With less than one month to go before the opening of the synod on “Young people, faith and vocational discernment,” it is now clear that whatever was on the agenda has been rendered null and void in light of the global crisis in which the church is now enmeshed — a crisis that includes new revelations about the cover-up of sexual abuse of minors, the promotion of predatory priests, the abuse of power within seminaries and infidelity to priestly vows that was known but not disciplined.
The salt in this gaping wound is the reaction of many members of the hierarchy, both at home and abroad, who seem more preoccupied with escalating ideological wars than uprooting systemic evil.
The effect this is having on young adults is varied but predictable in these early weeks of crisis. Those being prepared to be public figures and talking heads have fallen neatly into the ideological camps of their mentors. Those who have already disaffiliated consider this is a confirmation of their decision to leave.
Many young adults who are intentionally engaged with their Catholic faith have expressed that they don’t know who to trust or where to turn. And the great number of baptized young adults who remain tenuously affiliated with the Catholic faith — the ones who could have benefited most from the synod’s momentum — could be gone for good.
The irony of this is almost too great to bear. Those who penned the presynod document and the “instrumentum laboris” (working document), had their pulse on the many shared challenges that millennials face throughout the world: a crisis of fatherhood; distrust of institutions; skepticism toward lifelong commitments; and disappointment with adults who privilege their own interests above those of their children.
“[We] are looking for companions on the journey, to be embraced by faithful men and women who express the truth and allow young people to articulate their understanding of faith and their vocation,” wrote the authors of the presynod document.
“Qualities of such a mentor include: a faithful Christian who engages with the church and the world; someone who constantly seeks holiness; is a confidant without judgment; actively listens to the needs of young people and responds in kind; is deeply loving and self-aware; acknowledges their limits and knows the joys and sorrows of the spiritual journey.”
Before the crisis unfolded, the synod fathers were standing on pretty solid ground to build a case for why the young could readily find those mentors in the church, even among their ranks. They were poised to position the church as a trusted guardian who could help them on their path toward maturity.
Now the synod fathers find themselves in a position of having to answer how the church could have been complicit in so many of the same sins that they publicly condemn and lament. Good bishops now suffer from the distrust sown by their brethren.
“What good can come from Nazareth?” a skeptical Nathanael asked. The synod fathers should not be surprised if the young now murmur, “What good can come from Rome?”
This is not to say that the church lacks good, holy men and women — lay, consecrated and ordained — who can serve as credible mentors. In fact, if those men and women didn’t feel equipped or empowered to take on the responsibility of forming young adults on the path to spiritual maturity, they should now.
But the church is built on the faith of the apostles — in union with Peter first and foremost — and it is hard to imagine that growing frustration with their successors will not gravely affect the faith commitments of the next generation.
Perhaps the way forward is not so obscure. “We strongly feel that we are ready to be leaders,” the presynod authors wrote. When members of the hierarchy speak of the young, they often applaud them for their zeal and their hope for a better future. It would be a good moment for the synod fathers, “with self-awareness, while acknowledging their limits,” to ask their young counterparts for some timely help.
Elise Italiano is the founding executive director of The Given Institute.