ROME — This month’s Synod of Bishops got off to an emotional start as prelates on day one asked for forgiveness for the Church’s failures on issues such as sex abuse and migration, while calling for youth to be met where they are at rather than criticized.
According to Paolo Ruffini, head of the Vatican’s communications department and the first layperson to ever lead an office in the Roman Curia, a key topic that emerged on the first day was “the question of the credibility of the Church,” with many prelates asking for forgiveness “for the times in which the Church did not live up to her task in all areas.”
This failure, he said, was in reference to the abuse crisis which has dominated headlines in recent weeks and months, but it has also encompassed other issues, such as a failure to welcome and care for migrants or when the Church has perhaps failed to listen to her members.
Forgiveness, Ruffini said, was “not ‘the’ theme,” of the morning, but it was touched on in at least 5-7 of the 27 brief, four-minute reflections.
He said there were “many moments of great emotion,” such as when it was noted that the majority of those who choose to migrate and leave their families and countries behind are “almost all young.”
Synod fathers asked forgiveness not only for failures on migration and the abuse crisis, but also for not listening to young people, he said, noting that all the pleas were focused on the need “for the Church to be credible and to recover the ability to listen to the other, to see Christ in the other.”
Taking place in Rome from Oct. 3-28, the Synod of Bishops has drawn some 300 prelates from around the world to discuss the topic of faith, young people, and vocational discernment. Some 34 young people have also been tapped to attend the gathering, and each will have the opportunity to give a brief, 4-minute reflection along with the cardinals and other bishops participating.
Both the Church and Pope Francis have faced sharp criticism due to clerical abuse scandals that have come to light in recent months, among them the massive crisis in Chile, scandals surrounding American ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and allegations from a former Vatican ambassador to the United States that Francis and several curial officials knew about McCarrick’s misconduct but did nothing.
Given the pressure Francis has faced and doubts about the Church’s credibility when it comes to youth, some called for the month-long synod gathering to either be postponed or overhauled, but the event is proceeding as planned.
In comments to press after the morning session Oct. 4, Canadian Father Thomas Rosica, who is CEO of Salt and Light media company and is serving as the English-language press attaché for the synod, said there were “powerful interventions about sex abuse” in the morning’s discussions from prelates from all over the world, which proved moving for young people.
“The sex abuse crisis has impacted young people, and they want clarity, transparency, authenticity from us,” he said.
Of the speeches given, 25 came from synod fathers participating, and one from a young American woman, Briana Regina Santiago, who is a member of the lay community of the Apostles of the Interior Life.
In what is a novelty to the synod process, participants stopped the discussion after every 5-6 speeches for a 3-minute period of reflection to take in what had been said.
In addition to forgiveness, other major topics addressed, according to Ruffini, included the need to listen to young people and take them seriously, questions about human sexuality, and challenges young people face due to poverty, war, unemployment and despair.
However, according to Rosica, the strongest reactions came when prelates stressed that “rather than criticizing young people for where they are, let’s go meet them where they’re at,” a sentiment that received thunderous applause.
In comments to the press, Chiara Giaccardi, attending the synod as an observer, described the atmosphere as one of “a very frank, authentic dialogue,” where prelates were open and unafraid to discuss hard topics.
One of the main points of discussion, she said, was the concreteness of the person and the need to understand where youth are coming from, and to provide a strong example for them on the part of those in authority.
In comments to the press, Joseph Cai Huu Minh Tri, a young auditor from Vietnam, said three key words for him to describe the gathering are “enthusiasm, dedicated and inspiring.”
Huu Minh Tri, 21, said many young people in Vietnam struggle to find passion and meaning in life, so to be at the synod is “wonderful” and “very strengthening for me.”
Bishop Carlos José Tissera, who heads the Diocese of Quilmes in Argentina, told journalists that what he’s picked up so far is that young people “want to be accompanied,” and are asking for strong examples to look to in their faith life.
The synod, he said, is an opportunity for everyone involved to do what St. Francis of Assisi instructed: “preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words.”
As bishops, “we are at the synod to listen to the cries of the youth,” he said, adding that young people “are not a threat, but a blessing,” and they must be listened to and taken seriously, especially those who face challenges such as drugs and violence, and who feel that their only future is “either a jail cell or the grave.”
What the synod needs to say to these young people, he said, is that “Jesus loves you.” Youth, he said, are not lost, but “it is society who is lost and who does not open the doors” for young people to discover themselves and to develop.