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Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, seems to be in a rather chippy mood these days, especially when he’s asked about Synod-2018’s working document, known in Vaticanese as the Instrumentum Laboris (IL)—a Latin formulation the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus “re-translated” during his 1997 Synod experience as the “laborious instrument.”

Thus criticisms of this year’s IL as too lengthy, stylistically turgid, insufficiently biblical, excessively downbeat, and reminiscent of the failed verities of the Catholic Seventies have been dismissed by Cardinal Baldisseri as vaguely treasonous and even dishonest. Why, the cardinal asks, were these criticisms not advanced in a timely fashion? Perhaps the answer to that has something to do with the fact that the IL was not released in a timely fashion, even to the Synod’s general council, and then only in Italian, which eight-tenths of one percent of the world population knows as a first language. Translations came later, when it was too late to propose serious changes. One imagines that none of this was accidental, as one imagines that the unconscionable delay in releasing the list of Synod participants was due less to typically Italianate Vatican incompetence than to tactical considerations by the Synod general secretariat.

Then there was Cardinal Baldisseri’s evident confusion, at a pre-Synod press conference, about the IL’s most controversial locution, its reference to “LGBT youth”—a formulation that struck many as being in sharp contradiction to a Catholic understanding of the human person, which does not identify men and women by (or reduce people to) their sexual desires. Asked how that formulation got into the IL, the cardinal replied that it had been used in a document allegedly prepared by the young people at a pre-Synod meeting in March of this year. Informed by the inquisitive reporter that the phrase “LGBT youth” had not, in fact, been in that document, Cardinal Baldisseri was shocked, shocked: “It’s not there?” he asked. “Well, no,” the reporter replied. So what, was the eminent response: “I am not removing anything. The Synod fathers will discuss [the IL] article by article… .”

It will be an interesting discussion.

But “Basta!” (as they say here in Rome): enough of that truculent dismissiveness toward criticism and fraternal correction of the working document. Let’s get positive. What themes might be advanced, in synodal general debate and in the Synod's language-based discussion groups, to improve this year’s IL, which is important because it will, in theory, form the basis for the Synod’s Relatio Finalis (Final Report)?

Picking up a theme from the past two Synods, this year’s Synod might well discuss the crisis, indeed deconstruction, of family life over the past half-century. That crisis has created all sorts of psychological and emotional obstacles to human maturation—and to the evangelization of the young. Might some attention to the problems caused by divorce, contraception, infidelity, and a sex-obsessed cultural environment lead the Synod to re-affirm the Church’s ethic of human love, the Church’s convictions about the sacramentality of marriage, and the Lord’s injunction to never sunder what God has joined together—which is the fundamental basis of Catholic teaching about marriage and the family?

The Synod fathers might also do what the IL assiduously avoids, and that is lift up, describe, and praise the virtue of chastity—a word completely missing from the working document, which prefers to speak of “discovering our sexuality.” Chastity is no easy business, as humanity has known since that unfortunate afternoon in the Garden of Eden. But living love chastely is integral to a truly human maturation of the person, for chastity helps us overcome our inclinations to selfishness and the self-absorption that expresses itself through the use of others. Here, John Paul II’s teaching on self-gift as the antidote to self-assertion might be revisited and then folded into the Synod’s Final Report.

Too many poorly-catechized young people today think of Catholic teaching as analogous to an ideology, even a political program. Yet virtually every positive example of effective young-adult ministry in the Church today is based on a commitment to the full truth of Catholic faith: and Catholic faith understood as a comprehensive approach to the meaning of life, not a compendium of rules-and-regulations. Dumbed-down Catholicism interests no one; the western European Catholic experience over the past fifty years should have taught us that. So the Synod should consider young-adult ministry in terms of the Church’s offer of truth and meaning through Jesus Christ, which is the “accompaniment” a meaning-hungry and truth-starved generation is seeking.

Some further themes for improving the Synod’s working document, with an eye to improving the Synod’s final report, will be offered tomorrow.

                                                                        - Xavier Rynne II


Outside the Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel and St. Stanislaus at Skalka in Cracow, a not-so-great bronze statue of Pope St. John Paul II commemorates one of the late pontiff’s most memorable meetings with young adults. It took place during John Paul’s epic first pilgrimage to Poland, the unforgettable “Nine Days” of June 1979.

After a prayer meeting in the basilica (which is built on the site where St. Stanislaus, the paradigmatic Cracovian bishop, was martyred in 1079 by King Boleslaus the Bold), John Paul addressed thousands of young men and women gathered outside. Emotions were running high that night, as the meeting came toward the end of a week in which almost a third of the entire Polish nation saw its most famous native son in person, with virtually everyone hearing him on radio or television. Poles were unleashing forty years of pent-up frustration, grief, and anger at Nazi and communist rule; John Paul II sensed that things could have gotten out of hand; and as he didn’t want an anti-communist riot to ensue, he took to bantering with the vast crowd.

They kept chanting “Sto lat!” (May you live a hundred years!); he replied, “How can the pope live to be a hundred when you shout him down? Will you let me speak?” The crowd started insisting, “Stay with us, stay with us!” John Paul shot back, “Just like Poles, to close the barn door after the horse is gone. Where were you [last] October 16 [the date of his election]? It’s too late….”

There was a serious message, too, and it centered on courage. Throughout his twenty-six-year pontificate, John Paul II returned time and again to the double themes that shaped his inaugural homily as Bishop of Rome on October 22, 1978: “Be not afraid! Open the doors to Christ!” In St. Peter’s Square that day, his admonition to fearlessness was addressed to the entire world. A little less than eight months later, on June 8, 1979, he refined his challenge in his formal remarks to the Polish youngsters gathered at Skalka: “Allow Christ to find you….Be afraid only of thoughtlessness and pusillanimity.” Those words are now engraved in bronze outside the shrine at Skalka, for all to ponder on their way to venerate St. Stanislaus and marvel at the blue-marble columns framing the basilica’s high altar.

It would be a genuine service to the Church and the world if Synod-2018 would pick up those twinned themes—“Be not afraid! Open the doors to Christ!” and underscore that challenge: “Be afraid only of thoughtlessness and pusillanimity.” A lot of the madcap character of world events today seems to revolve around fear: fear of the “other,” fear of true debate, fear of what the sexual revolution has wrought (usually expressed as a stubborn commitment to hedonism as the path to a satisfied life). In this febrile atmosphere, Catholicism needs to speak a word of courage, and that word has to be Christ-centered. The crises of the Catholic present have made the Church literally incredible—unbelievable, unpersuasive—when it speaks the world’s language of “authenticity,” as Synod-2018’s Instrumentum Laboris does time and again. The treasure the Church holds, in the earthen vessels of its all-too-obvious humanity, is Jesus Christ. Meeting Christ is really what Catholicism has to offer.

And in that encounter, as John Paul suggested at Skalka in June 1979, the young (and the old, and everyone in-between) will find antidotes to the thoughtlessness and pusillanimity that feed fear and warp solidarity in an early twenty-first century in which decency seems to be unraveling.

                                                                        - George Weigel


Letters from the Synod-2018 is happy to share links to other platforms and articles shedding light on “Youth, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment”:

Thoughts on the 2018 Synod: A View from India

A Letter From Young Clergy

How Can The Synod Help Young People?

LA’s Synod Delegates: Time for Church to change gears with youth

Photo by Randy OHC via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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