Listening takes practice. Young people, bishops and cardinals, together with Pope Francis, had three weeks of it in the Synod on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment (Rome, October 3-28, 2018). While news of it was scant and politicized, one thing is clear: the 30 youth delegates like Jonathan Lewis representing the U.S. and Cherylanne Menezes representing the Focolare Movement, participated in a historic event that will impact not only the Catholic Church but the world over.
As Pope Francis said in his opening address to the 300 participants, “The synod is an ecclesial exercise in discernment … the opportunity, the task and the duty to be a sign of a Church that really listens … Relations across generations are a terrain in which prejudice and stereotypes take root with proverbial ease, so much so that we are often oblivious to it.”
That is why, as Jonathan recalls, the pope challenged the bishops to consider the interventions they arrived with as simply provisional drafts. Should they hear something they disagreed with, they were to listen twice as hard and allow themselves to be stirred within by the Holy Spirit.
Since “synod” comes from the Greek “syn-hodos,” meaning to “walk with,” the primary value of this meeting was not in the final document it will produce, but in the experience made along the way.
For Jonathan, not only was it an experience of transgenerational dialogue but also an “experience of what it means to belong to a universal Church, a global Church.”
Cherylanne agrees: “I learned so much about the universal Church and the challenges in the different contexts, which I already knew about; but they brought new emotions. If you think of the Church in the Middle East, in Africa or the abuse cases in North America …”
A bumpy road
It was not all smooth sailing. Cherylanne describes a moment when, after two weeks of group work, the topic of sexuality emerged. A proposal was made to move forward with a show of hands instead of the consensus achieved thus far. After speaking with other auditors and group moderators, the bishops accepted her request to revisit the topic; this time truly everyone spoke and was heard.
Jonathan gives an insightful analogy to describe this process. He says that just as a car gently swerves in one direction, “when it’s not aligned and you take your hands off the wheel for a second … the Church too naturally goes away from synodality because of it not being our recent practice for a few hundreds of years. So it just requires more hands on the wheel to remind us.”
It is crucial to listen to God and to the people reflecting on what they hear God is calling them to, the pope said, because it will protect “us from the temptation of falling into moralistic or elitist postures, and it protects us from the lure of abstract ideologies that never touch the realities of our people.”
Pope Francis helped set up this modality, and his every gesture sent a message. He stood at the door at the beginning of each day to welcome everyone as they came in. At one point, he walked all the way up to the top step of the hall, where the young people sat. “We were looking all around us saying, ‘What important person is he going to say hello to?’ Then we realized, “Oh, he’s coming to see us!”
Cherylanne told the pope that some youth of different religious backgrounds in India wanted to assure him of their prayers for this synod. The pope was pleased. When she asked if he could greet them, he recorded a message in her cellphone.
Jonathan’s wife was in her seventh month expecting, and Pope Francis blessed the baby and mother. While the synod discussed how the Church could better accompany young people during significant moments in their life, the Pope’s tenderness in that gesture exemplified it.
He even modeled how the plenary discussions were to be conducted. Jonathan describes, “Very early on, there was the opportunity to give interventions. There was a button and you could speak. And so Pope Francis pressed the button. He said, ‘I’d like to share three things: this bishop said … and it was really beautiful … another bishop said this, and I never thought of it this way and that story shared was very moving; I’m very grateful for it.’
“Then he stopped. So he, in his one shot to respond, didn’t propose any new principle, he didn’t counteract; he was grateful and was building on what he has learned and received.”
This profound listening was also encouraged by introducing the practice of holding three minutes of silence after every five interventions, so as to allow the Spirit to speak within. This was never done before in a synod.
Asking for authenticity
Too often in youth ministry, listening to young people was seen as a pedagogical tool in that people learn better if they express themselves, or as a psychological therapy meant to “get things off their chest so they feel better.” Rather, the Church needs to hear young people questioning them, asking for authenticity, for Christ-like models to follow.
As Cherylanne notes, “It came out so strongly that young people are ‘theological spaces,’ in the sense that God is speaking through them. We can’t talk down to them, not even to the children … In all that the Pope is saying, and doing, he is actually trying to bring people together, to realize that we have to do things together.”
A few months home since this experience, Jonathan goes to different parishes sharing his insight and suggestions to have a synodal experience at the local parish level. The Church so urgently needs to replicate the experience that he believes it is enough to start right away, choose a day that young and old get together.
They can give a brief reflection each, share in small groups about the impact of the reflections, have lunch together, pray together and conclude by sharing what new insight they gained, or propose an action item.
As more and more young people leave the folds of the Catholic Church, all members of the parish community are called to welcome those present.
For those who sincerely mourn the loss of the faith practice of their children or grandchildren, Jonathan suggests that they be there for other young people, get to know them by name — those looking for answers, getting ready to get married, working on building a career, and so on.
Cherylanne points out that the very definition of vocation has been opened 360 degrees to emphasize it as the universal call to holiness. Whether in the midst of the digital world, under persecution or at war, it applies to all.
Perhaps at this period in history, young people are more focused in living out their faith, their gifts, through their professional work. Thus the Church must meet them there, spotlighting the good, the life of Christ that they are trying to bring around them.