When I first heard about the Pre-Synodal Meeting of Young People a few weeks ago, I felt some trepidation. Who exactly were these 300 representatives who would be speaking for all the young people of the world to the Bishops? Will they speak of my concerns about the way the Church presents itself in my milieu? Do my concerns even count at all, being a married mother over 40? Or will they reflect the talking points I’ve seen a hundred times from certain neo-traditionalists (those who don’t see Vatican II and subsequent developments as an authentic part of the Church’s tradition) that what young people really want is a return to Latin Mass and “clear” moral teaching (without conscience or nuance muddying the waters) and a general pushback against “modernism”?

Apparently the neo-traditionalists wanted to see that very message adopted in the report of the meeting, because as soon as the final document (entitled “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment”) came out, there was a profusion of articles and social media memes attacking it as supposedly not representing the true voices of young Catholics. The attacks were so fierce one might think that the document had suggested changing moral teachings on key issues, admitting women to the priesthood, and a proliferation of “clown Masses.” But anyone who reads this document honestly could not find any such suggestions. Indeed, its critical last section recommends connecting with young people not only through social media and experiential encounter, but also through Eucharistic Adoration and contemplative prayer, and beauty in music, visual art, and architecture, and states:

“The Church must adopt a language which engages the customs and cultures of the young so that all people have the opportunity to hear the message of the Gospel. However, we are passionate about the different expressions of the Church. Some of us have a passion for “the fire” of contemporary and charismatic movements that focus on the Holy Spirit; others are drawn towards silence, meditation and reverential traditional liturgies. All of these things are good as they help us to pray in different ways.” (Part 3, Section 13)

Thus the priorities of neo-traditionalists are very much affirmed as good means of evangelizing young people; they simply aren’t presented as the only means. Moreover, nothing in the document suggests changing Church teachings. The third paragraph even clarifies: “It is important at the outset to clarify the parameters of this document. It is neither to compose a theological treatise, nor is it to establish new Church teaching. Rather, it is a statement reflecting the specific realities, personalities, beliefs and experiences of the young people of the world.” And those realities, personalities, beliefs and experiences are very much presented in terms of their great diversity, neither minimizing nor elevating different and even conflicting perceptions.

If there is one constant and organizing theme in this document, it is the celebration of diversity, not in a simplistic way that calls for “quotas” for different “identity groups,” but in appreciating the infinite variety of human persons and the strengths each can bring to the Body of Christ, as well as mixed-faith communities. “We should not fear our diversity but celebrate our differences and what makes each one of us unique,” the document pleads. The unspoken subtext is that the Church has not been handling diversity very well in the experience of young people.

Indeed, for those of us who have grown up in the post-Vatican II Church, our experience of that Church–despite the Council’s affirmation of religious freedom, conscience, universal call to holiness, sensus fidelium, etc.–has been overwhelmingly one of polarized conflict between two sides. On the Right is strict adherence to a wide-ranging magisterium, and a “fidelium” delimited by fidelity to certain shibboleths, particularly regarding contraception and women in the priesthood. On the Left is near total disregard for the mandates of the Vatican, and the elevation of social justice concerns and a certain baptized realpolitik, often to the exclusion of the supernatural and sacramental. For those of us whose reason and conscience are troubled by different aspects on both sides of this divide, we find it very difficult to establish a meaningful sense of belonging in such a Church. As the document says, “A sense of belonging is a significant factor to the shaping of one’s identity” (Part 1, Sec 1). Without belonging we struggle to maintain our identity as Catholics and to discern our vocations to our particular places within the Body of Christ.

Both Right and Left fail to foster a family of God where we can sense belonging. Most of my experience in 20 years of being a Catholic has been on the Right, where the Church has felt more like an Honor Society: one must demonstrate and maintain a certain above-average standard of knowledge of the prescribed canon and adherence to certain rules to be acknowledged as a member, but then there is little the society does besides determining who is in or out from time to time. If there is little to no fellowship or action to benefit others, what is the point of maintaining membership, unless one simply enjoys the pride of being among the elite, or fears a Father who will yell and punish for failing to attain membership? Substandard students of Catholicism may be allowed to stay in the school so long as they are not complete failures, but they likely look at the work that goes into being an Honor Society Catholic, for no obvious reward, and think, “why bother to try to do any better than I am?” As the document says, “Erroneous ideals of model Christians feel out of reach to the average person and thus so do the rules set by the Church. Therefore, for some, Christianity is perceived as an unreachable standard” (Part 2, Sec 6).

The Left, on the other hand, features rebellion against the parentage of the Church, which they perceive as authoritarian and cold. Many of them are like the grown children who have left home and only show up, begrudgingly, for special family occasions, if that. As the document explains:

“For many young people, faith has become private rather than communal, and the negative experiences that some young people have had with the Church have contributed to this. There are many young people who relate to God solely on a personal level, who are “spiritual but not religious”, or focused only on a relationship with Jesus Christ. For some young people, the Church has developed a culture which focuses heavily on members engaging with the institutional aspect of herself, not the person of Christ. Other young people view religious leaders as disconnected and more focused on administration than community-building, and still others see the Church as irrelevant. It can seem that the Church forgets that the people are the Church, not the building. For other young people, they experience the Church as very close to them, in places such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America, as well as in different global movements; even some young people who do not live the Gospel feel connected to the Church. This sense of belonging and family sustains these young people on their journey. Without this anchor of community support and belonging, young people can feel isolated in the face of challenges. There are many young people who do not feel the need to be part of the Church community and who find meaning to their life outside of the Church.” (Part 2, Section 7)

This sad state of affairs is not universal, as the passage above suggests. Apparently, the Church of the “peripheries” provides young people a much stronger sense of family than it generally does in the United States and Europe. Perhaps that is why our first Pope from Latin America, who is much more connected with these parts of the Catholic world than any previous Pope, is making significant strides at healing this Left-Right divide.

The document confronts head-on this dysfunctional family of God phenomenon that has rendered the “Western” Church relatively ineffective at evangelization and retention of the hearts of the baptized over the past half century.

“Unfortunately, there is a phenomenon in some areas of the world where young people are leaving the Church in large quantities. Understanding why is crucial in moving forward. Young people who are disconnected from or who leave the Church do so after experiencing indifference, judgment and rejection. One could attend, participate in, and leave Mass without experiencing a sense of community or family as the Body of Christ. Christians profess a living God, but some attend Masses or belong to communities which seem dead. Young people are attracted to the joy which should be a hallmark of our faith. Young people express a desire to see a Church that is a living testimony to what it teaches and witnesses to authenticity on the path to holiness, which includes acknowledging mistakes and asking for forgiveness. Young people expect leaders of the Church – ordained, religious, and lay – to be the strongest example of this. Knowing that models of faith are authentic and vulnerable allows young people to freely be authentic and vulnerable themselves. It is not to destroy the sacredness of their ministry, but so that young people might be inspired by them on the path to holiness.” (Part 2, Section 7)

We can see how Pope Francis is addressing this very phenomenon in his emphasis on mercy, his admission of being a sinner needing forgiveness, and his witness of joy. In this he is inviting the disaffected children of God on the Left to rejoin active participation in the family of the Church, and gradually rebuilding their trust in the office of the Holy Father. To the children on the Right, who have been used to accolades for their obedience to certain Church teachings, he has been challenging them to add care for the poor and the environment, and a merciful, joyful witness to their “weaker” siblings in Christ and to the world.

To be sure, there has been some resentful, angry backlash from certain members of this latter group, who do not wish to have their place of honor challenged. And yet, I see many Catholics who have long associated themselves with the Right who are now discovering the rich social justice traditions of the Church, and embracing mercy for their wayward siblings in the interest of evangelization, myself included.

There are also those on the Left still resisting mercy, unwilling to forgive abuses of power in the past or accept a law of gradualism for their brethren who are just now discovering and learning to live out the social justice demands of the Gospel. But again, I see many friendships and cross-pollination of ideas and efforts developing between Catholics who just a few years ago would have summarily dismissed each other as “what’s wrong with the Catholic Church.”

Besides these themes of mercy, joy, social justice, and family, the other major issue touched upon in the document is the place of women in the Church. The document mentions in three places the dilemma of women not having sufficient models and roles within the Church.

“We recognize in particular the unique challenges faced by young women as they discern their vocation and place in the Church. Just as Mary’s “yes” to God’s call is fundamental to the Christian experience, young women today need space to give their own “yes” to their vocation. We encourage the Church to deepen its understanding of the role of women and to empower young women, both lay and consecrated, in the spirit of the Church’s love for Mary, the mother of Jesus.” (Part 2, Section 9)

“Some young women feel that there is a lack of leading female role models within the Church and they too wish to give their intellectual and professional gifts to the Church.” (Part 3, Section 12)

Today, there is a general problem in society in that women are still not given an equal place. This is also true in the Church. There are great examples of women serving in consecrated religious communities and in lay leadership roles. However, for some young women, these examples are not always visible. One key question arises from these reflections; what are the places where women can flourish within the Church and society? The Church can approach these problems with real discussion and open-mindedness to different ideas and experiences.” (Part 1, Section 5)

These comments about the absence of good role models and the difficulty of discerning vocation as a woman in the Catholic Church certainly ring true to me. For those of us who accept the Church’s teachings on contraception and a male-only priesthood, the cultural corollary seems to be that women ultimately belong just one of two places, if they are to be faithful Catholics: in a convent or at home raising as many children as Providence will allow. The religious life was completely foreign to my consciousness in my 20s, as I had no meaningful acquaintance with women religious, living or among the communion of saints, beyond very brief glimpses and hagiographies. At the same time, the care of small children and maintenance of a household have never been particular interests or aptitudes of mine. As a result, even though I had been an enthusiastic convert at the age of 21, from evangelical zeal in my Protestant upbringing no less, I felt I would never fit into the mold of a “good Catholic woman,” and quickly slipped from being a daily communicant constantly reading religious texts to just going to Mass on Sundays, abiding by the moral prescriptions, and focusing on my career. Prayer, spiritual reading, and fellowship with fellow Catholics were largely sidelined. Vocational discernment in terms of my place in the Body of Christ was consequently non-existent for the next dozen years or so, until I reached an extended crisis in my professional life.

By the time I began to recover a zeal for my Catholic faith, I was married with children so my avenues for discernment were already narrowed considerably. Still, many circumstances in my life have always pointed away from staying home with a large family being God’s calling for me, and I still find precious few female role models for the type of service to the Church to which I believe the Holy Spirit is calling me. The pre-synod document certainly echoes my yearning for more diverse role models and more openness of the Church to different ways women can serve.

On the other hand, one paragraph about the role of women in the Church seems to be the place where the neo-traditionalist agenda of “clarity” and establishing one “best” avenue to sanctity got its moment in the sun:

“Another common perception that many young people have is an unclear role of women in the Church. If it is difficult for young people to feel a sense of belonging and leadership in the Church, it is much more so for young women. To that end, it would be helpful for young people if the Church not only clearly stated the role of women, but also helped young people to explore and understand it more clearly.” (Part 2, Section 7)

I strongly disagree with the notion that the Church can or should school women in their “role.” It is notable that this is an exceptional paragraph where diversity is not mentioned or suggested, but instead “the role” of women is stated in the singular. Perhaps it was accepted as a compromise because it still speaks of the need for belonging and leadership. But in reality there is no opportunity for belonging or leadership for many women in the Church when their “role” is defined as fitting only one or a few functions. This is where women need the opportunity to help the hierarchical Church understand the workings of the Holy Spirit in our lives and not the other way around.

Despite that one paragraph, the overwhelming feeling of this (admittedly quickly patched-together) document is optimism that the Church is actually listening to the needs of the people. It concludes:

“We have been thrilled to be taken seriously by the hierarchy of the Church and we feel that this dialogue between the young and the old Church is a vital and fruitful listening process. It would be a shame if this dialogue were not given the opportunity to continue and grow! This culture of openness is extremely healthy for us.” (Part 3, Section 15)

In many ways, this document speaks not only for the “young,” but for all of us. In the family of God, other than prelates, we all stand in the position of children, trying to discern how we both honor our parents and also make our own mark on the world. Vatican II essentially put us in the position of being young adult children, who are entrusted with the capacity to make our own decisions about our vocations. Fifty four years hence, we still have difficulty finding role models of older siblings who have successfully negotiated this transition into spiritual adulthood, since that generation struggled mightily making their way with no role models of their own. We are asking the Holy Father to open a true dialogue with us, not simply catechesis as if we were still minors in need of more schooling before we can be capable of discernment. This mutuality between the hierarchy and the fidelium, and respect for difference among the faithful, is necessary for reestablishing a mature sense of belonging in the family of the Church, for healing divisions, and for giving free adults more reason to stay, to return, and to convert.

I pray that the Bishops participating in the upcoming Synod will receive this document with minds and hearts open to this working of the Holy Spirit throughout the diverse Body of Christ.

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