Some 300 young people from all over the world from different backgrounds and even different religions, gathered this week in Rome to provide advice to an upcoming summit of Catholic bishops on youth, have discussed a wide array of topics, and among other points plan to offer the bishops a frank admission that they simply couldn’t reach consensus on hot-button issues of sexual morality.
On Thursday, they debated over a first draft of the document they’re going to present to Pope Francis, who will then pass it on to a Synod of Bishops on youth and discernment that will take place in Rome in October.
Behind the scenes, several dozen young women and men, also from around the world, have broadened the discussion by moderating six Facebook groups in different languages, processing and compiling 9,617 comments that came in response to 15 questions, the same as those being discussed in Rome.
All in, 26 reports coming both from the small working groups gathered in the eternal city and from private Facebook groups were presented on Wednesday and condensed into a 7-page draft, to which Crux had access.
Members of the commission tasked with writing the draft – all of whom are participating in the meeting – stayed up until the wee hours of the morning on Thursday to make sure that it was ready by the time the meeting resumed.
“The report was written considering everyone’s opinion,” said Leticia Carneiro, a Brazilian who’s volunteering in the pre-Synod meeting, administering one of the private Facebook groups. In her role, she had to condense the more than 1,000 comments of the Portuguese group in one page, which was then folded into the first draft.
Though representative of the discussion, Carneiro said, the first document was perceived as “incomplete,” hence on Thursday, during a discussion among the 300 participants that was live-streamed through Facebook, some 60 people took the floor to make suggestions.
The draft touches on many issues, guided by the questions, and as Carneiro told Crux on Thursday, it reads a bit disjointedly, with contradictions that have been addressed during the discussion. Nevertheless, it’s reflective of the dialogue and the openness with which many issues were addressed.
Filipe Domingues, a Brazilian journalist currently living in Rome, working on his doctorate, told Crux that making sure all the voices were included was a challenge.
There are issues, such as the Church’s teaching on sexuality, that are “very controversial,” Domingues said, and several of them came up in the small working groups, but there was no consensus.
“When we wrote them up, we had to show there was no agreement,” he said.
Setting aside his own biases to help write the draft, he said, was “difficult, but on the other hand, I’m working with something that other people produced, I can’t just erase what they wrote.”
“As a journalist, it might be easier for me, because you’re used to quoting people who don’t have your same ideas,” Domingues said.
Sources consulted by Crux agreed that many of the issues were pretty universal in each of the working groups, that were divided by languages. These included the need for role models, both inside and outside the Church, and particularly for women, the fact that religion in many places is becoming secondary, and the importance of the family.
But disagreement on the hot-button issues becomes evident in at least one paragraph of the drafted document.
“There is often great disagreement among young people, both within the Church and in the wider world, about the teachings of the Church which are especially controversial today, for example: contraception, abortion, homosexuality, cohabitation, permanency of marriage, and the male priesthood,” it reads.
The paragraph continues by noting that many young Catholics do not clearly understand Church teaching on these matters, and even among those who do, there are those who don’t agree with it.
“They may want the Church to change her teaching as a result, or at least have access to a better explanation. Even so, they desire to be part of the Church.”
Yet others, still according to the same paragraph, “have come to accept or love the truth of those teachings and desire the Church to hold fast in the midst of unpopularity, turning her energies to joyful proclamation and deeper teaching.”
Some of the issues the participants of the gathering couldn’t agree on go beyond the Church’s teaching on sexual morality and the priesthood. They did agree, for instance, on the need for social justice, and for the world to be at peace, in ecologic harmony and with a sustainable global economy. However, migration was another story.
“Although we acknowledge our common call to care for the dignity of every human person, there’s no consensus on the question of welcoming migrants and refugees,” they write.
James Kelliher, from England, travelled from Westminster to Rome at the request of Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster. Like Carneiro, he was a volunteer tasked with helping coordinate one of the Facebook groups.
A World Youth Day veteran, he volunteered for Rio 2013 where he met his wife, Kelliher began working for the pre-Synod meeting several weeks ago, from home. Among other things, he had the job of greenlighting who got to participate in the English-language group for the on-line discussion.
“To be allowed in, they had to answer three questions,” none of which was overly personal, instead related to their age, which had to be between 16-29, and their willingness to follow the rules, which included for instance limiting their responses to the questions to 200 words.
Kelliher agrees with Dominguez regarding the challenge presented by the fact that his group of four people had to summarize 1,114 comments into a three-page document, with one paragraph for each question. Yet, he believes the work they did honestly represents what was said.
“I think we all tried to be fair, reflective,” he said. “I don’t like the political terms such as liberal or conservative. We have a big spectrum of opinion, and in our final document we mention the things that came up, but we have to have a sense of what were the main themes that people spoke about.”
Beyond the controversial issues, the document also reflects the in-depth reflection that took place during the March 19-24 Rome gathering, and the young people were not afraid to be demanding of the Church, with the knowledge that the document they’re preparing will be given to Pope Francis.
“We expect the Church to be a solid reference point and capable of enriching us,” they wrote. “We dream of a Church that helps us find our vocation, not only in a religious sense, but a broader sense. Furthermore, many of us believe sainthood is something achievable. We need to revitalize the sense of community that leads us to a sense of belonging.”
And they’ve also been honest about their realities, as diverse as they are, often distinguishing between the situations in the various parts of the world.
“Some young people living in unstable regions of the world expect very concrete actions from governments and from society: the end of war and corruption, equality, physical and financial security,” the document reads. “Others whose primary needs are already met, have among their main expectation higher ideals: peace, love, trust, equality, freedom, justice.”
In some sections, the discussion also shows that even though young people are often accused of lacking ideals or long-term plans, they do in fact, envision a better future for themselves, acknowledge the role of education in achieving it, and demand older generations to own up to their responsibility in helping the youth shape a better future.
“Sometimes, we end up discarding our dreams,” the pre-Synod participants said. “We are too afraid, and some of us have stopped dreaming. At times, we have not even had the opportunities to keep dreaming.”
Young people “value the diversity of ideas for our global world, the respect for other’s thoughts and freedom of expression,” yet they also want to preserve their “cultural identity and avoid uniformity and a throw-away culture.”
They also seek acceptance from their peers, and despite the fact that Catholic tradition and the pope urge them “not to be afraid,” they fear being “the leftovers and of being disconnected,” and they acknowledge that sometimes they’re “excluded for being Christians in a social environment that is adverse to religion.”
More concretely, some have fears rooted in their national realities, with many facing instability, violence, corruption, exploitation, femicides, and other crimes.
When it comes to new technologies, the participants of the pre-synod were very specific in their suggestions. After acknowledging both the benefits and risks social media poses to human relations, they make two practical proposals.
“First, the Church should advance Catholic Social Teaching by issuing an encyclical or a similarly important document on the right use of social media and related technology,” the draft document says.
“Second, the Church should address the widespread crisis of pornography, including online child abuse, and the toll it takes on our humanity,” they wrote. The issue had appeared previously, too, saying that pornography distorts a young person’s perception of human sexuality: “Technology used this way creates a parallel reality that ignores human dignity.”
The document is divided into three sections, reflecting on the challenges and opportunities of young people; faith, vocation, discernment and accompaniment- four key concepts in Francis’s document on the family, Amoris Laetitia, itself the result of previous synods of bishops; and the Church’s formative and pastoral activities.
In the second section, written in a bullet-point format, the young people say that the negative experiences some have had with the Church have exacerbated the fact that faith has become individualistic instead of being a communal experience.
They also said that “we often forget that the people are the Church, not the building,” and that young people want to see a Church that models what it teaches and witnesses authenticity to the path of holiness.
According to Carneiro, this is not a utopian concept.
“Everyone wants good examples, and people we can trust, and also who show their humanity: they don’t have to be perfect, they have to be coherent,” she said. “I can make mistakes, but this is what I believe in and what I try to achieve.”
She noted that not all of those who participated in the gathering are Catholic: Some are from other Christian denominations, others Muslims, Jews, or even atheists.
Carneiro defines herself as someone who lives the Church’s doctrine and who devotes her energies to living the Gospel, yet, she said, having such a strong commitment can “make it difficult for me to understand” those who think differently.
She said the Rome gathering presented her with the opportunity to have honest discussions and collaborate with people who have different perspectives, in an environment that promoted frank dialogue.
“It helped me understand how, as a Catholic, I can better share my faith,” she said, underlining that it’s not about proselytism or convincing others to become Catholics, but about helping expel the “horrible images” of the Church many have, due to “older people giving such horrible example to us, often not being authentic and coherent.”
When all is said and done, Carneiro said, she hopes the bishops will take the document as important feedback to “change many things.”
Yet, at least as far as she’s concerned, it’s not about changing doctrine, but behavior. And this is reflected in the drafted document.
“Today’s young people are longing for an authentic Church,” they wrote. “By this, young people mean to say, especially to the hierarchy of the Church, that they should be a transparent, welcoming, honest, inviting, communicative and accessible community.”
A credible Church, they write, is one that is not afraid to be seen as vulnerable, that is quick and sincere in admitting past and present wrongs, and that is made up of people capable of error and misunderstanding.
“Examples of such errors include various sexual abuses and the mismanagement of wealth,” they wrote.
The participants of the gathering have high expectations of the Church. They want to see an institution that is willing to talk about controversial issues engaging the youth not with “watered down” doctrine nor “prefabricated” responses, and that goes out to those in the margins. They want a Church that allows them to be leaders, as a “prominent creative voice,” and one that goes out to the streets, to find people where they are.
But above all, they write, the Church “draws the attention of young people all the more by being rooted in Jesus Christ.”