Perhaps one of the most memorable scenes of last year’s World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, was Pope Francis sharing a meal with a dozen young people. His guests peppered him with questions, both pastoral and personal, and the pope used the occasion to ask them questions too.
Now, in preparation for the upcoming Synod of Bishops in October 2018, he’s extending that conversation to youth from the entire world.
On June 14, the Vatican launched an anonymous online survey for young people between ages 16-29 to complete. The hope is to provide a platform for a range of voices to express their hopes, fears and challenges of living in light of faith. These responses will form the basis of the working document that will be used for the synod.
Some of our friends who have completed the survey have remarked that despite some translation issues they’ve been remarkably impressed at the range of questions and the concrete ways in which the church is seeking input. In fact, it’s the first time the Vatican has allowed for direct public responses in preparation for a synod.
We see this as a welcome change — and an outgrowth of Pope Francis’ challenge to create a culture of encounter. “Emails, text messages, social networks and chats can (also) be fully human forms of communication. It is not technology that determines whether or not communication is authentic but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal,” he wrote for the 50th World Communications Day.
The demographic at the heart of this synod has spent most if not all of their youth sharing what they think and feel online. It’s a natural point of contact.
This type of digital outreach is also happening at home. The Archdiocese of Washington, for example, is swapping out its “Walk with Francis” evangelization campaign launched during the pope’s 2015 visit to the United States with “Share with Francis,” a digital campaign meant to re-engage its youth and young adults ahead of the synod. Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl issued a personal invitation — in both English and Spanish — to his young flock through video.
As important as digital media is in this venture, in-person communication is still essential for knowing the minds and hearts of the church’s youth. Anyone engaged in youth ministry knows that the most important moments of conversion happen from one-on-one conversation and in the context of a relationship built on trust. That’s why it’s good to hear of dioceses complementing the digital outreach with listening sessions.
These initiatives are bound to produce helpful insights for the synod’s guiding document. But the yield will be largely from young adults at least moderately engaged with their faith.
After all, apart from advertising, most of the calls for the listening sessions and the promptings on social media will land in front of people already in the pews or those whose digital platforms include diocesan or parish accounts in their news feeds. A challenge remains how to get answers from those who were baptized but for whom faith is not at present a part of their life.
Schools or universities might be a place to start. It also might involve seeking out those who are not, for any number of reasons, frequenting Sunday Mass or scrolling through their phones. It could require visits to juvenile detention centers, homes for single mothers and, in some places, refugee camps.
This will require creativity — and some courage — from the clergy and those in ministry. But new ways of engagement and encounter are what this synod and this pope is all about.
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Elise Italiano is executive director of communications at The Catholic University of America. Christopher White is director of Catholic Voices USA.
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