On January 13, the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops published a “preparatory document” for the 2018 Synod on Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment. The document begins well enough, with a brief meditation on St. John the Beloved as the model of a young person who answers the call to follow the Lord and makes a gift of himself in evangelical witness. Sadly, things go downhill from there. Rather than pursuing that Johannine biblical imagery to explore the dynamics of youthful faith in the twenty-first-century world, the Synod General Secretariat reverts to the sociologese that marred the Instrumentum Laboris (Working Document) of the 2015 Synod, wandering rather aimlessly through prolix discussions of “A Rapidly Changing World,” “New Generations,” “Young People and Choices,” etc., etc.
It’s also noteworthy, if strange, that the preparatory document comprehensively ignores the contemporary saint who was a powerful magnet for young people during his twenty-six-year pontificate, John Paul II. But surely there is something for the world Church of the twenty-first century to learn from that experience.
I’ve been asked dozens of times why John Paul exerted such an appeal for the young, especially when, in his latter years, he didn’t look like what youth culture imagines to be a “celebrity.” Two reasons strike me.
The first is that John Paul II transparently believed and lived what he proposed. He didn’t ask young people to bear any burden he hadn’t borne, risk anything he hadn’t risked, stretch themselves as he hadn’t been stretched. Young people have a good nose for fakery, and there was nothing false about John Paul II’s catechesis and way of life: He transparently walked the walk, living out the talk.
Then there was his refusal to play the Pander Bear with a generation long accustomed to being told how amazing it was. He held up a higher standard, summoning the young to risk the lifelong adventure of heroic virtue. He knew they would fail from time to time, just as he had. But that was no excuse for lowering the bar of expectation. Rather, it was a reason to seek out the divine mercy and re-encounter God’s truth: to repent, confess, be forgiven, and then try again, with the help of grace, to grow into the sanctity that is everyone’s baptismal vocation. Never, ever settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral grandeur that the grace of God makes possible in your life: That was John Paul II’s challenge. A lot of young people found it irresistible, at a historical moment when youth ministry in the Church seemed moribund and perhaps even impossible.
The Synod preparatory document ends with a proposed global survey of the Catholic youth scene, full of generic (and, alas, dull) questions. As the Church prepares for Synod 2018, there are at least two more urgent lines of inquiry for our reflection.
The first involves All-In Catholicism vs. Catholic Lite. Why are the growing youth movements in the Church those that have embraced the symphony of Catholic truth in full? How do those movements create vibrant microcultures in which young people grow in their relationship to Jesus Christ and are formed as missionary disciples, offering healing to the battlefield casualties of the post-modern world? How does the Church summon young people to be countercultural Catholics, precisely for the sake of converting the cultures in which they find themselves?
The second set of questions touches the Synod’s theme of vocational discernment and accompaniment. Here, the Church should ponder why Catholic Lite religious orders are dying, while religious orders that try to live the evangelical counsels and the consecrated life in a distinctive way are growing. The same seems true for seminaries. In their case, how can rediscovering the sacred character of the priesthood as a unique participation in the priesthood of Jesus Christ be disentangled from temptations to clericalism, understood as a kind of ecclesiastical caste system?
And as most young people will live their Christian vocations as married couples, not as priests or consecrated religious, might Synod 2018 take the opportunity to lift up the vocation to marriage, not as an impossible ideal, but as a holy challenge that can be met through the power of the grace that Christ never denies his people?
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.