Every time a pope summons a cross-section of bishops from around the world to Rome for a summit called a “synod,” the contrast between formal and informal agendas always forms part of the story. Rarely, however, has it loomed quite as large as it likely will during the Oct. 3-28 Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment.

Formally, the topic for this gathering is “young people, faith and vocational discernment.” It’s obvious, however, that for many bishops arriving in Rome, particularly those from countries hardest hit by the Church’s clerical sexual abuse scandals, the idea of spending three weeks without also talking about the elephant in the room would be unthinkable.

Furthermore, seeing that Pope Francis has summoned the head of the bishops’ conferences to Rome next February to discuss child protection, it’s even harder to imagine that many of the prelates coming won’t want to take advantage of the opportunity to kickstart that dialogue.

At a bare minimum, as Jesuit Father Tom Reese told Crux recently, “the synod is a chance for bishops who have gone through the crisis to tell their colleagues, ‘Don’t make the same mistakes we did. Clean house now before it is too late’.”

For bishops coming from countries where the crisis is in full-blown mode, such as the United States, Chile or even Poland - where the scandals are now being discussed openly, something that would have seemed taboo not so long ago in the land of St. Pope John Paul II - a trip to Rome can provide a unique opportunity to have the Holy See answer some questions.

Prelates from the U.S., for instance, might want to press for answers as to who knew what in the case of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who had his resignation from the college accepted by Francis over credible allegations that he sexually abused both minors and young seminarians.

Delegates from Chile, on the other hand, might want to know the pontiff’s long term plan for the local Church, where the Archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, is one of eight who’ve been subpoenaed by the prosecutors office on charges of cover-up.

The hot-button issues

The fact of an informal agenda, of course, doesn’t render the actual topic irrelevant, as outreach to youth does pose real challenges to the bishops, as does the question of vocations.

Brazilian layman Filipe Domingues, who’s been invited to participate in the synod as collaborator to the special secretaries of the assembly, told Crux that he expects for the synod to “continue the process of listening to young people,” and even make this process “permanent in the Church.”

“This is not about making the Church do whatever young people wants it to do nor about changing everything it has always taught - simply ‘adapting to the world’ like some critics of this synod may say,” Domingues told Crux.

“It’s about walking together, as the word ‘Synod’ implies. Thinking about young people is thinking about the whole Church, because they will receive whatever the older ones leave as an inheritance. And like any heritage, if it’s not well assigned and well managed, it’ll end up being lost,” he said.

Domingues participated in a pre-synod gathering that took place in Rome last March and is currently finishing a doctorate in Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, with a thesis that explores moral issues in social media, especially as they affect youth.

Youth, he said, often “feel that the Church is detached from their reality or that the Church’s members are not good examples” … These are not “realities to be simply ignored: The question ‘is what can be done about them?’”

“If we are supposed to preach the Gospel to all peoples, these are crucial matters,” Domingues said.

In the final document of the pre-synodal meeting, the over 300 young people who attended, buoyed by those who participated online through Facebook, said they want to be protagonists in the big decisions not only within the Church but also in society, and that they want to be accompanied along the way.

“They never said they are self-sufficient and they want to do everything on their own,” Domingues noted. “On the contrary, they want to become leaders, but they also ask for guidance. They appreciate the Church’s traditions and inheritance, they want to learn from the older ones, but they also want these ‘role models’ to be authentic and understanding, authoritative, humble and merciful.”

Something else that came out is that young people want to understand the Church’s teachings and be able to talk about them openly, without taboos.

Sources consulted by Crux during the gathering agreed that issues were pretty universal in each of the working groups, which were divided by languages. These included the need for role models, both inside and outside the Church, and particularly for women; the fact that religion in many places is becoming secondary; and the importance of the family.

But disagreement on the hot-button issues also became evident in at least one paragraph of the document.

“There is often great disagreement among young people, both within the Church and in the wider world, about some of her teachings which are especially controversial today. Examples of these include: contraception, abortion, homosexuality, cohabitation, marriage, and how the priesthood is perceived in different realities in the Church,” the document reads.

The same paragraph continues by noting that many young Catholics do not clearly understand Church teaching on these matters, and even among those who do, there are those who don’t agree with it.

“As a result, they may want the Church to change her teaching, or at least to have access to a better explanation and to more formation on these questions,” he said, which doesn’t mean they want an out: “Even though there is internal debate, young Catholics whose convictions are in conflict with official teaching still desire to be part of the Church.”

That document was one of the bases for the instrumentum laboris, or working document, meant as an overview of the situation of young people today that will be the basis for the discussions during the summit. The document touches on sexuality, death, corruption, drug-trafficking, porn, video-games, migration, war, friendship and disabilities.

“Young people feel a lack of harmony with the Church,” says the document. “It seems that we don’t understand the vocabulary, and therefore also the needs, of the young.”

Many participants believe that for the Church to have any credibility on sexuality or any other issue, they can’t overlook how badly it’s been damaged by the abuse scandals.

Pope Francis conceded the point during his trip to the Baltics. Addressing an ecumenical youth gathering, he said young people are “upset by sexual and economic scandals that do not meet with clear condemnation, by our unpreparedness to really appreciate the lives and sensibilities of the young, and simply by the passive role we assign them. These are just a few of your complaints.”

“We want to respond to them; as you yourselves put it, we want to be a ‘transparent, welcoming, honest, inviting, communicative, accessible, joyful and interactive community’,” he added.