Synod on Youth: The making or breaking of Pope Francis?

by Russell Pollitt SJ

On Wednesday 3 October the Synod of Bishops on “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment” started in Rome. The four-week meeting comes at a time when the Church faces its biggest crisis since the Protestant Reformation: worldwide clerical sexual abuse scandals.

The Synod of the Bishops brings together bishops from all over the world to discuss a specific theme. At the end of the gathering, the Pope decides what to do with the deliberations. The fruit of the last Synod was the Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, on family life. This caused a fierce debate in the Church around the world about whether or not divorced and remarried Catholics could receive communion.

The levels of anger and frustration with the Church and especially with Church leadership, on how sexual abuse has been handled, means that the Synod under way is about more than just how the Church reaches out and ministers to young people. The moral credibility of the Church is at stake. As is her relationship with the wider world.

The question of how the Church ministers to youth, how the Church deals with the diminishing numbers of young people in the pews who feel alienated from the Church, how they are catechised, how the Church is relevant to their lives and how vocations are nurtured, are all important issues. But these issues cannot be dealt with in isolation.

The fact that a former senior Vatican diplomat, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, has accused Pope Francis of mishandling and covering-up abuse allegations, cannot be ignored.

Although Viganò has written two letters claiming this, he still refuses to be interviewed by any journalist. There are voices calling for Pope Francis’ resignation as a result. Will the question of abuse be addressed directly? Or will it only be spoken about in huddles gathered in corners during coffee breaks or in street cafés at night?

The Synod is not about abuse – Pope Francis has called a meeting of the world’s bishops in February 2019 to focus exclusively on abuse.

The other issue which will be playing out at the Synod regards the content that is proposed for discussions and the dissension that has already been expressed surrounding the issues that will be debated. After a worldwide consultation, the introductory document called the Instrumentum Laboris was issued. It cites issues like online pornography, the role of women in the Church, co-habitation, multiple sex partners and LGBTI youth.

American Archbishop, Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, has strongly criticised the content. He said that the Church should not be prioritising “accompaniment” (as the document suggests) over “preaching”. He also called for the Synod to be cancelled or postponed – citing the current crisis around sexual abuse. Later, he published his critique of the content of the introductory document.

This Synod could be the most important moment in Francis’ papacy. He will be under intense scrutiny. How will he react to his critics – some of whom will be in the same room? How will he handle the contentious thorny issues that the youth want to speak about and some bishops do not? Will he address the abuse issue? Finally, will this Synod actually make any difference to the very people it seeks to reach out to in our Church?

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute and is interested in the impact that communications technology has on society and spirituality. He regularly comments on South African Politics and various issues in the Catholic Church. @rpollittsj
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