By many accounts, the signal theme of Pope Francis’ papacy is expressed in the title of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. The “joy of the Gospel,” however, could not be further removed from recent headlines about the Catholic Church.
First, there was the sexual abuse of children and young men by clergy.
Then, there was the decades-long cover-up of that abuse by priests, religious superiors, bishops, and sometimes even laypeople.
Now, there is the threat of yet another cover-up: the failure of the Church to own up to its sins.
The Bishops’ Synod on the Youth presents an opportunity for the Church to confess her guilt, ask forgiveness, and begin to make genuine reparation for her sins.
It would be a most fitting occasion to do so. Pope Francis has called this bishops’ synod to address the state of the youth in the Church. At stake is the most fundamental task of the Church: can the Church proclaim the Gospel effectively to the next generation? Thus the purpose of the Synod cuts to the heart of the current scandal: is the Church a witness to the love and mercy of Jesus?
What can the Synod do?
Young people at a pre-synodal meeting in March crafted a document that provides a powerful blueprint for what that response could look like. I recently tweeted a number of its more quotable lines:
- “For some young people, the Church has developed a culture which focuses heavily on members engaging with the institutional aspect of herself, not the person of Christ.”
- “Young people express a desire to see a Church that is a living testimony to what it teaches and witnesses to authenticity on the path to holiness, which includes acknowledging mistakes and asking for forgiveness.”
- “A credible Church is one which is not afraid to allow itself be seen as vulnerable.”
- “The Church should continue to inforce her no-tolerance stance on sexual abuse within her institutions and her humility will undoubtedly raise its credibility among the world’s young people.”
- “If the Church acts in this way, then it will differentiate itself from other institutions and authorities which young people, for the most part, already mistrust.”
These statements do not suggest that young people are looking for the Church to settle old scores, engage in character assassinations and exploit the present crisis to claim victory in the ad intra battles that dominate Catholic Twitter. Young people who are on the fence about the Church’s ability to bring them into relationship with beauty, goodness and truth are not calling upon the Church to build the Kingdom through protecting its turf, avoiding lawsuits and hoping the secular press will grow bored of these stories.
Rather, young people are looking for the Church to be the Church: to proclaim the Gospel fully and authentically, and preach it everywhere and through everything we do, including in our own actions. There are already countless institutions in the world that have disappointed young people through being self-serving, hypocritical and power-hungry. Young people are asking: will the Church be different?
The exact shape of this response is up to the bishops and Pope Francis. But there can be no doubt that the Church must talk about this issue. The credibility and witness of the Church is on the line.
The “joy of the Gospel” is not the joy of the sinless, but of those who sin and are forgiven, as Pope Francis has repeatedly underlined. The Church has an opportunity now to embrace that joy as a corporate body. Similarly, the “Church of Mercy” is not a mercy for those who don’t need it, but for the sinner who discovers God’s love through grace. Can the members of the Church similarly trust in the mercy of God? Can we hold ourselves to the same standard, confident that we can, with God’s help, admit our sin and thereby be freed from it?
The world has a deep familiarity with sin, even to the point that it has pointed out the Church’s own sins to us. What the Church can provide the world, however, is a model of repentance and renewal. Despite our sin, even because of our sin, we have to testify to grace.
Let me be clear: the Church will weather all things until Kingdom come. That Christian hope, however, is not an excuse for complacency but a call to cooperate with God in bringing about that Kingdom. And young people want us to respond to that call, to show them it is indeed credible and the basis of a meaningful, authentic life.
Whatever we do, young people will be watching. But for how long?
I owe great thanks to Billy Critchley-Menor, SJ in the conceptualization of this piece.