Catholic Spirituality,  Culture of Death,  current events,  Evangelization,  synod2018

A mother’s hope for the synod

“The Church is in turmoil.” Archbishop Charles Chaput

Today begins a multi-week convergence in the Eternal City of some of the best minds from around the global Church. Laypeople, seminarians, priests, bishops, and the Holy Father are coming together to discuss that which is the future of the Catholic Church in a very literal sense: her youth.

The working document for the 2018 synod on young adults, the faith, and vocational discernment is, one can only hope, a jumping-off point from which deeper conversation and consideration will flow. It touches nicely on some of the sociological and psychological needs shared by youth the world over, but is light on faith and belief. It misdiagnoses the illness, if I may be so bold. Allow me to explain.

I am the young-ish mother of five little kids. A millenial by the skin of my teeth and 10 calendar days, I’ve observed – and participated in – the digitalization of life and culture. I’ve participated enthusiastically in the social media revolution. I have friends of all stripes and types. I like pourover coffee and locally roasted beans.

I also recognize that we are hemorrhaging believers, and belief. That our modern way of living lacks a depth and breadth that once rooted people deeply in their communities and in their families.

Young people are delaying or forgoing marriage. Couples are refusing to have children. Mothers and fathers are losing a sense of the deep sacrificial identity of parenthood, and how it disciples us to become more and more like God our Father. And no wonder, since many young people can’t look to an earthy father – or mother – for an example. Increasingly, there are fewer spiritual fathers that can be trusted, as this summer has shown us in spades.

As I read through the Instrumentum Laboris, the working document for this gathering, I kept coming back to the idea that “you can’t give what you don’t have,” and there’s the rub: I don’t think the Church is living in a way that is sufficiently attractive to most young people.

Simply put: holiness is attractive, and examples of authentic holiness, both within and outside of the Church, seem in short supply.

If the Church is wrestling with attracting and retaining young believers, it is because she has too few saints perfuming her earthly body with the aroma of sanctity.

JPII had no trouble drawing crowds of millions. Mother Teresa, too. Were the times in which they lived any less complicated?

I look into my kids’ faces and think about their futures, and my larger concern beyond all the talk of identity and accompaniment and inequality that I found in the IL is this: “when they are mature, will they find that our Church that is sufficiently attractive to capture their hearts?”

Only Jesus, our Eucharistic Lord, can do this work. To the extent that we preach the Gospel and allow Jesus to transform our lives, we will evangelize the culture. Including the youth culture.

It’s ridiculously, pathologically simple.

Young people need priests who would die for love of the Eucharist. Who spend hours a day on their knees in prayer, celebrating the sacraments for their flocks. Who shun political and social media hyperactivity and draw deeply into the presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament every single day. Who are intensely masculine in the sense that their capacity for self-sacrifice grows and grows as they enter more deeply into their identity of being an alter Christus.

Young people need mothers and fathers who prioritize faith above all else. Who would sooner miss a season of soccer games than a Sunday Mass. Who spend more time praying for and over their children than they do checking social media and the family activity calendar. Who prioritize their faith lives above all else, including their professional lives.

Young people need to be exposed to a radical idea: that Jesus Christ is the only answer to the deepest longing of the human heart, and that Jesus Christ alone can give them true freedom.

No focus group can come up with a better form of accompaniment. No clever theologian can sufficiently modernize the Gospel to make it the most compelling choice in an endless buffet of attractive offerings.

This was the most disturbing section of the IL for me to read:

  1. Consequently, the Church “is brought into being” with young people, by allowing them to be true protagonists without telling them “it has always been done this way”. This perspective, which determines a pastoral style and also a way of internal organisation for the institution, is perfectly in tune with the request for authenticity that young people are addressing to the Church. They expect to be accompanied not by an unbending judge, nor by a fearful and hyperprotective parent who generates dependence, but by someone who is not afraid of his weakness and is able to make the treasure it holds within, like an earthen vessel, shine (cf. 2Cor4:7). Otherwise, they will ultimately turn elsewhere, especially at a time when there is no shortage of alternatives (cf. PM 1.7.10).

This fundamentally misunderstands what the Church is doing wrong, if I may be so bold. She is not failing to fragrance the modern world with sanctity because she is “unbending judge” or “hyperprotective parent,” but, rather, because she is a neglective mother and an absentee father.

We are in a crisis of parenthood. Nowhere is that more brutally evident than in the Pennsylvania report. In the McCarrick story. In case after case of Fathers failing their children utterly, destroying their lives when they should be offering their own as a willing sacrifice.

The Church will continue to fail to compete with “no shortage of alternatives” so long as she is playing on the same field as the world.

We can’t win in any other category but holiness.

It is our smallness, our seeming weakness – perhaps especially financially and politically in the coming decades – that magnifies the largeness of God.

These weeks of discussion and document drafting in Rome would be well spent hemmed in on all sides by deep, authentic and personal prayer on the parts of every participant. Would that the Holy Father would lead a public, global day of penance, on his knees, in front of the Blessed Sacrament, exposed for all the world to see on the altar in St. Peter’s Basilica, or out in the Square.

Therein lies our hope. There could be no more powerful witness.


  • jeanette

    “the request for authenticity that young people are addressing to the Church”

    The Church should “define their terms” before answering the questions posed. The term “authenticity” is not properly understood by those who propose to listen to the youth. “The way it has always been done” is one step towards defining authenticity. What is not authentic is the attempt to override “the way it has always been done” with new and very unproven ways which pander to cultural behaviors that they are risking souls over.

    You can’t teach holiness if you don’t strive for holiness. And you better define that term, too. It seems to elude (in spite of the endless centuries of documented descriptions of holiness).

  • Laura

    It’s funny that the people saying they need to “listen” to and “accompany” young people like me (single 20-something professional) are so fundamentally out of touch with what we ACTUALLY need from the Church. You pinpoint that exactly, Jenny. Holiness is seriously lacking among leaders in our Church, and I don’t trust most of them anymore. I’ve never heard someone describe this as a crisis of parenthood but that makes TOTAL SENSE. That is exactly how I feel, and it leaves me so discouraged. But I am SO encouraged and excited by the laypeople who recognize this and are slowly answering the call to personal holiness. That is more convincing than anything, and gives me more hope than any clergy member ever has. It is only realizing that Jesus is IT that causes me to stay. If I weren’t convinced of that, I would be out of here. No amount of accompaniment is worth jack if you don’t give me the truth and challenge me to sainthood and SHOW ME BY EXAMPLE that it’s worth it.

    I do not expect much from this synod, but wish leaders would just see us starving for this fundamental truth. Thank you for always being clear and so to the point of what we’re all thinking!

    • Meg

      Everything about this comment is how I’ve felt as a twenty-something as well. Of the thousands of sermons I’ve heard in my life, I can only recall about 4 that didn’t boil down to “try to love God and be nice.” You are right to say that we young people are starving for the leaders in our church to be examples of holiness and call us to it, even if it hurts some feelings.

      • Laura

        Amen, Meg. I have heard lots of good homilies, but it’s pretty unusual for them to be soul-stirring and light a fire under me. Sounds like that’s the case for most people. It’s kind of a rough time to be Catholic (though there have been FAR worse). But what I love is that we’re realizing that if leadership isn’t going to take the reigns, we will say “let it begin with me” (as we should do anyway). If leaders aren’t going to be the examples we need, then let it begin with each of us showing the world how it’s done.

        I was thinking about this so much yesterday, and the change I want in the Church and my own life. I went home after work and worked out even though I didn’t want to, and didn’t make the mug cookie I wanted. I was questioning how much I actually work at overcoming bad habits, and realize I really need to work on mastering myself more. I got in touch with a mom I know who has many little kids and just moved and offered to bring over some meals and play with the kids so she could unpack. More and more I’m convinced these small, everyday, actions are what’s going to change our Church. I love that more and more of us are realizing we need to get off our phones and make the Church what we hope for because we ARE the Church!

    • Delia Kavanaugh

      You are so very right! In finding the path to holiness, we have to realize that life is not about ourselves, but it is about serving others in light of the example Jesus Christ gives us. Once our focus is on the needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we will experience peace in our on lives. May God bless!

  • jeanette

    We must always remember that truth transcends culture. Teaching the truth often is very countercultural. So let’s not turn coward on this.

    We need holiness from our Church leaders, and they equally need holiness from us, because if we fail to seek to be holy, this is on us, too. Like it or not, until they figure out what they are not doing right, it is up to us to be the examples to each other, especially to youth, and to continue to denounce the path of adaptation to the culture that some leaders are treading. I think they will continue to scratch their heads until they realize that this is a spiritual battle they are fighting, not a political negotiation with those who won’t conform their life to Christ. Making concessions to the culture will not attract people to Jesus Christ, ever.

    We certainly do have leaders in the Church that know these points already and are being suppressed and overridden. Maybe the real problem is that many leaders have already conceded to the culture in their own hearts and lives and they lack genuine conviction about the faith. Their political ideologies inform their faith rather than the reverse. They remain in leadership roles because the alternative is to find a new life elsewhere. Besides, if you don’t agree with the Church teachings, it is so much easier to destroy her from within.

    Jesus did not just seek out the straying sheep, He drew it close to Himself and laid it upon His shoulder and carried it home. You have to draw people THAT CLOSE to Him by asking them to do the unthinkable: change their own thoughts and ideas away from what the culture says and listen instead with their ear and mind and heart turned towards Jesus.

    Having the Youth give the Church a laundry list of things to change to accommodate the influences of the current culture is very immature, and it is up to the supposedly mature leaders to help them to grow and mature spiritually, not stay right where they are at an arms distance from the Church until they get to have things changed to the point that the Christian life will be effortless to them. You nailed it right, Jenny, in saying there is bad parenting going on. When we parent kids we don’t capitulate and surrender to their demands. We are held accountable for GUIDING them in the right paths. We are held accountable for KNOWING the right paths in order to do that. We don’t just make it up as we go along. The worst parent is the one who abdicates their role as guide in favor of being popular with their kids.

    The real thing that should be happening is to listen to the struggles the youth face and then say, from both the wisdom of the ages in the Church and from PERSONAL experience with the faith: Here is how to meet that struggle head on. Here is what Jesus offers you in that struggle. Here is how the Church directs your life on the path towards Jesus’ help in your life. The Church has a whole treasury of grace, therefore the Church has a whole arsenal of grace at her disposal to do battle, and the Church offers the very source of grace to each one of you. Don’t walk away empty handed and unarmed.

    What the youth of the Church should really say is: We are the soldiers of Christ, as we were told upon being confirmed in the faith. Where are our leaders? Because you cannot effectively fight the battle against the sins prevalent in the culture if you don’t have anyone directing the battle so that you fight together as one body, not scattered around to do battle alone.

    If all we as a Church are striving for is raw numbers in membership, then we are not doing what Christ asked: GO AND MAKE DISCIPLES. And if all we do is try to satisfy the ones who really DON’T want to know or follow Christ and in the process alienate the young who DO want to follow Him and have been fighting against the culture, then whom are you really trying to serve? Satan?

  • Nancy S.

    You write so beautifully and eloquently. I am 71 and am Catholic since birth. Yes, I feel the church needs change but because of my age, I wish it could go back to the beauty and ritual of the pre-Vatican II era. I am still devoted to my faith but it just feels that spirituality is missing in the modern, stripped-down service. I often wonder if this is not part of the reason people in my age bracket have left the church. I think we also need to stay on top of politicians, especially Catholic ones who are pro-choice or pro-abortion, just because that will win them favor. Shame on them. Keep the thoughts coming, Jenny. You keep us thinking.

  • Mary

    The line from the synod document about ‘allowing [young people] to be true protagonists’ made me facepalm. I came into full communion with the Church as a young adult because I was SO TIRED of trying to be in charge of my life. I found true freedom in the motherly embrace of the Church and Her teachings, not a domineering parent, and I know there’s a whole generation of millennial Catholics that had the same experience. The hierarchy just doesn’t get it. :o/

  • Mary A Patti

    I find it interesting that the religious orders that are thriving are those who seem to be so traditional. Latin Masses are gaining popularity. Sisters who wear habits have experienced larger novitiates.
    Perhaps that example of striving for real holiness is the reason. That is what we all need and our youth need to see.

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