One Young Adult Reports Back from the Vatican Pre-Synod of Young People:
I’ve always loved deep meaningful conversations (aka DMCs). Whether spontaneously at house parties with strangers or in a pub with a good friend, I always treasure the conversations that go beneath the surface and into the personal. A couple of weeks ago, I attended what I would consider the longest DMC I’ve ever been a part of. It was with three hundred people from all over the world and Pope Francis of all people had asked for it. This was the Pre-Synod meeting of Young People.
Interning at the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, I went out to Rome to represent the experiences of the young people from these countries but had very little idea of what to expect and was sceptical about just how much we would be listened to. My expectations were completely exceeded. The best way I could summarise the experience would be to say that it was like cramming the energy of a World Youth Day into a complex in Rome and making everyone have a wide-open conversation about the Church. That’s my kind of party.
Pope Francis was with us on the Monday, challenging us to, ‘speak up bravely’. We had a full four hours with him in an intimate setting in which he championed the voices of the young as prophetic, quoting the prophecy from Joel, ‘And afterwards, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.’ (Joel 2:28). With this, he framed the conversation as one between the young and the old Church, reminding us that, ‘You cannot be prophets if you do not consider the elderly’s dreams.’ In person he was exactly how I had expected him to be, an equal mix of funny and wise with many stories to tell.
This week-long conversation would manifest itself as small language group sessions followed by the drafting of a document that would go to the Synod of Bishops in October. So, no pressure.
The language groups were extraordinary. My group had members from everywhere from Iran to Sierra Leone present, and it was a real experience of the internationality of the Church. A broad takeaway from these conversations was the different priorities of the developed countries and the developing. For the developed, the issues young people were facing were more to do with fulfilment than need, and the subsequent depression and anxiety of living without meaning or purpose. Pope Francis touched on this when he cited the Italian youth unemployment rate at 25% nationally and the high rates of substance abuse and suicide among youth. He said that ‘These are realities we must be conscious of. A job on the continent would save them!’ adding, ‘we have to help young people who are disorientated.’ The young people of the developing countries shared that among their peers, many just wanted to succeed and gain wealth and that if the Church could not help them achieve these goals then they were not interested in it. It was a really interesting contrast that really spoke to the hierarchy of needs.
After these language sessions came the drafting of the document which was done by a team of translators and writers pulled from among the three hundred members. I was privileged to join that team (I think being English and having an English degree had something to do with that). From then on, I was on the listening side of the Synod, and the job of our team was to represent the many voices. What first appeared to be an impossible task soon became possible to us as the minutes of the meetings began to repeat the same messages. When it came to the Church however, there seemed to be consensus, all seemed to think that the Church was not providing opportunities of leadership to young people, that there was a gap between the parish and the energy of lay initiatives and big Church events and that the Church needed to communicate in modern ways. Seeing the unified voice of the young Church coming through like that was a profound and unexpected experience. From then on it was presenting the draft, taking on criticism and editing, every part of that process being among us as young people with the Vatican organisers completely trusting us to do the job well.
The energy of that writing room was incredible, it was like writing your dissertation with an international team of friends. We would write into the small hours and occasionally the energy would burst out in breaks. The Latin Americans at one point put Salsa music on and danced, Joe from Samoa had a constant stream of Disney music going (‘Moana’ getting preferential treatment) and I passed on a couple of editing notes written on the bananas we had. It was a blast. At the end of the presentation of the second draft, there was a standing ovation in the conference room and it was as if that same energy had been released among the others present. I also saw it in those from the Vatican, and I really felt that the voice of the young had been represented well and that it had been listened to.
Fundamentally, this week of conversation was a satisfying experience because it was not the youth of the Church being used as a PR stunt, we were given the opportunity to work hard and were taken very seriously by the hierarchy of the Church. We were trusted and we were listened to.
That week was my most profound experience of Church and it filled me with hope for the future. With so many of my friends sharing the common experience of being ‘the young person’ at Church, I am so grateful to Pope Francis for bringing the conversation to us. Maybe it’s also a conversation that you could start in your parish. Either way please keep the fruit of this Synod in your prayers!
Guest author Isaac Withers is an intern for the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. We at Catholic-Link thank him for his engagement in the Church and for graciously sharing his story with us!
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