ROME — On day two of the Synod of Bishops, the tone inside the hall shifted from a mea culpa for Church failures to the need to reach out to young people at risk due to poverty, war, drugs and violence, with an emphasis that they are not just problems to solve but protagonists in the Church.
According to Paolo Ruffini, head of the Vatican communications department, a major topic of discussion inside the synod hall on the second full day was the need to “have the context in mind when we talk about young people.”
Though the synod is taking place in Europe and the Church is centered in Rome, the majority of the global population lives in other parts of the world, he said, explaining that the roughly 25 prelates and young people who spoke stressed the need to “speak the language” of young people, but with the reality of where they come from in mind.
For many cultures, this context includes serious poverty, war, unemployment and a lack of education. Some youth, Ruffini said, “have lived terrible situations of war and economic crisis, or perhaps they have undergone terrible experiences or have fallen into prostitution, drugs, trafficking.”
Prelates in the synod hall, he said, emphasized that the Church must be both a family and a home for those in difficulty, and that “these youth cannot be considered a problem.”
“It was underlined that they cannot be seen as a problem to fix. They are not objects, but they are the Church itself,” Ruffini said, adding that, according to the brief, 4-minute speeches given by synod participants, when the Church is a home for young people, “they are not a problem, they are not objects, they are protagonists. At times they are victims, but not a problem.”
Ruffini spoke to the press Sept. 5, summarizing the afternoon session of the first day of discussion and the morning session of the second. Many of those who spoke came from the Middle East and included prelates and young people who have faced the trying situations of war and poverty.
Vatican practice in these briefings is to summarize broad themes, but generally not to quote individual speakers by name.
Many who spoke also came from Asia. In comments to Crux, Cardinal Joseph Coutts, Archbishop of Karachi, stressed the need for Church leaders to really listen to young people.
“As Church leaders, as pastors, we need to listen to see what are their problems, what are their needs, what are their aspirations, and only then can we respond,” he said, noting that every country comes to the discussion bringing their own culture and their own problems.
In Pakistan, which is 95 percent Muslim, “our difficulties, our challenges, are different than those coming from Europe, from a very secularized society,” he said. “For us religion is very much alive, it is very much a part of our society, of our daily lives.”
Daniel Bashir, a young man attending the synod as a delegate for Pakistan, said the message he particularly wants to bring is the need for young people to be united to the Church, “because as youth, we need pastoral activities.”
“There is a gap between the youth and the hierarchy, but this is the first time the pope gave a chance to the youth,” Bashir said in comments to Crux. The bishops, he said, “are not talking about the youth, they are talking with the youth, so that is very important.”
Bashir, who plans to enter the seminary after returning to Pakistan, said that during his four-minute speech, he wants to talk about evangelization and how to create a community that evangelizes, which is something on which he, as a priest, hopes to take the lead.
“I want to be a priest, I want to be a priest for my youth, I want to be a priest for my generation, I want to be a priest for my Church, I want to serve with passion, with power and with devotion,” he said.
Taking place in Rome from Oct. 3-28, the Synod of Bishops has convoked some 300 prelates from around the world to discuss the topic of faith, young people, and vocational discernment. Some 36 young people have also been tapped to attend the gathering, and each has the opportunity to give a brief, four-minute speech along with the cardinals and other bishops participating.
Among the topics covered on day two was the need to assist not just migrants but their children, who as second-generation citizens also often struggle with integration. Missionary activity, and the importance of music and sports, were also highlighted.
Mention was also made by some prelates that the administrative activities of bishops can at times take them away from their people, making it hard to listen, including to young people, and several participants spoke of the need to pray for young people and the Church.
The issue of sex and chastity before marriage also came up, with some voicing concern that Church teaching risks either having couples tie the knot before they are mature enough to make a lifelong commitment leading to divorce, or that it makes young people leave the Church, preferring something more convenient.
Though the sexual abuse crisis and pleas for forgiveness were not the main thrust of day two, they did come up, with some prelates again asking forgiveness for the harm done to young people by members of the Church, as well as the institutional failure of the Church to prevent abuses from taking place.
In comments to the press, Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, whose brief speech yesterday was met with an emotional round of applause for a litany of apologies he read aloud to young people and brother bishops, said that for the Church in Australia, the issue is “very much at the forefront of our minds when we think of youth.”
In recent years, not only has Australia grappled with a Royal Commission investigation into institutional responses to child sexual abuse, including numerous cases within the Catholic Church, the nation has also been rocked by accusations against their highest-ranking prelate, Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, who faces charges of historical sexual abuse in his homeland.
Fisher said that as the synod gets started, Australians in particular think “of the youth who have been hurt, terribly hurt. We are so ashamed of what happened in that terrible chapter of our history, not just that Church people did these terrible, horrible things to young people, but that Church leaders often responded so poorly when we should have been making the Church the safest possible place.”
“We’re determined to be better in the future, and I hope that other countries will be able to learn from experiences like our own,” he said, explaining that he chose to use his platform inside the synod hall to apologize because even in recent months scandals have rocked many countries around the world, including the United States, Australia, Chile and Canada, and young people want answers.
There are many who were hurt and whose trust was damaged, he said, explaining that “I felt like I needed to speak directly to them. They are real, live people who need to hear how sorry we are, how much we want to help.”
Also speaking to media, Manuel Ochogavía Barahona, Bishop Colón-Kuna Yala, Panama, said the topic of youth is something that he is passionate about, and he believes the synod, taking place three months ahead of the global World Youth Day his nation is hosting, is “opening a door to everyone to dialogue (and) to reflect” on what young people need.
Apart from the challenges, “we are all living in this synod with joy” and in an environment of “openness, dialogue and encounter,” he said, and spoke of the emphasis Latin American bishops have long placed on a “preferential action for youth.”
Young people must grow up in an environment where they are allowed to be free and to develop, he said, adding, “we have a lot of work to do.”