Speaking as an American. . .

Father Thomas J. Reese is a Jesuit – former editor of the Jesuit magazine America. He’s, generally speaking, a strong supporter of Pope Francis, both in his efforts to change the Church and in his political initiatives on subjects such as the environment, immigrants, and global poverty. Towards the end of yesterday’s briefing in the Vatican press office (the first for the Synod on Young People), he asked what may become the central question that will loom over the whole four weeks of the synod.

Pope Francis, he said [to reconstruct from memory], has spoken repeatedly of hope, of dreaming big, of bold new initiatives, of letting the Holy Spirit inspire us to things we’ve never done before. So, in the first full synod session [twenty-five bishops, plus two lay people spoke], was there anything really new, anything that surprised members on the briefing panel?

Paolo Ruffini, one of the lay members of that panel and head of the Vatican communications office, admitted: Well, no. There was nothing really that jumped out as entirely unexpected, though the interchanges among the various participants – serious speaking and listening (and the Jesuitical  “discernment”) – were a good beginning for the synod.

He was probably right that such modest, well-trod steps were about as much as can be expected from a couple of hundred people who’ve just arrived, many of whom don’t know each other – and have never participated in a Vatican event before. But the larger question remains: it may also well be that these basic, interpersonal exchanges – which we may hope will lead to deep friendships and fruitful initiatives – are all that will really come out of the synod.

The pope and his advisers had decided in the planning stages to discard the old practice of treating the synod as a kind of academic conference; they deliberately chose to make it instead a “walking together,” one meaning of the Greek term synodos.

In practical terms, this means that five bishops at a time make presentations of just a few minutes each, based either on their longer, previously prepared texts (which they’ve already submitted to the synod officials), or they respond, off the cuff, to something someone may have said earlier. (Archbishop Chaput spoke yesterday and, as usual, brought much-needed, brisk realism to the proceedings.) After each set of five, the whole group sits quietly and meditates on things they found especially salient. As Fr. Antonio Spadaro S.J., one of the pope’s prominent spokesmen, explained: this sitting and waiting for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is a very Jesuitical thing to do.

Still, it produced no great surprises today, and that’s probably a good thing.

Because the Church faces an unusual problem at the moment. As the youngest member of the panel, Joseph Cao Hun Minh Tri, a 21-year-old Vietnamese layman emphasized, the young people he knows, especially in his home country, speak urgently and often of “finding your true passion in life,” of discovering a way to live that gives life meaning and leads to true happiness. But as anyone paying attention knows quite well, few young people these days believe they will find what they are looking for in the Church.

Photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA

According to participants, there was a surprising number of bishops asking for pardon on this first day; at least five of the bishops who spoke apologized, not only because of the sexual abuse in several countries, but for the Church’s failures to accept and accompany, listen and learn, from young people singly or in families. It’s quite clear that there’s a widespread attitude that the Church should stop lamenting where young people are not, and to go find them where they are.

Fair enough, but if that is to work at all, it’s not going to happen by dreaming big dreams, which don’t seem to come down to earth, but by patient, hard work – the kind of work that many groups, especially in the United States but not only there, are already doing in reaching out to young people.

Christianity took around three centuries to convert the pagan Roman Empire, and that happened when the Faith was young and a novelty, not as today, older and – however wrongly – regarded as old hat. There are no quick fixes for our situation. For multiple reasons – not all of them the fault of the Church and needing apology – people have drifted away to lives that are shallow and anguished and unsatisfying, but that they know they don’t know how to reform. And still don’t turn to the Church.

Any realistic response to this situation has to be ready to grind away over the long haul, winning people back one at a time, family by family.

Chiara Giaccardi, a professor of sociology at the Catholic University of Milan, and in Italy a well-known writer on ways of inviting young people into dialogue with the Church, spoke during the panel of the “Copernican Revolution,” whereby the Church is no longer a “limiter” on action but a “listener.”

But if it’s a listener, at least in Giaccardi’s framing of the concept, it only seems to hear things it already wants to hear. She spoke of meeting people concretely and how – in the pope’s famous formula – “Reality is greater than ideas.” But the realities she referred to seemed to be the old and not very inspiring ideas about immigrants, the marginalized, and the importance of sex for full personal development. Nothing wrong there, in theory. But in practice, it would be difficult to call this a bold new initiative or some ambitious dream for the young, who’ve heard it all, many times, in many ways, before.

One of the major problems that seems to be almost never discussed in “dialogues” like these is something the Church truly does have to apologize for: generations of soft-pedaling the faith, turning it into a namby-pamby sentimentality about love and acceptance, and blurring the strong teachings to be found in the Scriptures and the tradition, in Catholic grade schools, high schools, colleges, and universities – even in programs like RCIA intended to prepare people to enter into full Communion.

In other words, we’ve been afraid to preach the kinds of things that all people, including young people, need to hear, because they are real answers to real questions.

But to do that, the Church would have to find new courage (and real cleverness) to speak as well as to listen. For now, that doesn’t seem to be on the agenda.

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