NEW YORK — Pope Francis’s upcoming Synod on Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment will be more important than the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family says Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, California.

While the focus on the question of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics generated widespread media attention and were “glamorous in a way,” Barron said the need to address the plight of young people leaving the faith is a “far more pressing issue for the global Church, but especially the Church in the West.”

Barron’s remarks were delivered on Monday in a keynote address on “Looking for the Nones,” for the “Cultures of Formation” conference taking place March 5-7 at the University of Notre Dame.

The gathering is co-sponsored by the McGrath Institute for Church Life at Notre Dame and the USCCB Committee on Doctrine in preparation for the October 2018 Synod of Bishops in Rome.

Barron began his talk by referring back to Francis’s 2013 interview shortly after his election as pope where he referred to the Church as a field hospital. He said that while many outlets rightly focused on the pope’s great emphasis on the theme of mercy, that they overlooked the “dire spiritual assessment” of modern society that Francis offered.

A focus on “the nones” — a now common term used to describe those that have drifted away from religion — has been a consistent theme of Barron’s in recent years. When the U.S. Catholic Bishops met in Baltimore last November for their annual fall assembly, Barron said that his chief focus as the new head of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis would be on reaching this population.

In his lecture on Monday, Barron surveyed the work of Notre Dame sociologist Professor Christian Smith and considered several common objections cited by young people for leaving the faith.

Barron lamented the “complete romanticization of the quest” to find belief that many young people have adopted, while also noting that he believes that even the most reluctant believers often protest belief in God with such vigor that he considers it a sign of hope.

“I can’t help but see this stubborn refusal to give up as the manifestation of the soul’s passion for God,” he said.

Since founding Word on Fire ministries in 2000, an apostolate for new evanglization strategies, Barron is widely considered one of the leading Catholic apologists in the United States.

Drawing from his intellectual mentor Professor Stanley Hauerwas, Barron said it was critically important to recapture “the ability to have a religious argument in public,” in order for Christianity to gain traction in today’s world.

He also lamented the embrace of the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens that have posited that faith and science are incompatible — a belief that is widely shared by the “nones.”

“Armies of young people have internalized the new atheists’ characterization of religious claims as so much pre-scientific nonsense,” said Barron, while adding that healing the rift between science and religion may be the one most important lesson the Church can learn in considering strategies for reaching young people.

Barron used his speech to encourage Catholics to reclaim their intellectual traditions and for it to shape the catechetical approaches of parishes and schools.

“One of the distinctive marks of Catholicism across the centuries has been a commitment to the intellectual articulation of the faith,” he said — adding that in recent decades there has been “an extraordinary dumbing down” of the faith that must be reversed.

“It’s intellectual conundrums that are bugging the young people, they’re blocked at that level,” he said. “If young people can handle Shakespeare, Einstein, and Virgil, why in the world couldn’t they handle Augustine, Aquinas, Chesterton?”

“This dumbing down of Catholicism has been a pastoral disaster of the first order,” he added.

As the role of young people in the Church takes center stage in the lead-up to the next Synod, Barron said that vocational callings are often hard to hear and the Church needs individuals like the Old Testament figure of Eli who trains the young man Samuel and encourages him to hear the Lord’s voice.

“What do our young people need today?” Barron pondered. “They need elders…to assume the role of Eli. Those who know how to hear the voice of God in the call for justice and equality. Who can hear the voice of God in the radical contingency of the world, who can hear the voice of God in the narratives in the Bible, in the definitive teachings of the Church, in the beauty of the saints.”

“We need an army of Elis to rise up who know how to hear and interpret the word of God and help our young people to discern that voice. That’s what the pope is interested in, I think,” said Barron.

“That’s the challenge today,” he concluded, “and that’s the great opportunity.”