Fr. Giacomo Costa, SI: The synodal journey leading to Christus Vivit
1. The Synod: an experience of Church
The results of this labour are already ‘fermenting’, just as grape juice does in the barrels after the harvest. The Synod of young people was a good harvest and promises good wine. But I would like to say that the first fruit of this Synod Assembly should be seen in the very method that was sought to be followed, beginning with the preparatory phase. A synodal style that does not have as its primary purpose the writing of a document, which is also valuable and useful. More than the document, however, it is important to promote a way of being and working together, young and old, in listening and in discernment, in order to arrive at pastoral choices that respond to reality (Pope Francis, Angelus prayer 28 October 2018).
These few words by Pope Francis during the Angelus prayer on the final day of the Synod are the core of what I would like to communicate to you now. As we have heard, the Synod is not simply a periodic meeting of bishops, let alone the document they prepare and approve at the end of their deliberations. It is much more. This is also explained very well by the apostolic constitution Episcopalis Communio, the document in which the Church explains the purpose of the Synod and how it should be conducted. The Synod is not just what happens in the hall during the month of the Assembly, but it is a journey embarked on together ‒ and this is the etymology of the term “synod”. It is a process that sets in motion and involves (in different ways) all the members of the body of the Church.
I can testify ‒ on the basis of what I experienced as Special Secretary right from the beginning of the preparatory work until the last day ‒ that the Synod is an experience of Church and of a deeper understanding of its identity and mission. For this reason, it cannot fail to be an opportunity for encounter with the Lord, who is Head and Bridegroom of the Church.
2. The desire that impels you forward
So, it is not easy to explain this complex and structured process in a short time and it is not enough if we limit the story and take it up from October 2016 when the choice of the theme “Young people, faith and vocational discernment” was made public.
Let me begin by recalling the underlying aim of this whole journey. It was a question ‒ or perhaps we should say, a desire ‒ that prompted the Church to reflect and go into action. The Preparatory Document, published in January 2017, served to set the synodal process in motion. It expresses the main purpose behind it:
Through every phase of this Synod, the Church wants again to state the desire to encounter, accompany and care for every young person, without exception. […]. May their lives be a good experience, may they not be lost on the roads of violence or death, [...]: all of this cannot but be close to the hearts of those who have been generated for life and faith and who know that they have received a great gift. (chap. II, Faith, Discernment, Vocation)
The Church is spurred forward by the desire to carry out the mission to which it has been entrusted, that is, to care for all men and women ‒ and hence all the young people of today's world ‒ and to help them to be attentive to the Lord's call, to trust in his promise of happiness and wholeness and to follow him. The Church therefore feels able to give something to young people. All young people are included, not only those who are regularly in Church milieus (parishes, associations, movements, Catholic schools and universities, etc.), but also those who are distant (for many reasons) and even those whose dissociation is a sign of real hostility.
There is also another desire that complements the first one:
The Church has decided to ask young people themselves to help identify the most effective ways to communicate the Good News today. Through young people, the Church will hear the Lord speaking in today’s world. As in the days of Samuel (cf. 1 Sam 3:1-21) and Jeremiah (cf. Jer 1:4-10), young people know how to discern the signs of our times that are indicated by the Spirit. By listening to their aspirations, the Church can glimpse the world that lies ahead and the paths that the Church is being called to follow. (cf. Introduction)
The Church is aware that it needs young people precisely in order to carry out its mission in a world and culture that is changing ever more rapidly. Young people bring a perspective without which it is impossible to read and decode our times, and even less to dialogue effectively with it. The Church therefore also feels the need to receive something from young people, in particular from those who are already involved in the Church and from all of you.
This two-way process, or rather, this interweaving from the Church to young people and from young people to the Church, was a characteristic of the entire synodal journey, right up to the Assembly itself and the role played by the young people who were invited as auditors. We will soon say more about this.
3. The discernment methodology
In order to implement this aspiration together, we followed a method that literally means “one common road”, the road on which to walk together to make choices that fulfil the Gospel. As we heard from Pope Francis, discernment was chosen not only as the main theme of the journey (it is in the title of this Synod), but also and above all as the working method that structured each phase.
This is stated from the beginning in the Instrumentum Laboris (published in 2018 as a work basis for the Synodal Assembly): “In discernment, we recognize a way of life, a style, a fundamental attitude and also a working method; it is a path to walk together” (Instrumentum Laboris, no. 2). This is based on a deep conviction that, when it comes to the questions that activated this process, there are no ready-made recipes or pre-packaged solutions.
Now, discernment is a complicated term. It is certainly little used in current language and it is very far from the language of young people. However, it is also a very ancient term in the history of the Church. It has had different meanings and interpretations, though these are all connected, and they all in one way or another indicate that discernment is the spiritual process through which a person, a group or a community tries to recognise and accept the will of God in their concrete situation. “Invent with your God the future that He gives you” (“Invente avec ton Dieu l'avenir qu'Il te donne”) says a French song.
As far as the synodal journey is concerned, the decision was made to take what Pope Francis proposes to the whole Church in no. 51 of the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium and to use it as reference. He identifies three stages in one unified process that constantly refer to one another.
The Instrumentum Laboris (no. 3) presented these three phases that I will briefly summarise here:
Recognising. The first step is to look and listen. It requires paying attention to the reality of young people today in the diversity of conditions and contexts in which they live. It requires humility, closeness and empathy, so as to tune in and identify their joys and hopes, their sadness and anxieties (cf. GS 1). The same gaze and the same listening, full of concern and care, should be directed towards what is being experienced by the Church communities present with young people throughout the world. In this first step, attention is focused on grasping the characteristic features of reality. The social sciences offer an essential contribution that is well represented in the sources used, but their contribution is taken and reread in the light of faith and of the experience of the Church.
Interpreting. The second step is to return to what has been recognised and to use criteria of interpretation and evaluation from a perspective of faith. The reference categories can only be the biblical, anthropological and theological ones expressed by the key words of the Synod: youth, vocation, vocational discernment and spiritual accompaniment. It is therefore important to construct a reference framework that is acceptable from the theological, ecclesiological, pedagogical and pastoral points of view. This can act as an anchor that will hold the evaluation from the fickleness of impulse, while at the same time recognising “that in the Church different ways of interpreting many aspects of Christian doctrine and life legitimately coexist” (GE 43). For this reason it remains essential to have outward-looking spiritual vitality.
Choosing. Only in the light of a vocation that has been accepted is it possible to understand what concrete steps the Spirit is calling us to and in what direction we should move in order to respond to His call. In this third phase of discernment it is necessary to examine the tools and pastoral practices, and to cultivate the interior freedom needed to choose those that best allow us to reach our goal and to abandon those that are less effective. It is therefore a question of operational evaluation and rigorous verification, not of judgment of the value or meaning that those same tools could have in different circumstances or epochs. This stage can identify where it may be necessary to introduce reform, that is, a change in ecclesial and pastoral practices in order to keep them from becoming frozen in time.
These three steps structure each of the documents that were produced at different times, from the preparatory document to the final document. The entire process is also defined and structured by the prevailing importance attached, at different times, to the objectives underlying each of these three phases.
The preparatory phase certainly encompasses the collection of data, information and experiences, and so it is the phase of “recognising”. This phase, in which you all participated in one way or another, saw the preparation of the Preparatory Document (January 2017) with the Pope’s prayer for young people, the consultation of experts ("International Seminar on the State of Youth” held from 11 to 15 September 2017), the consultation of Bishops’ Conferences around the world, the Online Questionnaire which collected the responses of over 100,000 young people from around the world, and above all an innovation ‒ the “Pre-Synodal Meeting” which was held for the first time from 19 to 24 March 2018. We will come back to this. All this listening was condensed to form the Instrumentum Laboris. It should be remembered that many bishops’ conferences and religious congregations also carried out high quality research in the field from a social, cultural and ecclesial point of view. They also organised opportunities for contact, discussion and prayer with young people.
The meeting of the Synodal Assembly in October 2018 was the primary opportunity for interpretation. The main task of the Assembly is precisely to provide an interpretation of the reality in which the Church is immersed starting from the perspective of faith, with the objective of identifying concrete steps to be taken (and therefore already at the stage of making choices).
With the approval of the Final Document that was delivered to the Pope and then made public, the time for implementation began. The stimuli launched by the Synod were to be put into practice at the local level. This is the period that we are all in now, and also here at our post-synodal meeting. Of course, there is still a need to recognise and interpret, especially when it comes to embodying the insights of the Synod (and the stimuli of the post-synodal Exhortation) in specific and diverse local contexts, but it remains true that the emphasis is on action, on implementation, and therefore on making choices.
4. The key words
In order to understand the method followed by the Synod, it is necessary to focus on a few key words ‒ starting with the title ‒ that were the subject of reflection, study and dialogue and that lead to a synthesis of which the Final Document bears witness. We have already dwelt on the term “discernment”, and now let us address the others just as briefly.
It is certainly no coincidence that this is the first part of the title. It was purposely decided not to say “youth” or “the years of youth”, and it was deliberately made plural. The intention from the beginning was to provide tools that would help us to go beyond the many stereotypes that exist regarding young people, even within the Church. The risk to avoid is that of idealising and ideologising young people or of treating them in a paternalistic way, and so lose sight of the fact that they have grown up in a very different context compared to that of even just a few years ago.
Of all the specific tools used to connect with the world of young people, the Final Document of the Pre-Synodal Meeting is by far the most quoted text in the Instrumentum Laboris. It has brought to light many fundamental elements that include the desire of young people to be heard, the importance of and the difficulties with families and the workplace, the questions posed by the digital world, globalisation, immigration, ecological issues, the experience of coldness in the life of local Church communities and liturgies and above all the desire for the Church to be authentic, warm, closer, transparent and committed.
A second key word of the synodal journey is certainly faith understood as participation in Jesus’ way of seeing things (cf. Lumen Fidei, 18). It is the source of vocational discernment because it contains the basic elements, specific expressions, distinctive style and inherent methodology. The light that comes from faith illuminates all the steps of the synodal journey. It provides us with the necessary insight to understand, with spiritual intelligence and evangelical compassion, the situation of young people. It shows us the criteria with which we need to respond to the demands that we recognise are being asked of us, and so we enter more and more into the mind and heart of the Lord Jesus. It gives us the courage to face the challenges that arise as we make brave choices that can testify to our desire for spiritual and pastoral conversion.
Faith is therefore much more than subject-matter to be transmitted to young people. The richness of the experience of an encounter with the Lord impels every believer to share this gift in every way possible with all those they meet. Faith is a discomforting gift for every believer and for the whole Church. It prods us forward and is a source of healthy restlessness: “A faith that does not trouble us is a troubled faith. A faith that does not make us grow is a faith that needs to grow. A faith that does not raise questions is a faith that has to be questioned. A faith that does not rouse us is a faith that needs to be roused. A faith that does not shake us is a faith that needs to be shaken” (Pope Francis, Christmas greetings to the Roman Curia, 21 December 2017 - Instrumentum Laboris, no. 73).
On our synodal journey we truly experienced all of these facets of faith. We experienced how the Lord was indeed accompanying us and how he was inviting us not so much to formulate new techniques in youth ministry but to come to a deeper understanding of his Word. He is our point of reference and he can accompany us even when we are on unstructured paths. For example, we may be going away from Jerusalem, towards the night, like the disciples going to Emmaus. He listens to us, asks questions, puts us back on our feet, encourages us and transmits his Spirit.
Vocation is the specific focus of the Synod, but it is also a concept about which the need for verification, analysis and clarification was identified from the outset. It had already emerged during the listening phase (from the young people as well as from the bishops’ conferences) that one of the weakest points in our pastoral work is due to a reductive and narrow concept of vocation that restricts it to the ordained ministry and the consecrated life.
From this point of view, it is really well worth rereading Chapter II of Part Two of the Final Document of the Synod. It attempts to formulate an integral vision of vocation that is able to go beyond the boundaries just mentioned. It is defined as having many dimensions and being basically a real “mystery” (in the theological sense of the term), in which an encounter between the freedom of the human being and the grace of God is played out: “Vocation is neither a pre-composed script that the human has simply to recite nor is it an unwritten theatrical improvisation” (no. 78).
The Final Document reminds us of how creation and the call to life are to be read in the light of vocation. It speaks of the baptismal vocation (that is, the universal call to holiness) as the context within which to place the individual modes of discipleship, based on the diversity of charisms and united by shared participation “in the mission of the Church, which has as its fundamental goal communion with God and communion among all people” (no. 84). Only at this point does it make sense to review the different areas and ways in which vocation is concretely played out. The list in the final document is interesting: the area of work and profession, family, consecrated life, ordained ministry and single people.
Even if it does not appear in the title, accompaniment is undoubtedly a key word of the Synod. The final document dedicates the entire chapter III of Part Two to it, and here it also proposes an integral and updated approach to a traditional practice in Christian spirituality. The need for accompaniment emerged strongly during the preparation phase, especially on the part of young people, together with the effort that the Church makes in finding an adequate response to the lack of a sufficient number of people suitable from the spiritual, pedagogical and vocational point of view to carry out this task. The young people themselves, in this regard, have shown themselves to be very demanding (cf. Instrumentum Laboris, no. 130-132).
This perspective shows how accompaniment is conceived first of all as a shared responsibility of the Christian community. It focusses not only on the more purely spiritual aspects, but also on the human and social, in the sense of fostering the human wholeness of each one. There are many examples of people who accompany, not only priests and religious, but also parents, teachers, animators and educators. It also includes the fundamental role of support and accompaniment in friendship and the relationship with peers. As the experience of schools or youth groups shows, it is not uncommon for young people themselves to accompany their peers.
5. Young people ask us to walk together with them
As you can imagine, it was an intense, sometimes tiring journey in which there were many twists and turns and surprises. To put it another way, there were moments in which the Spirit was felt to be present and signalling the direction in which the Church should proceed. In this sense, the results are certainly more abundant, and also somewhat different from anything we could have imagined or expected. This is one of the most profound emotions that we experienced, and it resulted from the listening and dialogue that the Synod succeeded in arousing. It showed the beauty and difficulty of listening, the realisation that this is an exchange of ideas and an encounter between people who are passionate about the Lord, and the difficulty of constructing a text that can be a home where everyone can live together.
So one of the most significant outcomes is the ever-increasing desire to adopt this synodal style as the ordinary way in which the Church will go forward. That is why there is an invitation, formulated in no. 120 of the Final Document, to continue to give life to “processes of community discernment that also include those who are not bishops in the discussions”. The style should be one of fraternal listening and intergenerational dialogue, in which “families, religious institutes, associations, movements and young people themselves will take part”. I believe that we can legitimately feel that here today we are responding to this invitation through the format being followed at this meeting.
In the previous number, 119, the Final Document recognises how important it had been to meet and relate directly with young people, also during the Synodal Assembly, in order to increase awareness of what the style of the Church should be today and how essential it is to always remember that young people are not the target, but partners in the pastoral endeavours of the Church. Here is the full paragraph:
Young people ask us to walk together with them
The Church as a whole, when choosing through this Synod to concern herself with the young, took a very definite option: she considers this mission a pastoral priority of epoch-making significance, in which to invest time, energy and resources. From the start of the journey of preparation, young people have expressed the desire to be involved and appreciated and to feel themselves as having a key role in the life and mission of the Church. In this Synod we have experienced how co-responsibility lived with young Christians is a source of profound joy for bishops too. We recognize in this experience a fruit of the Spirit which continually renews the Church and calls her to practise synodality as a way of being and acting, promoting the participation of all the baptized and of people of good will, each according to his age, state of life and vocation. In this Synod, we have experienced how the collegiality that unites the bishops cum Petro et sub Petro in care for the people of God is called to express itself and enrich itself through the practice of synodality at all levels.
As we heard at the beginning, the Synod is much more than a document. It is an experience lived together to accomplish together the will of the Lord. We are here today to continue to experience and delve further into the breadth of this insight. I conclude with some images of the Synod that I hope will help you to enter into the spirit of this experience today (Video “All of Synod 2018 in one minute”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdg9jBlSR2g).