Anticipating the 2018 Synod of Bishops

In October 2018, bishops from around the world will gather at the Vatican to discuss the pastoral issues and pressing needs of young people, with a special eye toward how they are being prepared (or not) for the demanding task of “vocational discernment.” The upcoming synod assembly follows naturally from the previous one in 2015 that focused on marriage and the family, prompting Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Although this next synod is unlikely to generate the same level of media buzz as the last one — as it almost certainly will lack the perception of controversial matters or rival factions (on which especially the secular media but at times even the Catholic media thrive) — it is not the case that the diminished attention means diminished importance. If anything, the topic of the 2018 synod is a prime opportunity to consider both the Church’s present and its future. If the Church is going to seize this opportunity, though, then the occasion cannot simply be left as a private conversation among the delegate bishops, but must capture the energy and fire the imagination of the whole Church so that we might together ask what the Lord calls our young people to become and how we must help them along the way.

To assist parents and pastoral leaders, educators and mentors, young people and the not-so-young to focus on “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” this article will do four things. First, it will offer an introduction to the Synod of Bishops and its assemblies. Second, it will provide an overview of the preparations for the synod assembly, drawing forth some of the key questions that have been asked of young people and of dioceses around the world. Third, it will identify several central themes that seem to be setting the agenda for the synodal process. And fourth, it will focus on the person of the Blessed Mother — Mary of Nazareth — to whom the pope has entrusted this entire process.

Bishops arrive in procession for the opening Mass of the 2015 Synod of Bishops in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. CNS photo via L’Osservatore Romano, handout

The meaning of a synod

The Synod of Bishops was established by Blessed Pope Paul VI near the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. The synod itself is an advisory body for the pope, comprised of bishops from across the world. The “ordinary” assembly of the synod represents every bishops’ conference to consider a topic that is “for the good of the universal Church.”

It has been reported that four delegates from among the U.S. bishops were selected at the 2017 fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in November: Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia and both Archbishop José H. Gomez and auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron of Los Angeles.

As representatives of the universal Church, these delegates will act with and for the Church, which is being called to “examine herself on how she can lead young people to recognize and accept the call to the fullness of life and love, and to ask young people to help her in identifying the most effective way to announce the Good News today.” In identifying “young people,” the focus is primarily on 16- to 29-year-olds, since this is the period of life during which young people make some of the most important decisions and fundamental commitments for whom and what they love, whom and what they will serve and how they will live.

Preparations for the synod

In January 2017, a preparatory document was released from the Vatican at the instruction of Pope Francis to guide the process leading up to the synod assembly. Since the end toward which the Church hopes to guide young people is healthy and holy vocational discernment, it is helpful to know what exactly this compound term means. According to the preparatory document: “vocation” is most broadly a “vocation to love,” which “takes concrete form in everyday life through a series of choices, which find expression in the states of life (marriage, ordained ministry, consecrated life, etc.), professions, forms of social and civil commitment, lifestyle, the management of time and money, etc.” “Discernment,” then, is “the process by which a person makes [these] fundamental choices, in dialogue with the Lord and listening to the voice of the Spirit.”

In sum, vocational discernment is concerned with the most fundamental choices in life and the dedication of oneself to what matters most, especially in life’s big decisions, in response to God’s call.

Pre-Synod Conference at Notre Dame
A major preparatory event for the Catholic Church in the United States is the “Cultures of Formation” conference at the University of Notre Dame from March 5-7, 2018. Hosted by the McGrath Institute for Church Life, with co-sponsorship from the USCCB Committee on Doctrine, the conference will convene academic and pastoral leaders from across the country — including some two dozen bishops and members of their staffs — to consider how the cultures we create in families, parishes, schools, through the liturgy and elsewhere impact the likelihood of a young person growing in holiness, and how the Church at all levels can re-create missionary cultures to nurture young people and lead them toward faith-filled vocational discernment. Bishop Robert Barron, one of the four bishop-delegates to the synod assembly from the United States, will serve as keynote speaker.

The preparatory document concludes with directions for bishops’ conferences and dioceses to gather relevant statistics by asking key questions relating to the life and environments of young people in their regions. Of particular note in this concluding section is the emphasis on cultures within and surrounding the Church. There is an explicit focus, for example, on the culture of the family, the parish culture and school cultures, as well as inquiries into the effects of “digital culture.” In broad terms, local churches are asked to consider how the places where routines and rituals are practiced, worldviews are inhabited, values are transmitted and memory is stored both form and express the lives of young people with reference to the possibilities for living in light of the Gospel.

With the guidance of the preparatory document, each ecclesial body has submitted a brief report to the Vatican that provides statistics relating to young people, their current cultural situation in their particular settings and the specific challenges and opportunities presented in the respective regions. Beyond this report, individual bishops’ conferences, as well as each diocese, will further engage in their own preparations for the synod assembly as they see fit.

Finally, in order to allow for even more direct participation of young people from across the globe in the synod process, a general survey was available online until Dec. 31, 2017, through which young people could speak to their own experiences, hopes and challenges. Some of the topics in this survey included young people’s views on:

— The trustworthiness of various institutions, like government, schools, parishes.

— People whose influence has been important in their lives, like parents, teachers, ministers.

— The importance and purpose of schooling, as well as their views on the meaning of work.

— Their religious identification and the frequency of their religious practice, along with their views on God in general and of Jesus in particular.

— What they consider as urgent tasks for the Church today.

— And how they engage on the internet, especially social media.

Key themes

Several themes are receiving prominent attention in the run-up to the fall assembly, whether through preparatory documents, questionnaires and surveys, or the words of Pope Francis himself.

First, the role of mentors — or “reference persons” — on the lives and futures of young people has become a prime area of attention. “Young people look for persons of reference,” the preparatory document states, “who are able to express empathy and offer them support, encouragement and help in recognizing their limits, but without making them feel they are being judged.” The focus on these reference persons suggests that creating healthy cultures for young people cannot arise through programs alone, but requires the personal investment of more mature disciples who commit themselves to the good of the young people they are called to form and educate.

Key questions for parishes, schools and families
young people
Young people talk during a conference in Rome in 2017. The conference was in preparation for the Synod of Bishops on “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment.” CNS photo courtesy Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life


A second area receiving considerable attention concerns the role of technology. While a nearly impossibly broad and complicated subject, the synod is committed to asking “how the experience of technologically mediated relations might structure the conception of the world, reality and interpersonal relationships.” In focusing on such a critical and pervasive dimension of the modern world, the synod is seeking to commit the Church to addressing not just what content influences them, but how they engage with each other and the world, and the ways in which these forms of engagement promote or diminish the possibilities for faithful vocational discernment.

A third and final theme among others that is gaining attention pertains to how young people can and do generate new approaches and innovative possibilities for the Church, rather than simply being the recipients of the Church’s pastoral work. What young people propose may not fit the typical molds with which those older than them have become comfortable. Therefore, a priority is being placed on listening to young people, since, “as opposed to situations in the past, the Church needs to get accustomed to the fact that the ways of approaching the faith are less standardized, and therefore must become more attentive to the individuality of each person.” Whereas previous generations may have been able to rely on predictable stages in life to provide the opportunities for proclaiming the Gospel and offering formation to young people — like marriages and baptisms and moments of religious education — there must now be more flexibility in adapting the pastoral work of the Church to a diverse set of opportunities for encounter that may, “for example, [come] from a commitment to justice, or contacts outside the Church with someone who is a credible witness.”

Pope Francis
Pope Francis receives applause after speaking at a 2015 event marking the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops. CNS photo courtesy Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life

The Marian pattern

In looking for reference persons, cultures of formation and sources of hope in the Church’s mission to form, guide and listen to young people, Pope Francis and those directing the synodal process consistently have directed the Church to Mary of Nazareth, the Blessed Mother.

At Pope Francis’ instruction, “the synodal process is entrusted to Mary.” She is the one whose full and complete discipleship is the model after which the Church aims to form all young people, and toward which it guides all its faithful regardless of age or circumstance.

“Mary, the young woman of Nazareth” is the one who shows what a life full of love, full of purpose, full of trust and fidelity looks like; she is the one whose own vocational discernment was filled with the Holy Spirit and oriented to welcoming and serving her son, Jesus Christ. As the preparatory document continues, Mary is the one “who in every stage of her existence accepted the Word, and preserved it, pondering it in her heart.” Mary shows what true Christian discernment looks like, so that “in her eyes every young person can rediscover the beauty of discernment; in her heart every young person can experience the tenderness of intimacy and the course of witness and mission.”

The mission of the synodal process, therefore, is to form young people according to a Marian pattern, as Mary both provides the model of discipleship and gives herself as mother to all whom her son loves, leading them to sanctity.

Indeed, Pope Francis has shown that the greatest gift he can give to young people in this process is to offer them in prayer and with trust to the Blessed Mother. In his letter to young people across the world in early 2017, Pope Francis wrote: “I entrust you to Mary of Nazareth, a young person like yourself, whom God beheld lovingly, so she might take your hand and guide you to the joy of fully and generously responding to God’s call with the words: ‘Here I am.’”

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., serves in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent book, “What Matters Most: Empowering Young Catholics for Life’s Big Decisions” (Ave Maria Press, $16.95), will be released in March.