ROME — For Australian Archbishop Peter Comensoli, the past few months have been nothing short of dizzying.
Earlier this summer, Pope Francis tapped the 54-year-old prelate to lead the archdiocese of Melbourne, a post he took up this August. One month later, he was announced as one of the pope’s personal appointees to this month’s Synod of Bishops on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.
For some, the whirlwind could be enough to be destabilizing, but in an interview with Crux last week, he insisted that what’s keeping him grounded is an energizing faith in Jesus Christ — which happens to be his message to his fellow delegates at the synod, and to young people in particular.
On Wednesday, Comensoli delivered his first official speech in the synod hall where he encouraged those in the room to ponder a powerful image from a nearby piece of Vatican real estate just a few buildings over: the Sistine Chapel.
“To walk into the Sistine Chapel is to gaze upon the story of our humanity. There, in swathes of color, is the story of our creation and redemption, from the First Adam to the Last,” he said.
“At the center of this vision stands the pinnacle of our humanity, Jesus Christ. He’s gigantic in proportions and majestic in presence. The once crucified Lord now stands before all creation as the bridegroom, striding out to meet his bride,” he continued. “The Risen Jesus is glowing with vitality and beautiful to behold. And he is gloriously young.”
Comensoli’s message to synod delegates was a call to action for a young Church reignited by a “Gospel fire,” harkening back to the days of Pentecost when the Church itself was first young.
“There, the disciples were transfigured by the energizing gift of the Spirit, discovering a new missionary horizon,” he said. “They spoke to all of their life in the Crucified and Risen Jesus. Pentecost set off a Gospel fire in the disciples, anointing them and sending them out into the world.”
Comensoli knows first-hand about what can happen when a missionary horizon is what orients the Church.
Ten years ago, he was just a young priest when Sydney played host to World Youth Day, the Vatican-organized global gathering of young people that takes place every two to three years. Afterwards, according to Comensoli, the Australian bishops “made a commitment to be very intentional about developing missionary disciples among our young people.”
While he believes the fruit of a World Youth Day is best seen twenty or thirty years later, he said “green shoots are starting to appear” thanks to intentional efforts targeted at the Church’s young people.
Part of that experience and conviction is why at the synod, he challenged the synod fathers to consider whether they’ve lost the “Gospel fire” of the early apostles.
“Have we stagnated in the Spirit, lost our missionary fire, and become beholden to a ‘fake gospel’ of religious maintenance?” he asked.
“Then let a pebble of spiritual disruption be dropped into our stagnant pools, to stir us back to Pentecost,” he urged.
Turning to the young people in the room, he acknowledged that for many of the older synod participants, the paths young people choose to pursue these days are often confusing and at times, make them concerned. Comensoli, however, insisted that he believes those varying paths still point toward a deeper search for purpose.
“You are also seekers of a Gospel horizon within which to locate your lives. You hope for faithful witnesses in whom you can place your trust. You seek true guides who will welcome your abundant energies and accompany you on the journey,” he said.
“Friends, you yearn for this because you are horizon hunters! You are seekers of the fire of a new Pentecost, and pursuers of a young Church willing to start afresh from Christ. May we discover this horizon together,” he concluded.
While the work of the synod is still in its early stages, where participants are still weighing in on the second section of the three-part working document, Comensoli told Crux that the speeches, such as his own, provide a “flavor” of the topics at hand, but that the real work is being done in the small group discussions.
For someone who has hardly had a chance to unpack his belongings and settle in a new city — let alone have the opportunity to begin to know his new flock — he said that he believes the investment of his time and spending a month away from home will be worth it if the synod produces a document that doesn’t speak about young people, but instead, speaks to them.
“If we end up with a document that’s about young people, I think we may have failed,” he told Crux.
“But, if it is a document that speaks with and directly to young people, something that might speak to their lives, then there’s something that might be a sign of real grace and a hope for the future.”