ROME – In every corner of the world, politicians, companies and employers alike have been trying for some time now to understand what Millennials, meaning young people between the ages of 16 and 35, are all about.
Now, the Catholic Church is getting in on the act.
As this demographic grows in numbers and relevance throughout the world – in the United States for example, they have become the largest generation, surpassing even Baby Boomers – it becomes ever more important to evaluate how Millennials vote, consume, work and practice their faith.
For the Vatican, this translates into the call for a Synod of Bishops on youth, which will be preceded by a weeklong conference in Rome March 19-24 involving more than 300 young representatives sent from bishops’ conferences all over the world.
“It’s an event where young people will be actors and protagonists,” said Italian Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, during a press conference for the pre-Synod on Friday.
“We won’t just talk ‘about’ them, but they will be talking themselves: with their own words, their enthusiasm and their sensitivity,” he added.
The Synod of Bishops, which will take place in October on the theme “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment,” aims to be not just “on young people,” the cardinal explained, but also “of young people and for young people.”
Pope Francis, who so far in his pontificate has demonstrated a special enthusiasm for synods (having already had two on the family and promised two more on youth and Pan-Amazonian issues), has insisted that the goal of the March meeting in Rome is mainly to listen to young people.
“I want to listen to you directly: it’s important that you speak and not let others quiet you,” the pope told youth during his trip to the Maipù sanctuary in Chile in January. “If you don’t speak, how can we help you?”
When it comes to listening, the main questions come down to whom the synod will be listening to, and what type of impact that input will have on the event itself, where only bishops, religious and a handful of observers will be allowed to attend.
The upcoming conference will result in a shared document, which will be presented to the pope on March 25 and then sent to the bishops. The synod will also rely on the data that will emerge from an online questionnaire for young people released January 13, 2017.
More than 221,000 youth participated in the questionnaire, which addressed topics from religious practices to concerns regarding faith. About half answered all the questions, the majority of whom are female (58,000 compared to the 42,000 male respondents). More than 50 percent of those who filled in the questionnaire were between the ages of 16 and 19.
“We are pretty satisfied” with the numbers, Baldisseri said at the press conference, adding that considering all the activities done on social media, more than 500,000 young people have engaged the Synod online.
The cardinal also noted that the numbers are a far cry from the 16.7 million followers that Pope Francis has on his English language Twitter account alone. But in fairness, the Synod has had barely a year to reach out to youth around the world, which is no small task.
On a positive note, “the theme of the Synod has given way to youth involvement,” said Bishop Fabio Fabene of the Synod of Bishops, who added that it “has opened a dialogue between the Church, the bishops and young people,” also at the local parish level.
In his statement, Baldisseri said that a particular aim of the Synod was that of including the entire spectrum of young people, including those “who come from difficult situations and from the ‘existential peripheries’,” so that they might have a chance to be heard and included in the conversation.
The majority of young people who took part in the questionnaire were from Europe (56.4 percent), followed by Central and South America (19.8 percent) and finally Africa (18.1 percent).
It’s been observed that Africa, the world’s youngest continent, is proportionately underrepresented at the Synod, raising questions as to what extent the bishops’ work can adequately reflect youth issues and concerns at the global level.
“Many, many young people communicate through Facebook and Whatsapp, giving us an opportunity to participate in the Synod,” said Stella Marillene Nishimwe, a Burundian Catholic who will be attending the March conference.
“I am sure, I hope, that [Africa] will participate,” she said.
On Friday, the pre-synod inaugurated its Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages in multiple languages, where youth wanting to be a part of the conversation have a chance to be heard by using the official #Synod2018.
To date, the Synod’s Twitter page has about 2,500 followers, more than 4,000 likes and follows on Facebook and a little over 1,200 followers on Instagram.
“What we are doing is an experiment, and for the time being it has been extremely positive,” Baldisseri said. He also acknowledged that the formula for the Youth Synod is “a novelty,” pointing to the fact that it’s part of a series of measures and initiatives brought forth to include the entire young Catholic community into the synod process.
The word “synod” means “walking together,” Baldisseri said, and this approach is an important stage on that journey of further inclusion.
The Church, he said, will have the opportunity to learn from young people not only about their concerns and spiritual questions, but also how to keep up with the times in an ever-changing digital age, something the Church as a whole has sometimes struggled with.
The Secretary of the Synod has turned to a group of young people who participate in the local Church communities to develop the synod’s social media operation.
“As a young person living in the digital reality, it’s a precious experience, because it means being an instrument that allows others to be a part of that room and open the doors to more than just 300 people,” said Filippo Passantino, one of those young people called in to amp up the Vatican’s social media skills.
Speaking to a small group of journalists after the conference, Passantino said that only after the pre-synod work will it be possible to see if it has had any effect or impact on the work of the bishops.
The main issues that have emerged from the social media responses, he said, range from everyday challenges, to employment and the need for authentic relationships. Whether these issues will come up in the Synod depends on the amount of “pressure” that young people are able to bring forth through these social network platforms, Passantino believes.
“The issues will gain traction depending on the number of times they are presented thorough the social media channels,” he said.
What it all boils down to is how much young people will be actively involved in making their voices heard. The Cattolica University in Rome is currently compiling all the data that has been presented, and will present its conclusions to the bishops for them to evaluate during the Synod.
All of this input, from the questionnaire to the document created at the pre-Synod, “will be held in high consideration” by the bishops, Baldisseri said.
Nishimwe is optimistic concerning the impact of the information that young people will be presenting at the conference in Rome.
“This is a new step for the Church, listening to each young person. And we have spoken. What I think is that we have an opportunity to say all that we think, and this is an opportunity that we must grab,” she said. “I’m optimistic. If we talk, I’m sure that if we manage to say all that we think, they will be able to do something, at least.”
This is a rare chance for youth to have a voice and be present on a global platform expressing their concerns regarding life, truth and how to be happy in a world where real social interactions are increasingly hard to find, according to the young Burundian Catholic.
“I think this is something that God also wants, for the Church to do something new for all the young people in the world because all young people, whether they are Catholic or of other religions, have the same questions,” Nishimwe said.
“If they want to walk with us this is certainly the way to do it, by listening to our questions.”