Two Youths

Note: I was in Rome last week for the pre-planning meeting on the Synod for Youth. It went off rather quietly – except for the perpetual churn of Roman rumor and gossip, mostly about how the opinions of young people may be manipulated to push revision of the teaching on contraception, gays, divorce, women deacons, and the like. Elements in the Vatican have lately used these large meetings precisely to advance such ends. But those are subjects for another day; if true, all that will soon show itself. For now, it may be more useful to reflect on what appear to be two possible approaches in Church efforts to engage young people. – Robert Royal

Yesterday, Palm Sunday, 2500 students drawn from 150 universities around the globe gathered in Rome for UNIVFORUM 2018, a week-long deepening of their understanding of Catholicism and its relationship to the future of the world. Opus Dei has organized a meeting of this kind yearly since 1968. Delegates will participate in a papal audience, present the Holy Father with funds they’ve collected for relief efforts and with a mosaic of Mary Mother of the Church (for Christians in Syria). Their deliberations end Easter Sunday.

These are not – to be clear – the 305 young delegates invited by Pope Francis for the pre-Synod planning meeting that took place at the Vatican last week, which I described in an earlier column. Those young people concluded their activities yesterday by presenting the pope with a report, helpful in some ways, predictably conflicted and heterodox in others, particularly in its occasional hopes that Church doctrine can somehow adapt itself – Scripture, tradition, the very words of Jesus notwithstanding – to current ways of life in stark contrast to historic Christianity.

In short, in these two weeks before Easter in Rome, we have two very different visions of how to approach young people. There are, to be fair, advantages and disadvantages to each.

UNIVFORUM 2018, like almost everything organized by Opus Dei, is carefully thought through, with a clear focus. It includes organizations and individuals that my sometime colleague George Weigel has argued should be at the October Synod, given their proven successes in youth ministries. This year’s program looks pointedly at the 1968 youth rebellion, with its utopian expectations, and raises questions about whether, a half-century later, it delivered on its promises of freedom and human happiness.

By contrast, the pre-Synod meeting assembled a heterogeneous group (serious young Catholics, confused young Catholics, non-believers, even some Muslims). A few ringers slipped in – e.g., advocates for female ordination calling for female Cardinals. By and large the delegates reflected many themes you’d expect to hear from young people: a desire for greater accompaniment in faith development (without the Church being moralistic or judgmental), the role of women in the Church, social justice, scattered disagreement on Church teachings about sex, marriage, gays, priestly celibacy. There were also questions about God’s existence and hopes that the Church will explain doctrine or Scripture better. Some want the Church to accompany them more closely; others fear such accompaniment might limit their freedom.

Two papacies are operating here. In the Opus Dei event, there’s something like John Paul’s approach at the beginning of Veritatis Splendor, where he recalls the “rich young man” in the Gospel who asks Jesus what he must do to have eternal life. The answer, of course, is: leave everything and follow Him. The main effort is to work primarily with young people already engaged and to help them to become even more so – and only then to move outward to convince others.

The second approach, Pope Francis’s, takes it as basically a given that many have already walked away because they too don’t like what Jesus asks. But some because they may not have been asked yet, or understood properly. Or because of obstacles put in their way by the Church, which need to be removed.

Francis often invites people to speak boldly and not hold back, assuming “it’s always been done this way.” That invitation makes them feel part of a process and brings issues to the surface, of course. But it also risks turning the main question around. A goodly portion of the pre-Synod young people – with little experience of God or the world – felt less called to change themselves, more licensed to say; well, if we don’t have to do things as in the past, it’s primarily the Church that needs to change.

It does need to change, as we all do, if it’s going to remain alive. The question is how. The great Cardinal Newman used to say: change is proof of life and to be perfect is to have changed often. But there’s a difference between change that faithfully conserves and enhances, and change that results in something fundamentally different.That sort of perspective plays a lesser role in the young people’s report. And it’s no surprise, since there was little encouragement from the adults for other values such as  fidelity and truth. The emphasis was on speaking in your own voice – a category once reserved for major poets and novelists, which, as is the way with young people, meant delegates often echoed what they’ve heard from their peers.

The pre-Synod young people floated around Rome in cheery bands last week. Their energy and hope are palpable. The report they produced, brief and despite everything worth reading – not least for the portrait it offers of young people willing to take the time to participate in such an event – will now be forwarded to the Synod Fathers who will be meeting in October. (By the way, I’ll be back in Rome then to cover the Synod, and will be on The World Over this Thursday to discuss this and other subjects.)

There’s not much here though that should surprise the Synod Fathers. Some young people are calling their document “a game changer.” One even Tweeted: “If this document doesn’t result in a seismic shift [my emphasis] in how we minister to & with young people, then it’s not being read properly.”

Seismic shifts, paradigm shifts – in an age of social media, there’s a strong temptation to overdramatize things, even a report by a committee of young people, after a brief encounter with other young people, previously unknown to one another, and input from 15,000 Facebook followers.

But the ground has not much shifted and, besides, the goal is not simply better youth ministry. What we always want to know is whether more people are led to Jesus Christ – the real one, in the Scriptures, preserved by the Holy Spirit in His Mystical Body, the Church.

Accompaniment used to mean family, then parish, and community. To their credit, the young people recognize this in the report – as well as the crisis of families, the uncertain trumpet in many parishes, and the hostility of the modern state to religion in general, Catholicism in particular. They see that something must be done to compensate for the loss of the old ways of forming identity, but have little idea what.

Here’s a further dilemma: can you benefit from the strength of the Faith if you also shy away from necessary judgments, not of persons, but of true and false, of things that demand a decision? Things that might restore family, parish, society, since there really are no substitutes for them? If the Church does not offer a strong guiding hand – if you want it to be there (like your parents) if you fail, but don’t want it actively giving you advice – what good will it be to those most at sea?

Pope Francis just released a book God Is Young (English translation in October), which partly reflects St. Augustine’s famous formula about the beauty of God: tam antiqua, tam nova, “ever ancient, ever new.” The young people who came to Rome last week achieved something of real, if partial, value. It remains to be seen if adults, responsible adults, can bring something good out of it in October.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.