By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
ROME – One day after Pope Francis kicked off this month’s Vatican summit on young people by warning against a temptation to focus on “abstract ideologies” detached from the realities of young people, concrete topics ranging from sex abuse, LGBT issues, migration, and technology took center stage on Thursday.
Nearly 300 individuals are on hand for the Synod of Bishops, which is centered on the theme of “Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment.” The approximately 50 delegates that spoke on the first day didn’t waste time identifying what are expected to be some of the hottest topics in the month ahead.
Confronting the “Crime and Sin” of Sex Abuse
Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport did not mince words, confronting the issue of sexual abuse in his opening salvo at his first Synod.
“It is a both a crime and a sin that has undermined the confidence and trust that young people must have in the Church’s leaders and the Church as an institution, so that they may again trust their priests and bishops to exercise true spiritual fatherhood, serve as adult figures in their lives and as authentic mentors of faith,” said the Brooklyn native.
“This sin must never again be found in our midst. Only in this way can the youth of the world believe our synodal call to offer them reassurance, comfort, hope and belonging,” he added.
In recent years, Bishop Caggiano has been considered a rising star among the U.S. bishops, known for his particular emphasis on young people. He will also lead the U.S. delegation to World Youth Day in Panama this January.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia also touched on sex abuse, contending that “the clergy sexual abuse crisis is precisely a result of the self-indulgence and confusion introduced into the Church in my lifetime, even among those tasked with teaching and leading. And minors – our young people – have paid the price for it.”
However, the Synod’s strongest words on sex abuse came from Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Australia.
In a speech addressed directly to the young people in the room – and by extension, the entire Church – Archbishop Fisher offered an apology for the Church’s moral failings.
“For the shameful deeds of some priests, religious and lay people, perpetrated upon you or other young people just like you, and the terrible damage that has done: I apologize,” pleaded Archbishop Fisher.
“And for the failure of too many bishops and others to respond appropriately when abuse was identified, and to do all in their power to keep you safe: I apologize,” he continued.
His address continued through a litany of other apologies, for the failings of the Church’s schools and parishes to pass on the faith, the distance or lack of joy from Church leaders, and for “unbeautiful or unwelcoming liturgies,” among others.
“When you are lost and need direction, know that the young Jesus is the eternal Way for you,” he continued. “When you are confused and need sound teaching, know that the young Jesus is the eternal Truth for you…In the presence of the Holy Father and amidst my brother bishops, I recommit myself to young people and to drawing them closer to Christ who is always there for them.”
A number of participants in the synod hall told The Tablet that the response to Archbishop Fisher’s intervention was among the most enthusiastic.
LGBT Issues in the Spotlight
Archbishop Chaput – whose remarks were among the most closely watched, following his early criticism of the Synod’s working document – offered a stinging criticism of the Church accepting the terminology of “LGBT” in the Synod’s final document that many observers feel is a live possibility.
“What the Church holds to be true about human sexuality is not a stumbling block. It is the only real path to joy and wholeness,” he insisted.
“There is no such thing as an ‘LGBTQ Catholic’ or a ‘transgender Catholic’ or a ‘heterosexual Catholic,’ as if our sexual appetites defined who we are; as if these designations described discrete communities of differing but equal integrity within the real ecclesial community, the body of Jesus Christ. This has never been true in the life of the Church, and is not true now.”
“It follows that “LGBTQ” and similar language should not be used in Church documents, because using it suggests that these are real, autonomous groups, and the Church simply doesn’t categorize people that way,” he argued.
Technology as a Means of Discovering the Truth
In addition to tackling sexual abuse, Bishop Caggiano spoke of the need for the Church to better utilize technology for the sake of helping young people better understand reality.
“In terms of technology’s formative influence on young people, I would respectfully suggest that it is the path of beauty that must be better explored for the sake of evangelization and catechesis,” he challenged.
“In my experience with young people, the questions that haunt them are not simply intellectual ones. They are first and foremost affective questions (i.e., ‘questions of the heart’), that ask about their self-worth, the reasonableness of hope, the ability to commit to another and to be loved in return,” he said.
Also speaking on Thursday was Bishop Robert Barron, widely known for his work in founding Word on Fire Ministries, a media apostolate that seeks to use media to bring people back into the faith and an early proponent within the U.S. Church for using technology as a modern form of evangelization.
He used his time at the dais to advocate for a greater renewal in Church apologetics and catechesis to better accompany young people.
As he lamented the anti-intellectual nature of much of current catechetical programming, Bishop Barron called for a new apologetics – one not imposed from the top down, but rather that comes from the ground up.
“I hope it is clear that arrogant proselytizing has no place in our pastoral outreach, but I hope it is equally clear that an intelligent, respectful, and culturally-sensitive explication of the faith (‘giving a reason for the hope that is within us’) is certainly a desideratum,” he advocated.
Migrants on the Move
Another theme that emerged during this time was one close to Pope Francis’s heart: migration.
One intervention highlighted the fact that migrants could serve as a paradigm for the synod. Young people, like migrants, are in flux, full of uncertainties and looking for answers.
Cardinal Luis Antonio “Chito” Tagle spoke of traveling the globe meeting young people, hearing their stories, and signing autographs and notes. When sharing the story of one young man whom he had met previously, the young person told him he keeps a note signed by him on his pillow because, his father – a migrant – was not present.
“You are my father now,” he told Cardinal Tagle, as the cardinal recounted through tears.
Listening is a theological principle, not just a pedagogical one, he insisted, as he spoke about the role of the Synod Fathers in reaching young people. Pope Francis would later pick up on that very point and repeat it during his unprepared remarks.
Synod delegates are given a maximum of four minutes each to speak with the threat of their microphone being cut off if they go over the allotted time. The order in which they are called to deliver their remarks corresponds with the how their remarks fit in with the themes of the three major sections of the working document.
While the synod hall is a mix of Vatican veterans and first-time delegates, what’s undeniably new is the presence of some 30 plus young people in the upper-right hand corner of the room.
Numerous Synod Fathers told The Tablet that the enthusiastic responses from the young people after certain interventions were a helpful sign of what resonated and what the young participants would like to hear more of in the days ahead – proving, perhaps, that listening to their responses is serving both a theological and pedagogical purpose.