First Reports

Yesterday, the Synod released the brief reports of the fourteen circoli minori, the small language groups that gather outside of the full meetings of almost 300 participants to work through various points. These provide the first substantial glimpse into proceedings that have largely been out of public sight until now. If you have the languages, you can consult them here.

The reports are intended to deal with only the first part of the synod’s Working Document, the sociological questions about the situation of young people in the contemporary world, which have been criticized by many as spiritually reductive and partly misleading. But not all of the small circles were able to limit themselves to the assigned material. Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay revealed during a briefing Tuesday that his English-speaking group (there are four, with members from all over the world) wanted to discuss the abuse crisis. So he put aside the programmed points.

That may indicate some healthy impatience on the part of participants, which was not limited to his circle alone. It’s worth looking briefly through all the reports in the various language groups, because there are marked differences among them. On the one hand, English (4) and Italian (3), each of which tends to be a kind of lingua franca for people from various backgrounds in the Church; and on the other hand German (1), Portuguese (1), Spanish (2),  French (3) (French is no longer as much an international language as it once was).

To make things manageable, we’ll take a broad look at the four English and three French reports today, and the rest tomorrow.

Circle Anglicus A expressed appreciation for the social sciences, “but what they have to say is looked at and re-read in the light of faith and the experience of the Church. It was suggested that the faith dimension, the Christological perspective could be stronger, making it clear that we are reflecting from the heart and in the light of faith on the concrete realities of young people.”They even affirmed the need for decision: “choosing movements of the spirit of good and rejecting those of the spirit of evil” – a quotation from Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium.

Amid the usual worries about the lures of the digital world and technology more generally, the abuse crisis and loss of trust, the desire of young people for “stable reference points,” they noted, “a proclamation of chastity, as achievable and good for our young people, is missing from the document.” At the same time, they repeated a common meme at the Synod that they not pretend to “have all the answers” and not take a “moralistic or polemical approach.” They wanted to be “active participants” – but also to have strong clerics and religious as leaders. In short, they wanted a lot of things, not all of them mutually compatible.

Anglicus B was decidedly more youth-friendly. It recommended various ways of using social media to reach young people: short videos, short texts, short points for study, etc. It even recommended that if the pope writes a Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, few young people will read such a long and complicated text. So an interactive website with videos and a live chat room would be helpful. People will differ in judging whether this is a brilliant innovation for reaching the digitally isolated, or a counsel of despair that young people, for all their desire to be active participants and be taken seriously in the Church, are simply to be accepted as incapable of serious reading and thought.

It did affirm, however, that,  “There was energy in our group around a need also to be attentive to and appreciate the openness of young people to faith. The document is weak in this area. We are not accompanying an empty glass.”

Bishops praying at the start of yesterday’s Synod session (Paul Haring/CNS)

Anglicus C reflected diverse situations in the world. Not all Western problems exist elsewhere. But had little else to add that others had not already put forward. Anglicus D is perhaps the richest reflection of all. It starts out with a recommendation that any final document produced by the synod:

should commence, not with sociological analysis, but rather with a Biblical icon that would serve as a leitmotif for the entire statement. We felt that the story of Jesus’ encounter with the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus – already referenced in the IL [Working Document] would be the ideal choice, for it beautifully demonstrates Jesus in both his listening and teaching manner. Further, the image of the disciples – still fascinated by the Lord and yet wandering in the wrong direction – aptly describes the condition of many of the young today.

They also warn that there is too much of a focus on Western problems about sexuality and marriage – and the psychologizing of such questions – which are experienced in the developing world as a kind of “ideological colonization” that diverts attention from real problems outside the developed nations.

One concrete situation much discussed in the West with resonances elsewhere is the breakdown of the family. Where physical mothers and fathers are often absent, spiritual paternity and maternity become much more important, and the Church must find ways to help people in such situations.

This circle also showed a lively appreciation of the tension, sometimes amounting to contradiction between a Church that listens and one that teaches. At the same time, they noted, “many young people today, in the midst of a postmodern culture so marked by relativism and indifferentism, long for the clarity and confidence of the Church’s doctrine.” And that the proper perspective when the Church speaks of “listening” to young people is to see them as members of the Church, not an outside entity.

To turn from the Anglophone sphere to the Francophone is to enter a different world (all translations that follow are mine and unofficial). For instance, Gallicus A argues, with a kind of Parisian intellectualism: “Even before speaking and listening, it is by the gaze that a relationship is created. That is the goal of the Synod: To help young people meet the gaze of Christ, through the Church, which is His body, so that they discover themselves as loved by Him, and they set out listening and following Him.”

This rather airy affirmation, however, is followed by another that the Jesus who is merciful and heals our wounds, also denounces everything contrary to God’s Revelations and calls upon us to radical commitment to follow Him. And so the synod texts have to go beyond sociology to those realities, which many young people, despite their diverse backgrounds look to for answers.

And references in the text that mention the family should explain the importance of the “stable union between man and woman, both open to the gift of life” – and that the proposed ideal is capable of being realized – one bone of contention at the previous Synod on the Family. To accept the individualism of the modern developed world, puts all that at risk, and young people in large numbers still value and stick to their families.

The French are among the few to point to the Christians in the Near and Middle East and the pressure they are under because of the violence and chaos there. Any Christian treatment of young people will also have to consider them.

Gallicus B was much more worried about breakdowns in the first world, where it characterized large numbers of young people as now detached from the Church and unconcerned about it. (You get the impression that this group largely came from the Hexagone.) The Good Shepherd, of course, goes in search of the Lost Sheep. But the means it presents for doing so are quite abstract: 1) rethink and redefine the mission of the Church; 2) form pastors capable of reaching young people; 3) form and educate young people in the faith. The problem painted is familiar; the solutions proposed all too inadequate.

Gallicus C was composed mostly of bishops from four continents, who made similarly large suggestions while pointing out that the radical detachment of people from the historic faith exists alongside a desire to know more and become more fully human and Catholic.

Depending on what you may hope or fear from a largely free-floating gathering like the Synod on Youth, you may find these initial comments encouraging or discouraging. My view is that there are some strong reactions to the weaknesses in the overall approach suggested by the Vatican in the Working Document. We’ll see if these come to any fruition in the end.

More on the remaining language groups, Deo volente, tomorrow.