ROME – As a month-long Synod of Bishops in Rome got underway this week, one natural question is whether the young people gathering here can still take the Catholic Church seriously, given the numerous scandals that have plagued its public image in the run-up.
For several of those young people, those scandals, while depressing and a source of concern, have not altered their commitment to the Church. Far from taking away from their faith, they’ve reinforced their commitment to making their Church better.
Sebastian Duhau, a youth delegate from Australia, told Crux that when it comes to the recent crisis in the Church, “I’m definitely disappointed, I’m disappointed in the Church, and to an extent angry that these things have happened.”
At the same time, Duhau said he continues to be a part of the Church “not because of priests and bishops and the people of the Church,” but “because I believe in Jesus and what he’s done in people’s lives.”
Duhau, 22, said he wants to make the Church a reflection of Jesus’ action, and he wants “to create a Church that is a reflection of the great and positive things that he can do in people’s lives.”
He hails from Australia, a nation where the Church has been pummeled by bad press surrounding not only a Royal Commission inquiry but also accusations that the country’s highest-ranking prelate, Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, sexually abused minors as far back as the 1960s.
In his comments to Crux, Duhau said the drama surrounding Pell is “a sad situation” and he struggles with the Church’s response, believing there ought to be more transparency.
“If we are to create a Church that is in positive relationship with people, and a Church that does begin to establish trust again, we need to be more transparent, we need to be a Church that is open and honest, and which is accountable for its own mistakes,” he said.
However, Duhau said he believes Australia has made numerous strides in regaining credibility, especially with the implementation of strict new child protection policies.
Duhau is one of some 36 young people participating in the October 2018 Synod of Bishops, which is dedicated to the topic of youth, the faith and vocational discernment.
Anastasia Indrawan, a youth delegate from Indonesia, said that while the sexual abuse scandals are worrying, they are not an issue on her home turf, where the main issues come from being a minority in an ethnically diverse culture.
Indrawan said that for her, the crisis dominating headlines in the lead-up to the synod have not shaken her faith or resolve, and she believes Pope Francis “has a lot of good intentions, especially toward young people.”
“I see that many changes are being made, and the fact that we young people are involved in the synod, that’s already a very good step,” she said, adding that in her view, “we should not criticize, we should really open ourselves up to the progress that’s been made and make the best out of it.”
Ultimately, Indrawan believes the synod will make a difference for the young people who attend, but even if it doesn’t, “I will remain faithful to my Catholic beliefs, and I would still fight for a change for young people.”
After two days of discussion, she said “I’m seeing good hope for the progress of the synod, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Duhau said he hopes the synod will prompt greater enthusiasm among young people, and that the discussion “doesn’t float around hierarchy and who’s who, and whose opinions matter because of where they sit in church.”
“I want this to be an open discussion where all the people present are listened to,” he said.
In his brief, four-minute speech during the gathering, Duhau said he wants to stress that the Church needs to be a place where everyone, lay and religious alike, can be leaders and can look to each other “for ways to move forward and to not be about hierarchy and who can make decisions because of where they sit.”
In her comments to Crux, Indrawan said she wants to emphasize that the Church can be a meeting ground for people from all cultures and walks of life, and that each and every person, not just priests and bishops, have the responsibility to accompany one another in the journey of faith.
“For my fellow Indonesians, we really require this accompaniment,” she said, noting how Catholics are a minority in the country.
“If we only rely on the clergy, then no one gets accompanied, because we only have so few,” she said. “So it really rests on the families, the seminarians, the clergy, all the young people also to accompany each other well.”
During her brief speech, Indrawan said tolerance, understanding and respect for one another and for their opinions and beliefs is key to living in harmony, adding that her main message would be that this coexistence is not impossible but that while different, “you can live alongside one another. I think my nation especially really highlights this value, and we would like to share it with the world.”
Johnathan Lewis, assistant secretary for pastoral ministry and social concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington, told Crux that when he found out the next Synod of Bishops would be on young people, he was excited, having worked in young adult ministry for some 12-15 years.
Lewis said he sees the synod on youth as being in continuity with Francis’s exhortations Evangelii Gaudium, “The Joy of the Gospel,” and Amoris Laetitia, “The Joy of Love.” In his view, the discussion about young people is a natural continuation of 2014-2015 synods on the family.
Young people, Lewis said, are abandoning the Church for a variety of reasons, whether it is because they don’t agree with Church teaching, because they find the Church irrelevant, or because they simply don’t think they fit in, given that the bulk of their congregations are often older and in different stages in life.
This gap, he said, can be solved in practical ways such as simply starting a conversation and opening the door for more natural interaction, particularly between generations.
In his view, Lewis said getting young people engaged and back into the pews is also a matter of building relationships, which is a need he has perceived especially in recent months and years.
“The thing that’s stuck out most to me in the last year or so is this shift from institutional authority to relational authority, so young people hunger and yearn for relationships,” he said, adding that in his experience, young people constantly seek community.
With an increase in cultural individualism, this desire for community and interaction is manifested in different ways, he said, noting how many people will decide what restaurant to go to not by signs or the menu, but by reviews, and people will sign up for gyms where they can work out not only in individual classes, but in small groups with access to a trainer.
“People are still hungry with the same types of things, so the Church needs to ask themselves that question. How do we relate to young people? I don’t think it’s a matter of changing Church teachings, I think it’s how we communicate the Gospel message,” he said, adding that part of what he wants to emphasize during the synod discussion is the need for youth to have strong mentors to accompany them and engage their questions about life and faith.
Noting how there were a number of requests for the synod to either be cancelled or overhauled due to the abuse scandals, Lewis said that in his view, it is important that the gathering is still taking place.
“I think this synod is extremely important, it’s an extremely important moment for the Church to listen to young people and then commit to doing something about it,” he said, noting how this year’s synod features greater participation on the part of young people than ever before, “so if it had not included that, it would not have as much credibility as it does.”
Lewis confessed to having concerns that the main topics will be obscured by side conversations on the abuse crisis, like they did in the 2014-2015 synod on the family over whether divorced and remarried Catholics can receive communion.
“For me, I think the devil is super happy that the conversations on marriage and family got distracted, I think the last thing the devil wanted was, we need to really support families,” Lewis said, adding that he believes the same strategy is being employed this year, “because the last thing the devil wants is for young people to be on fire for the Holy Spirit and the Lord.”
Looking back at those synods on the family, Lewis asked whether families are any more of a priority in parish life than they were before, explaining that for him, the answer is a clear no.
“Are things really different? That’s my concern,” he said, adding that “I don’t see that difference widespread across our country. Certain bishops or certain priests have said things, but I don’t see the culture having changed in the United States in terms of how we support or prioritize families.”
What he is hoping to do is to give the documents coming out of this synod “teeth,” in order to ensure that they are not just “another idea of something,” but that they empower local bishops’ conferences and dioceses “to put together a playbook for what to do now, because young people smell inauthenticity a mile away.”
“Words without action seems really hypocritical, so we need to be really attentive to give words without actions, and not following up,” he said.
Asked whether the Church is capable of this focus, Lewis said that he believes the answer is yes, “one hundred percent,” and that recent scandals are even more of a reason for the Church to make young people a priority.
Keeping youth safe is important but helping them to be holy must also be a priority, he said.
“That should be inclusive of the best child protection and being transparent, all of that, but we’re called to more, and to be more for young people who are searching for meaning in life,” he said.