ROME, October 4th, 2018 —There was a colloquy Thursday evening at Rome’s Libera Università di Maria Santissima Assunta — the LUMSA, as it is known in the city — sponsored by The Notre Dame Centre for Ethics and Culture with the participation of Crux. The event featured opening remarks from Godfrey Onah, the engaging bishop of Nsukka, Nigeria, followed by seven stories of life in the faith told by young people from all around the world, and capped by a dialogue between Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and John Allen of Crux, with Pia de Solenni of the Diocese of Orange, Ca., serving as the evening’s MC.
There was good humor, if not high spirits, right from the start.
All the while, however, there was an elephant in the room, which John Allen of Crux waited little time in pointing out, when the focus of the event shifted from the young people, to his conversation with Bishop Barron: the crisis of episcopal leadership, precipitated by the summer’s revelations regarding the disgraced former archbishop of Washington, DC, Theodore Edgar “Uncle Ted” McCarrick, and allegations of massive conspiracy to cover up his abuses, going back decades and reaching the highest echelons of power in the Church.
“The Church is losing a lot of its credibility,” Bishop Barron acknowledged. “If the Church’s ministers and leaders don’t have sufficient credibility, we can’t do our evangelical work,” he stated. “So, yeah, I think it can and should be brought up,” he continued, “precisely in this Synod.” He went on to say, “I don’t think, in other words, that it’s changing the subject – ‘oh we ought to be talking about youth, not sex abuse,’ – well, like it or not, that’s affecting massively our ability to reach out to young people.”
Bishop Barron went on to say that whether the issue does become a central focus is “above [his] pay grade” and really up to the Pope. “There’s the Pope, right there, in the room,” he said. “The American bishops — I support them, I’m a member of the Administrative Committee — we asked the Pope specifically to do this, to launch a Papal investigation, and I think that is still kind of ‘in process’. Again, that’s way beyond my pay grade.”
Allen pressed the point, asking Barron whether he thought it perhaps a mistake to call publicly for authorization of an Apostolic Visitation before speaking with the Holy Father, suggesting the call might have been intrepreted as an attempt to force the Pope’s hand. “I think [the public call] was an expression of what the bishops of the United States feel is the right thing to do,” Barron responded. “Whether you interpret that as ‘forcing the Pope’s hand’, finally it’s up to him to decide what he wants to do. I think we just gave voice to our convictions.”
Billed as “A Conversation on Youth, Faith, and Vocation” under the banner title Behold, I make all things new, the atmosphere was cordial and the conversation cracking.
Bishop Onah — who spent decades in Rome as a pastor, philosophy professor and administrator at the Pontifical Urbaniana University, and as a consultor to the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops from 2009-2013 — made opening remarks in which he said the presence of young people in the synod hall has already made a discernible difference. “In spite of all the pain we feel about all the stories that are not so encouraging,” including but not limited to the stories of episcopal failure, he said, “there is still reason for hope.”
The testimony of the young people — five women and two men — was often raw, and even on occasion brutally honest, as when Notre Dame law student Aly Cox of Indiana spoke of her struggles with the faith. “I love being a member of the Catholic Church,” she told the audience, “but I struggle with doubts daily.”
Cox went on to say, “I struggle when my family or friends suffer, I struggle intellectually with some of the more abstract dogmas of our faith, and in light of recent revelations of abuse in the Church in the United States, I have had days when I have really struggled with the credibility of the Church.” Still, she said, “On every day of doubt in my young adult life, Catholic Social Teaching is what has brought me back to Christ.”
The final young speaker, Gonzalo Martinez of Uruguay, issued a powerful call to the Synod Fathers. “The world needs the Church to be a beacon of faith and hope,” he said, “to be the voice of Christ, when we cannot hear it ourselves.” For Martinez, it was his friends at Notre Dame who made the difference for him. “Instead of pursuing material and physical pleasures, my friends would talk about how to be humbler and more helpful to the people around them,” Martinez said, “I never had a group of friends like that [before].” They led him fully into the Church, after experiencing a turn away from the practice of the faith, during a time in his native Uruguay, “in which the Church appeared to have retreated.”
“I needed someone to tell me not only that God still loved me, but also that I should participate in the life of faith that leads to Him,” Martinez explained. “[My friends at Notre Dame] never admired the rich and famous, but instead strived to live like those saints, who never compromised the integrity of the Catholic faith, even when faced with death,” he continued. “Teach us to pray,” Martinez said in an apostrophe addressed to the Synod Fathers, “to serve others to receive the sacraments, to pursue responsibility, to embrace obligations to God and neighbor — which is to seek the real beauty of life.” Martinez went on to say that young people, “need the Church to be an example of faith fully lived, and never compromised.”
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