ROME – As the next gathering of Catholic bishops from around the world approaches in October, in an event called a “synod” and devoted this time to the theme of youth, one major question is how to ensure that a document drafted by hundreds of young people detailing their needs and concerns in the run-up to the event doesn’t end up in the dusty cellar of the Vatican’s good intentions.

“Mind the gap, bridge the gap, overcome the gap,” is the formula proposed by one of the main organizers of the bishops’ gathering in October, formally devoted to the theme of “Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment.”

“Mind the gap, like at metro station, means watching where you put your feet,” said Italian Father Rossano Sala, the special secretary nominated by Pope Francis to overlook the October synod. “Bridge the gap means to build relationships, and overcome the gap means to take the first step. Don’t wait for others to come to you.”

“This is no longer a Church waiting to offer hospitality. It’s a Church that asks to be welcomed,” Sala added.

The priest made his remarks during a meeting with the Italian bishops’ conference and religion teachers and educators, titled Don’t be afraid of dreaming big things. The Church for the school, looking at the 2018 Synod, which took place at the Hotel Midas in Rome April 16-18.

According to the priest, the last few synods – on the family, and now on youth – underline the weaknesses of the Church in catering to the future.

“It puts the finger in the wounds in order to think seriously, to think about the face of the Church in the third millennium,” Sala said.

The speech explained the conclusions drawn from the final document created in March by the 20-year-olds from all over the globe and with different religious backgrounds that will serve as working material for the bishops in October.

It was addressed to the religious teachers in Rome, whom Sala described as “being in the trenches,” outside of the ecclesial world and close to young people.

He urged a crowd of 200 or so Catholic educators to acknowledge the doubts and challenges that young people face today, and to begin to incorporate in their work what is already emerging from the preparatory document and the episcopal conferences.

“The synod is not the solution, and will not be a solution,” Sala said. “But it will be a great opportunity.”

Mind the Gap

Many youth, especially in the West, are abandoning the Church and viewing faith as something increasingly personal and not necessarily mediated by a priest or the Catholic hierarchy. This issue was expressed time and time again in a final document drafted during a summit of young people from around the world held in Rome March 19-24. In addition to the physical gathering of roughly 300 young delegates selected by bishops’ conferences, the document was also shaped by the contributions of roughly 15,000 young people participating online.

Minding the gap, Sala explained, means acknowledging the distance that has grown between youth and the Church.

A Roman deacon at the conference took the microphone to say that as an educator spending his life with youth, he did not feel like such a gap is the reality, suggesting that the final document of that pre-synod session didn’t really portray efforts already in place.

“Put yourselves in the shoes of young people,” Sala answered. “When they said that young people have drawn away, you felt a little hurt, as I am every day.” Sala has 20 years experience working day in and day out in schools in close contact with young people and said that he himself struggled with the concept.

But for the priest, the issue is the mentality educators use to attract young people to the Church, which is no longer effective. He said, if the goal is to bring them “back to the pen,” meaning the Church, it’s not going to cut it.

“The theme of distance is the theme of places. I advocate a pastoral approach of focusing on places: schools, the university, the playground,” he said. “If the objective is to lead youth into the Church, we will fail, because it’s impossible.”

Bridge the gap

Having acknowledged that the gap between many young people and the Church exists, it becomes a question of bridging that distance. Sala said that religion teachers in schools are the first in line to meet young people in the places where they actually are.

“Most kids who meet you, don’t then meet the Church,” Sala said. “Sometimes experience in school is the only experience young people will have of the Church.”

Quoting from a document written by an episcopal conference, he added that the sensus fidelium,  or ‘sense of the faith,’ “can’t not pass through youth,” and that perhaps a better way of thinking about kids who are asking for more participation in the Church is not in terms of youth “and” the Church, but youth “in” the Church.

The final document highlighted that Millennials, young people between 16 and 25, are not “simply spoiled little kids,” but a force in the Church that provokes thought and discernment. Lending an open ear to their concerns and not preaching at them from a soapbox, he said, is an essential step in bridging the gap.

“If faith doesn’t touch our conscience it’s doing too little,” he said. “How many times has the Church entrenched itself on liturgical processes, which draw away from the Church?”

Young people today are looking to the concrete, he continued, saying “we need to take our faithful seriously.”

In line with Pope Francis’s rhetoric about building bridges, not walls, Sala pointed to one wall that is an obstacle to implementing the objectives of this synod.

“The real wall is between the curial offices,” he said, referring to the bureaucratic departments of the Vatican. “To have an integral outlook we need to be integrated and recognize and respect that there are other points of view that are different from our own.”

“The separation and relational incapacity among the Church’s departments are killing our pastoral approach,” he added. “This fragmentation, this specialization… it no longer works.”

Overcome the gap

Vocation is the key to overcoming the separation between youth and the Church, Sala explained. Bishops’ conferences from all over the world emphasized the theme of vocation related to mission and journey, he said, and especially in schools it becomes a powerful instrument, coupled with discernment, to enter “the dynamic of searching for truth.”

The real question, he continued, is not to find out “who are you, but for whom are you?” following the pope’s call to leadership and service to others. “Vocation is finding out what you are good at,” Sala said, adding that adults must be an example because “kids will figure out in five minutes when you enter a classroom if you have a vocation.”

The youth’s final document called for Church leaders, consecrated, lay and religious, to serve as an example of “authenticity” and “holiness,” because “knowing that models of faith are both authentic and vulnerable allows one to feel that young people can be so too.”

Given these characteristic one might be tempted to change jobs, Sala joked, but all kidding aside, he said, “No, we will work hard to get better.”