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COMMENTARY

WANTED: SERIOUS THEOLOGY AND PASTORAL CHALLENGE 

RESPONSES TO THE SYNOD’S SECOND ROUND OF DISCUSSION-GROUP REPORTS

On October 16, the Synod’s language-based discussion groups issued their reports on the second part of Synod-2018’s Instrumentum Laboris (IL), or working document. LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD shared the reports with a range of Catholics engaged in scholarship and in pastoral work. A selection of their immediate responses follows. XRII

 From a U.S. theologian:

Some consistent requests across the small group circles are worth noting:

First, the need for a properly and deeply theological approach that can go beyond an “anthropocentric approach” (French C). Although Spanish A criticizes the IL for being “weak and very doctrinal,” other circles call for a more explicitly Christocentric and even Trinitarian approach (English D especially, but also all three French circles, and Italian B, among others). English D says, beautifully and cogently, “This Jesus, the Word made flesh, is the pattern by which young people today ought to understand their own struggles, joys, and aspirations. As they see the whole of life in light of Christ, they will appreciate that they are summoned, above all, to love and to holiness.”

Second, numerous circles also call for a greater emphasis on community, the Church, and the sacraments, in contrast to the dangers of individualism. Where English B, with Cardinal Cupich as its president, mentions the Church only in its final two sentences, other circles are more explicit about the ecclesial and sacramental dimensions of Christian life. French A, for instance, criticizes the IL for focusing too narrowly on the personal dimension of accompaniment, to the neglect of the role of families and youth groups in helping faith grow. French A also notes the importance in accompaniment of emphasizing community more than “methods” or techniques. Faith grows in communal life, in listening to the Word, in sacramental life (especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation). It concludes, “Accompaniment is only one element of the faith journey, which cannot do without sacramental practice and belonging to an ecclesial community.” 

Third, the pressing need for greater formation not only for youth and young adults, but for their adult guides and mentors. Spanish B perceptively highlights the importance of silence in vocational discernment. French B also helpfully notes that the gift of spiritual direction and discernment is given not only to clerics but to believers in all states of life; think, for instance, of the decisive role that the unmarried Polish layman and tailor, Jan Tyranowski, played in the spiritual formation and vocational discernment of the young Karol Wojtyła.

Particular points of note:

Italian B makes striking points about the IL’s theological anthropology. It helpfully—and virtually uniquely—warns against the IL’s “excessively optimistic” view of youth (and humanity in general). It reminds us that, after the Fall, human nature is wounded, that “self-sufficiency” is impossible, that grace is needed. Movingly and realistically, it states that all believers—youth and their adult companions alike—are “forgiven sinners” and that “true freedom is always a ‘given’ freedom, connected to the help of divine grace.” Finally, this Circle also says, briefly but forcefully, that the Synod must speak of the crucified Christ and of the call to follow Christ on the way of his Cross; such a reference is “necessary.”

Spanish B emphasizes the properly “secular” or “worldly” nature of the lay vocation. Lay ministries have their rightful place, it notes, but the vast majority of the laity are called to live their Christian lives and to evangelize “in the middle of the world and of society.” The “secular” is not a consolation prize for those not called to “ecclesial” ministries.

English C presents a novel and worthwhile “vocational pyramid,” which moves from the awareness of being loved in one’s vulnerability to the “call to holiness” to “vocations of being” (e.g., consecrated life, marriage, ordained ministry, single life) to “vocations of doing” (work, professional life). Such an approach might help counter particularly Western tendencies to activism and the denigration of receptivity and contemplation, as it reminds us of our fundamental identity as God’s beloved creatures.

French B highlights the IL’s mention of divine filiation, and requests that the Synod’s final document devote a proposition to it. Such divine sonship and daughterhood in the Son is the “principal goal” of the Christian life and vocation. Paradoxically, we are most adult when we are truly sons and daughters of the Father.

Lastly, English D makes the slyly insightful claim that the “greatest task” of spiritual mentors today is “to stir up that holy longing [for God], to make young people more rather than less uncomfortable.” The Synod must truly honor youth and young adults both by affirming their divinely-given dignity and by refusing to pander to them. Such a refusal might even have the benefit of making the synodal fathers themselves “more uncomfortable” as they follow their own vocations.

From a newly ordained priest:

Of the English small groups, Circle D is once again the most interesting, insightful, and important. A few remarks:

It seems the circle participants are urging a more robust use of Scripture in the final document, which is a good thing (Emmaus, Rich Young Man, John 1, Samuel/Eli, etc.).   “Accompaniment” and conscience seem to be the issues that everyone talks about but doesn’t know what to do with.  Because of the vagaries that exist regarding conscience, a final text should avoid saying too much here. This could become the nebulous window through which all kinds of odd proposals are validated.

A strange lack of appreciating friendship marks the discussions, yet friendship is critical both for young people in general and for responding to criticisms of Church teaching on matters of sexuality. Christian “rules” about sexual expression are actually affirmations of the value of friendship, a fact totally lost in the West’s hyper-sexualized culture. Finally, as long as the synod avoids major missteps in its understanding of anthropology, a final text should be acceptable. 

From another U.S. theologian:

The key difficulty with the reflections of the “Circulus Germanicus” is that they are overly anthropocentric.

In paragraph 1 (of their report), the German-speaking fathers write: “We strengthen our fundamental ‘yes’ to the present-at-hand (vorfindlichen) and increasingly secular world—and to everything that this world holds ready for us, both the good and the challenging.” Given the many difficulties that the IL catalogued about the negative aspects of life in the world for youth today, this seems an oddly naïve note to strike. Furthermore, from a theological point of view, it’s problematic: The Christian does not have a fundamental orientation to the world (and particularly not to the secular world), but to God. 

In paragraph 3 they write: “We are first hearers and not already the ones who know.” Who is the “we”? “We” the magisterium of the Church? If so, those who have first heard are also those who have the responsibility to preach (cf. Hebrews 10:14). 

“We would also like to specify that every vocational awareness and accompaniment concerns the desires, plans, hopes, and passions of youth, but also their disquiet, fears, and uncertainties. We want, as the elders, to resist the temptation that we know everything about how the life of the young people should unfold and what a successful life should look like. Even more, we want to become new seers (neu Wahrnehmende) and new hearers (neu Hinschauende) alongside them.” This paragraph, in conjunction with the next, seems to go further than pandering to youth; it seems almost parasitic in its attempt to vicariously experience life with the young. Consider paragraph 4: “We want to know their heartbeat and through that become co-listeners for the quiet impulse of God in their life . . . .” This passage is unnerving. While accompanying others in discernment certainly has merit, this description seems to violate the freedom of the discerner in a voyeuristic way.

The German-speaking circle, at least judged by this report, also seems to have replaced the Church’s long-held understanding of vocation with an emphasis on individuality: “We want to increase our own hermeneutical sensitivity anew together with them and also to learn from them, because each one is an irreplaceable individual singularly called by God. We want to accompany them and to offer from our own greater experience of life . . . .”

The implication here is that: Each person is so unique that he or she cannot be taught, rather their “truth” must be experienced.  Similarly, those who are older cannot teach; they can only share their “experience” with those who are younger. The voice of God seems to be equated with oneself: “By listening to God’s spirit upon the young people and in listening to our own heartbeat ….”  The role of the Church is primarily maieutic: “we want to be interpreters and midwives of God’s life for them and with them.” Apparently the young already possess all that they need within them and the Church only needs to draw it out. Lastly, nowhere do the German-speaking fathers include a discussion of what God might want from the Church or from youth.

In paragraph 7 the German circle underscores that vocation is “not a once and a closed occurrence.” And that vocation is “not as a specific fixed plan of God, but rather like a path towards a greater freedom and dedication . . . the sense of this calling can grow and deepen through concrete letting-oneself-open to reality.” They do not specify what this freedom is oriented toward, or in what this dedication consists. Furthermore, though there is brief lip-service given to Jesus Christ as one way among the several listed that we can grow in greater freedom, overall, vocation seems to be a journey of Heideggarian self-discovery rather than the call of Divine Providence. 

What’s missing is a basic understanding that vocation is fundamentally about love—i.e., how best can we love Our Lord? The Church has always held that a person’s vocation is the path that a loving God has ordained for us from all eternity as the best way to love him, to love others, and to reach our supernatural end. If vocation has been traditionally understood chiefly in terms of the evangelical counsels, it’s because these are instruments of perfection in love. Christian marriage, which is grounded in the spirit of these counsels even though not in the letter of them, is also an instrument of this same gospel perfection. The Circulus Germanicus seems to be offering a description of vocation grounded chiefly in individual wants. If so, this is not the Church’s understanding of vocation; it is the world’s.

Finally, from a young religious:

I believe it was Pascal, writing to Jesuits, who said what is now commonly rendered as, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I hadn’t the time.” Engorged prose (like that of the Instrumentum Laboris) in an ecclesiastical setting, subsequently discussed by small groups, typically signals one of two things: obfuscation or banality. If the reports from some language groups are any indication, then the Synod (or at least some of its parts) is afflicted with both.  Obfuscation, in the sense that no one really knows what the working document is supposed to be saying; and banality, in the sense that whatever the text is supposed to be saying, it says it in a such a featureless and uninspiring way as to be unusable.

Had there been a shorter, more concise, therefore clearer, statement guiding the Synod’s work, then the small groups might have gotten their feet on the ground and moved toward a proclamation of evangelical boldness. That’s the obfuscatory effect of the Instrumentum Laboris, and thus the Synod’s work results too frequently in banal recitations of platitudes about vocation, discernment, accompaniment, young people, etc. The circles seem to be building toward a final document that says very little, and in saying very little, risks allowing the drafters of a subsequent apostolic exhortation or similar official statement to say whatever they want. That should give everyone pause.

The discussion group reports may be read in full here.

TESTIMONIES FOR THE SYNOD

Father Philip Bochanski is the Executive Director of Courage International, which has its headquarters in Norwalk, Connecticut. In light of his distinctive pastoral experience, LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD asked him for any counsel he might wish to offer Synod-2018. His response follows. XR II

AFFIRMING THE REALITY OF THE REDEMPTION

“The great ideals of the past failed not by being outlived,” G. K. Chesterton wrote in What’s Wrong with the World, “but by not being lived enough. … The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”  Whether those gathered in Rome for the Synod on “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment” hear these words as prophetic or passé may make all the difference in what the fruit of their labors means for the future of the Church.

In almost a decade of pastoral ministry to Catholic men and women of all ages who are living with the experience of same-sex attractions, either as part of their own story or in the lives of loved ones, I’ve found that the most effective way to begin a conversation is with a sincere request: “Tell me your story.”  Understanding a person requires a willingness to understand his or her experience, including his or her desires: to accompany people, as Pope Francis advises, “starting from their situation.”  This commitment to take a person’s experience seriously provides a real opportunity—for some, it seems, the first opportunity—for him to take his own experience and his own desires seriously, to ask himself difficult questions like “What am I really seeking?” and, “Am I finding it where I’m seeking it?”

This is why I am hopeful that the Synod of Bishops has something important to offer to young people, whose lives and place in the Church they have met to discuss.  If the Synod does what it is meant to do—if it takes their experience, their desires, their needs seriously—then it will have taken the necessary first step in truly accompanying the young to understand and embrace God’s Word and Will.  But only a first step. If the Synod stops at an uncritical acceptance of lived experience as the only criterion for pastoral guidance, the Synod fathers will at best be blind guides.  At worst, should they surrender to pressure to revise or elide consistent teachings, based on Scripture and Tradition, so as to accommodate those whose subjective experiences make such teachings difficult to understand or accept, they will lead the flock astray and scatter the lambs.

It is absolutely necessary to welcome people who experience same-sex attractions into a deeper Christian life, to accompany them along the path God has marked out for their lives, and to treat them, as the Catechism insists, “with respect, compassion and sensitivity” (no. 2358).  This is not a novelty but a fundamental application of Christian charity as old as the gospel itself.  To make a straw man out of the notion that the Church’s teaching on sexual morality is inherently harmful—for example, to tell people, as Father James Martin, S.J., did in Dublin in August, that “God loves you, and the Church is learning to love you”— creates a false dichotomy and a division in the Church between those with the new ministerial gnosis, and those whose pastoral sense remains unevolved. In reality, there is only one welcome to offer: that of Christ himself. 

At the synagogue in Capernaum, Our Lord reached out to his hearers with open arms: “Anyone who comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37).  His welcome is absolute, yet it comes in a context, and with a purpose.  “No one can come to me,” he continues a moment later, “unless drawn by the Father who sent me. …It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (John 6:44-45).  The Lord, as likewise the Church which acts in His Name, welcomes people completely, “starting from their situation.” He draws them close, in order to present the whole truth, to tell the rest of the story, to answer their questions and address their desires in the light of the Gospel.  Welcome and accompaniment in the name of Christ provides a clear, compassionate message: “Come close, we are friends, and I have something to tell you, to which I want you to respond.”

This is the message that the Synod fathers are conscience-bound to communicate, in regard to sexual morality in general, and homosexuality in particular, as much as to any other virtue that is disregarded, controverted, or ridiculed in the modern age.  It is not only their responsibility, but their privilege, to share with the next generation the fundamental truths of faith, about which chaste celibacy ought to provide them with special insight: that a life without sexual intimacy is far from being a life without love; that spiritual fatherhood is the measure of true masculinity, and spiritual motherhood that of true femininity; that chaste friendships are not consolation prizes or second-best love, but a profound and transformative way to make a sincere gift of self.  In short, that striving for that integration that defines the virtue of chastity sets a person free to live authentic relationships with God and with others.

To speak this word courageously to the young has always been the precious task of the apostle, and of the successors of the apostles, especially those who are advanced in years.  Toward the end of his long life, Saint John the Beloved addressed his letter to his “little children,” and told them that he was writing about “what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us … so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:3-4).  Already an old man, he was “writing to you, young people, because you have conquered the evil one… because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one” (1 John 2:13-14). He urged them to measure their love for Christ by their willingness to strive for holiness.  “For the love of God is this,” he said, “that we obey his commandments.”  Lest they become discouraged, he assured them, from his own hard-won experience, that “his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world.  And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith” (1 John 5:3-4).

Here is the contribution that the Synod fathers are in a unique position to make to the lives of young Catholics: to affirm their zeal and innate desire for greatness; to advise them from experience of both the guideposts and the pitfalls on the path that lies ahead of them; and to challenge them to choose heroic virtue and the self-sacrifice that must accompany it, confident that the age-old truths of faith are not burdensome and restrictive but life-giving and truly liberating.  This kind of affirmation and encouragement must be accompanied by personal witness; the Synod fathers must speak cheerfully about their own experience of pursuing chastity if they ever hope to overcome the pessimism that has seeped into the Church from the disillusioned modern world, that sees chastity as an impossible, if not harmful, ideal.  The devastating recent revelations of sexual abuse and misconduct of all kinds make this task more difficult, but also more urgent, than ever.  Nothing turns a young person away from the gospel call to chastity faster than a grouchy celibate, except for a dishonest and unchaste one.

Few figures in the contemporary life of the Church drew young people to himself more compellingly than did Saint John Paul II.  Well into his eighth decade, he inspired and challenged them by a youthful boldness that spoke of holiness as an adventure.  “It would be a very serious error,” he wrote twenty-five years ago in Veritatis Splendor, “to conclude that the Church’s teaching is essentially only an ‘ideal’ which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man” (no. 104).  To do so, he insisted, would be to deny the power of the Paschal Mystery:

Of which man are we speaking?  Of man dominated by lust or of man redeemed by Christ?  This is what is at stake: the reality of Christ’s redemption.  Christ has redeemed us! This means that he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence.  (ibid.)

The reality of Christ’s redemption is at stake in the deliberations of the Synod, and in the message that it sends to the youth of the Church at its conclusion.  Not for nothing is the fruit of a Synod usually termed an “apostolic exhortation.”  The Synod fathers, together with the pope, must challenge young Catholics, including those who experience same-sex attractions, to reject labels, politics, and slogans in favor of the solidarity and holy friendship that come from our common identity as sons and daughters of God, our universal vocation to pursue heroic virtue because we bear his image and likeness, and our shared striving to be reborn and remade according to the mind of Christ. Exhortation, not accommodation, will save the Church for the future. Heroic witness to the truth, not revision of it, will draw the youth of the world to their place in the Kingdom.

                                                                                                _______________________________________

Andrea DeLee lives in Arlington, Virginia, and works in Washington, D.C., as Director of Operations at the March for Life Education and Defense Fund. She holds a Masters in Theological Studies from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. Asked to offer some testimony to the Synod on “Youth, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” she sent LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD a brief vignette that may help explain why the pro-life movement in the United States is becoming younger, year by year. XR II

Ernest Hemingway, one of the twentieth century’s most influential authors and a Nobel Prize winner, once boasted to a friend that he could write an entire novel in six words. In utter disbelief, the friend demanded proof. Hemingway returned the next day with the following words:

For sale.         

Baby shoes.   

Never worn.

Inspired by Hemingway’s spare literary style, I’d like to offer the Synod fathers a short human story from the perspective of a millennial in her childhood. We are the generation who grew up encountering the explosive development of science and technology. We are the generation who heard and took to heart Saint John Paul the Great’s clear exhortation to “respect, protect, love and serve life, every human life” (Evangelium Vitae, 5).

The Ultrasound Announcement

“Let’s do an ultrasound right now,” the OB-GYN said, with concern in his deep voice. We stood next to Mom, who lay horizontal on a wax piece of paper stretched over a blue, raised examination bed. Dad stood on the other side of the bed, holding her hand. Somehow, Dad’s face maintained a hopeful expression even as the doctor spoke. He seemed quite thankful for the opportunity to support his wife, who was five months pregnant with their fifth child. On this day, the oldest two of his four daughters were in the room with him, standing on the other side of his wife. It was his oldest daughter’s eighth birthday. We felt more grown up than ever, being with our parents at this important doctor’s appointment.

As the doctor hurriedly left the room, he handed Dad a few paper towels. Mom’s entire belly was exposed and covered with mounds of bluish gel. In the preceding half-hour, we had been listening as the doctor meticulously moved his specialized fetal stethoscope over her belly, squirting extravagant amounts of gel as he covered every square inch. He kept searching, waiting for the fluttering sound of a rapid little heartbeat, but with no success. All we could hear was Mom’s low, slow, and steady heartbeat; lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub.

Dad carefully wiped away the slimy mounds of blue gel and tenderly pulled Mom’s shirt back down. One hand on her shoulder, the other grasping her by the hand, he helped her sit up. Presently, the doctor returned and escorted us to the small ultrasound room just around the corner.

We entered the room and assumed our previous positions on both sides of Mom, who had lain down on the examination bed. The doctor closed the door, turned out the lights, and squeezed more globs of gel onto her belly. He placed the transducer in the gel and images began to come up on a screen. Lines and curves appeared before us in every shade of gray. Nothing was even remotely recognizable. What were we looking at? I saw only unintelligible swirls. How could we really be looking at a little baby? How was it even possible to know if it was a boy or a girl?

As I realized I hadn’t the slightest idea of what was going on, I took a look around the room which now felt dark and mysterious. We still couldn’t hear the fast little heartbeat we were searching for. Time was running out. The doctor had to let us know what he was thinking soon. I wanted to see the expression on his face, but I couldn’t make it out in darkness. I couldn’t see Mom’s face either, but from her breathing I knew tears were dripping from the edges of her eyes onto the wax paper she was lying on. Mom was a nurse and somehow she already understood. Dad was holding Mom’s hand tightly now. He was very close to her. He was taking care of her.

Then, it was certain. The doctor knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, beyond the gray seemingly meaningless and horribly cryptic shapes on the screen, and beyond the darkness of that small quiet room. Those very images I could not understand confirmed the reality the doctor feared. That little being visible on the screen before us would never come home to sleep in the bassinet waiting in Mom and Dad’s bedroom. The black, white, and gray swirls on that screen were the evidence that verified the doctor’s fatal words.

Though I wanted to question, to protest, to beg the doctor to take another look, that screen said everything. All debate was futile. With overwhelming certainty and finitude, the ultrasound announced that he would not be coming home to join our family. By a single image, we came to know him. By a single image, we had to let go of this little man we already loved tremendously. The profound revelation of fate, in an instant, by the machine in that ultrasound room was unsettling, yet somehow breathtaking at the same time. Many say a picture is worth a thousand words. But in that moment, only two words were mercilessly repeating themselves in my mind.

“He’s dead.”

“He’s dead.”

“He’s dead.”

We returned home and three days later, Dad planted a small rosebush in our front yard. Every year that followed, a single red rose bloomed on my birthday.

FROM INSIDE THE SYNOD HALL

The following intervention, reflecting on the last sections of Synod-2018’s Instrumentum Laboris, was delivered to the general assembly of the Synod by Archbishop José H. Gómez of Los Angeles on October 16:

Holy Father, Brother Bishops, brothers and sisters,

Young people today demand and deserve what every human heart is longing for—the encounter with Jesus Christ.

To proclaim Jesus Christ, Son of the living God made incarnate for our sake, crucified and risen to liberate us from slavery to sin and death, and to call young people to conversion and new life in Christ—this must be the urgent priority of all our resolutions from this Synod. 

Sadly, young people today do not know how to live authentic human lives because the adults of our secular society have not shown them the way.

The vision for life offered to young people in Western societies does not call them to goodness or beauty or truth. Instead, what is offered are various life “styles” and alternatives for self-creation rooted in the restless consumption of material comforts, virtual entertainments, and passing pleasures.

In my conversations and ministry with the young people in Los Angeles, I have come to see that the Church holds the answer that young people are looking for.

In the new evangelization, we must reach out to them, proclaiming the gospel as God’s beautiful plan of love for our lives and our world and as “the greater things” that we are made for.

In the Incarnation of the Son of God and in his Passion and Resurrection, we see revealed the dignity and destiny of the human person, created in God’s image and called to live by his Spirit as a child of God and to be saints—to be holy as our Father in heaven is holy.

I believe we need to look to the saints of our times for new models to capture the imagination of young people and to inspire them to live their vocation to be “everyday saints,” each in his or her own way. In every continent, we have intriguing figures of different ages and walks of life.

A beautiful example of that was the Canonization ceremony this past Sunday.

God is calling young people to live their lives as a mission, following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and walking in the company of others who have met him and made him the “way” for their lives.

And the Church is called to serve and accompany young people on that journey.

Our mission requires that we boldly proclaim and confidently live the teachings of Jesus Christ and his Church as the one true path that will lead us to virtue and holiness and the happiness that God created us for.

Our mission requires that we model for young people how to pray as a conversation with God and how to contemplate the face of Christ in the pages of the gospel and in the mysteries of the Rosary.

We need to help young people to encounter and serve Jesus Christ in performing works of mercy for the poor. We need to help them to meet the risen Lord in the Eucharist and Confession.

We must cultivate in them a sacramental and liturgical life and a loving devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, as their mother and the mother of the Church.

Most importantly, we need to show young people what holiness looks like, by living the gospel we preach, proclaiming Jesus Christ by the way we live. We need to call young people to be saints—and we need to be saints ourselves. 

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