ROME—After two contentious 2014-2015 Synods of Bishops on the family, the Vatican on Thursday announced Pope Francis’s choice for the next general assembly of Catholic bishops: “Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment.”
The next summit of bishops will be held in Rome in October 2018.
According to a Vatican statement, the chosen topic, an “expression of the Church’s pastoral concern for the young,” is in continuity with the findings of the two-fold synod on the family and Francis’s post-synodal document Amoris Laetitia.
The upcoming synod aims to “accompany young people on their way of life towards maturity so that, through a process of discernment, they can discover their life project and realize it with joy, opening the encounter with God and with men, and actively participating in the building up of the Church and society.”
On the day the topic was announced, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said that the synod won’t focus solely on the choice between married life and religious life.
If social media after the announcement of the topic is any indication, some quarters will be tempted to reduce the 2018 synod to hot-buttom issues regarding vocations, such as a married priesthood. It’s worth noting, however, that the Catholic Church distinguishes four vocations: married life, single life, religious life, and ordained life.
As was the case for his predecessors, youth have been a key concern for Pope Francis since the beginning of his pontificate.
He’s made it a point to ensure that most of his foreign trips include an encounter with the youth, which almost always becomes an off-the-cuff interaction between the young and the pope, who leaves his remarks aside and grabs pen and paper, quipping that “speeches are boring” and talking to them one-on-one.
“Swim against the tide,” he told them in his message for World Youth Day 2015. “Don’t be couch potatoes” is the advice he gave them in 2016. From addictions and crime to marriage, no topic is off the table during his encounters with the young.
The Synod of Bishops is an ecclesiastical body which was set up by Pope Paul VI after the Second Vatican Council, in 1965. As he said in September 1974, it was set up to foster “the unity and cooperation of bishops around the world with the Holy See.”
It does so by studying the situation of the Church and trying to provide a joint solution on matters related to the Church’s mission. The topics so far have been varied: Preserving and Strengthening the Catholic Faith (1971), The Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World (1987), The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church (2005), just to name a few.
As Francis reminded the bishops – and those following closely from afar- last October, the gathering culminates “in listening to the Bishop of Rome, (who is) called to speak authoritatively as ‘the Pastor and Teacher of all Christians.’”
This means that regardless of the conclusions reached by the assembly, the pope always has the last world, which he normally expresses through what’s known as an apostolic exhortation.
Despite Francis’s encouragement for an honest debate among the bishops, representing all the corners of the world where the Church has a presence, the body is not a parliament, “where in order to reach a consensus we start to negotiate, making deals and compromises,” the pope said Oct. 5, 2015. “The lone method in the synod is to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit.”
Several hundred bishops participate in the synod, elected by the bishops’ conference. Other participants include the heads of Eastern Catholic Churches, members of religious institutes, cardinals who head Vatican offices and special papal appointees.
Although they have no voting role, lay men and women are often participants too. During the synod on the family, there were 18 married couples.
According to the Vatican statement, the topic for the 2018 synod was chosen by the majority of members on the XIV Ordinary Council of the Synod of Bishops, the body charged with drawing up the theme of the next synod. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia is the sole American in this council, which also includes Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Austria, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of England and Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea.