of youth is included.  Education is referred to as something that youth are involved in, not something they receive as students, and there is no educational agenda or program proposed.

Overall, the emphasis is on where youth “are;” there are only very general statements about where youth ought to be, and the document contains no concrete strategies about leading youth to any goal.

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About Thomas R. Ascik 21 Articles
Thomas R. Ascik is a retired attorney who has written on a variety of legal and constitutional issues.

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