Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez and Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron are two very busy men.
One serves as both the shepherd of the country’s largest archdiocese and vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, while the other presides over a successful and growing Catholic media apostolate, not to mention plenty of confirmation Masses in his pastoral region of Santa Barbara in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Their ability to maintain those busy schedules, as well as their very different backgrounds and their common affinity for working with young people, may explain why they were chosen as two of the five elected bishops to represent the U.S. at the Synod of Bishops on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, taking place October 3-28 in Rome.
In light of the synod and the Church’s “summer of shame,” Archbishop Gomez has been reading up on the life of a saint who lived in similarly turbulent times for the Church: St. Charles Borromeo, whom Archbishop Gomez notes was sent to Milan as a young bishop to implement the reforms of the Counter-Reformation.
“It’s been very helpful to study the renewal and reform of the Church after the Council of Trent, especially for me now with the situation we have in the Church in the world and in the U.S.,” he admitted.
He’s also found inspiration in reading “We, The Ordinary People of the Streets,” a compilation of the reflections of Madeleine Delbrêl, a 20th-century French laywoman declared “venerable” earlier this year.
Archbishop Gomez says it’s made him think about how young lay people can live out their faith in today’s world.
“I think that is what the young people are going through in a society that is more and more secular: How do you practice your faith in your ordinary life?”
Besides reading up on his favorite Catholic thinker, St. Thomas Aquinas, Bishop Barron has been doing research on sociological studies of today’s youth. One of them is San Diego State University professor and psychologist Jean Twenge’s book “iGen,” which he thinks does a good job of understanding the current generation, especially their attitudes on religion.
As a widely read movie fan and critic, Bishop Barron says one thing he sees a lot in today’s films is their promotion of “the culture of self-invention.”
“It’s celebrated almost constantly: that I decide what my life is about, I decide what I’m going to believe, how I’m going to act, and no one tells me what to do,” Barron explained.
The Chicago-born auxiliary believes one movie that sums up that mentality is “The Shape of Water,” a movie he reviewed earlier this year.
“It’s exactly the contemporary sensibility: it’s the shape of water. Everything is fluid and what you want it to be: if you want to have a relationship with a fish, off you go,” said the bishop. “I thought it was symbolic of the complete fluidity in the culture.”
With the synod in mind, how can the Church evangelize young people living in the culture of self-invention?
“We have to get them, we have to invade their space,” said Bishop Barron during an interview with Angelus at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
That motto sums up his ministry as an evangelist in the digital peripheries, but it will also shape his approach to the synod, which many hope will chart the course for the Church’s approach towards young adults, particularly the millennial generation.
Archbishop Gomez has had plenty of facetime with millennials recently. Having just attended the national V Encuentro gathering in Texas, he thinks the excitement he’s seen from Catholic youth indicates a need for greater lay involvement in the life of the Church.
“It was interesting because they were asking me how they can be more active in the celebration of Mass, in the formation programs of the parish, and kind of demanding that the priest and the elders in the parish listen to them,” said Archbishop Gomez, recalling his recent meetings with young people, which have included the annual City of Saints gathering held at UCLA in August.
So what’s the most pressing need going into the monthlong summit in Rome?
“The young people of today, it seems to me, are trying to do something, to take action,” answered the archbishop during an interview with Angelus News. “It is difficult for them to stop and learn the teachings of the Church. The first encounter with Christ in serving other people is what I think is most important for us.”
For the Church to communicate that to today’s generation, the Mexican-born prelate believes there needs to be a change in mentality, not Church teaching.
“We need to understand that we all are called to holiness; that sometimes we are still in the process of understanding that the Church not only belongs to the pope and the bishops and the priests, but to everyone — the lay faithful,” said Archbishop Gomez, echoing his words of his homily at the closing Mass of the V Encuentro a few days earlier.
“We need to change gears and say that the lay faithful are also called to holiness and to be leaders in the Church,” he added.
Bishop Barron agreed that the Church will not reach young people by changing essential doctrines or moral teachings, saying those things are “not ours to play with.”
“Dumbed-down Catholicism has been a disaster,” he said. Instead, he believes, proposing the beauty and truth of Church teaching is a better alternative.
His template? LA’s youngest auxiliary likes the example of the encounter between Jesus and two disciples walking to Emmaus, where he accompanies and listens to two people who don’t recognize him.
“In a key moment, he speaks, and he speaks with great clarity,” said the bishop of the Gospel passage. “He upbraids them, even: ‘You fools, all slow to believe!’ And then that's when their hearts catch fire, when he starts to speak to them about the faith.”
“We have to find a new way, once we’ve listened and walked, to speak compellingly,” he added, hinting at a likely theme of his intervention, or planned public remarks, that he’s written for the synod.
When asked what Los Angeles can contribute to the most important Church gathering of the year, both prelates agreed that the city’s reputation as a media capital shouldn’t be ignored.
“So much of the culture in the West is determined out of a place like this, for weal and for woe: both the good and the bad are here,” said Bishop Barron. “I think that is important.”
Archbishop Gomez pointed to the archdiocese’s thriving parishes and the large presence of active young people who take Catholicism seriously.
“Nobody thinks of Los Angeles as a place of people with faith, and that’s what it is.”