Thanks to the young people in the room, this month’s summit on youth in the Church has taken on a different flavor

ROME — If Synods of Bishops were personality types, the first two under Pope Francis on the family in 2014 and 2015 would have been every family’s bigger-than-life uncle from out of town — loud, brash, alternatively irascible and hilarious, and always prone for a good fight. He can be exhausting to have around, but he’s never boring.

This month’s Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, on the other hand, is more akin to a perky little sister — enthusiastic, happy, averse to conflict, and eager to do the right thing.

What that contrast may mean in terms of the monthlong summit’s final conclusions is hard to say at the midway point, but at least so far everyone seems to agree this summit has been remarkably angst-free.

(Granted, there are critics who believe the surface pleasantness conceals a darker agenda, with procedures tightly controlled and outcomes foreordained, but even that grumbling is less pronounced than during the last couple of times around.)

A “synod” is a summit of Catholic prelates and other participants from around the world, created after the Second Vatican Council by now-St. Pope Paul VI to give residential bishops a say in the governance of the universal Church.

The 2014 and 2015 editions featured titanic battles over several issues, including Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics and how positive the Church ought to be about LGBT relationships. This time around, there don’t seem to be grand ideological clashes, with the accent more on concrete, sleeves-rolled-up approaches to youth.

While many factors probably help explain that, the most oft-cited is the presence inside the synod hall of 36 young people participating in the event. Virtually every bishop taking part has said their energy and good cheer has been infectious, setting an altogether different tone.

As Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, put it in a recent interview, because the bishops are deliberating cheek-by-jowl with the young people, “This isn’t a synod about ideas, but people.”

That said, there are a few pockets of drama in this synod, areas where it’s not yet entirely clear how bold the gathering may be in the final document it produces, and where disagreements may still erupt as the endgame draws near.

First, there are the clerical sexual abuse scandals that made the summer of 2018 such a “Via Crucis” (“Way of the Cross”) for Pope Francis and the broader Church. 

As if it were needed, the synod got a reminder of that upheaval on October 12, when the Vatican announced the pope had accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., in the wake of a damning Pennsylvania grand jury report that raised critical questions about Wuerl’s handling of abuse cases during his time as the bishop of Pittsburgh.

From the very first day, it became clear that this synod wouldn’t shy away from engaging the reality of clergy abuse and the related loss of confidence the scandals have created, perhaps especially among the young. 

By consensus, one of the most dramatic moments early on came when Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Australia, directly addressed the young people in the hall and apologized for the Church’s failures.

Yet for every Fisher, there’s also a bishop in the synod from a culture not yet devastated by the abuse crisis who doesn’t want it to overshadow other issues of concern, such as migration or war, and who also resents the way it sometimes drowns out good news stories about the Church.

It’s an open question, therefore, how forceful the synod may be in calling for action, and how concrete it can be about what any such action might look like. It’s also not clear to what extent the synod can help set the agenda for a three-day meeting of presidents of bishops’ conferences from around the world in February to discuss child protection.

Second, there’s the question of women in the Church, and what exactly the “empowerment” often called for by Catholics high and low, including Francis, might mean.

Several participants have noted the irony that although there are both men and women religious taking part in the synod, the male priests and brothers are allowed to vote while the nuns aren’t. That led a Samoan youth delegate, Auimatagi Joseph Sapati Moeono-Kolio, 31, to declare in an interview, “I think the boys here need to go to bat for the sisters.”

Beyond synod procedures, the broader question is how women can play real leadership roles at all levels of the Church. 

Although one German participant did raise the issue of women’s ordination inside the synod, for the most part there’s a recognition that it has been taken off the table by a string of popes, including Francis, so the press is on for alternatives that don’t involve wearing a Roman collar.

Third, there’s the question of the emerging digital world of the early 21st century, and how far the Church ought to go in embracing and encouraging it.

Some participants see social media and the like as the new “Areopagus” (“Ares Rock”) for youth today, with a language and culture the Church desperately needs to learn. Others, however, see a more ambivalent space.

German-speakers put it this way: “We do not know the implications of continuing to stay in digital worlds for young people in the long run. See the medical talk of ‘digital dementia,’ or new addictions or lack of concentration, of dwindling ability to read more complex texts, lack of relationship skills or the like.”

Those three issues, or others, could still provide some sparks at the synod. Yet based on experience to date, one has the sense that even if this little sister gets a little cranky as the hours grow long, she’ll still find a way to put on a smile before heading to bed.

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