What I Learned At the Synod on Youth

Three weeks in Rome covering the synod on youth was quite an education for me!  Here are a few things that I have learned.

Global Diversity. We live in a global church.  Hearing perspectives from bishops and youths in cultures and nations very different from my own broadens my horizons and makes me appreciate the wonderful diversity of God and the good that the church has the potential to do around the world.

Global Diversity, Again. Actually, I learned that first lesson three years ago at the synod on the family, but I forgot it, and had to re-learn it this time around.  No, my memory isn’t deteriorating (at least I hope not!). I forgot it because returning home to the USA, it is very easy to return to a closed bubble, thinking that my reality is the entire reality.  So, that’s another lesson I learned at the synod: it’s important to listen to other perspectives.  It keeps one from being too narrow.

Sexuality’s Essential Role. I also realized the importance of sexuality in our lives in a new way.  In the first few days of the synod, when my Bondings 2.0 colleague, Robert Shine, was here in Rome covering the event, he ran into Australia’s Archbishop Anthony Fisher on the street and stopped to have a little chat with him.  Fisher has not had a positive record on LGBT issues, so the two didn’t see eye-to-eye on the topic.  But Fisher said something to him that has stuck with me throughout the synod.  He tried to make the argument that in certain parts of the world, some youth had more important issues than sexuality, such as where their next meal may be coming from.

While hunger is a tragic and true reality, it is not good for church leaders to compare sexuality to this problem.  Food is important, but so is sexuality—especially when we understand sexuality in a broad sense.  While food is essential for nourishing our bodies, relationship is essential for our souls.  And it is not a zero-sum game.  Both issues can be discussed.

A Problem With the Way Some Bishops Think About Sexuality. Perhaps Fisher was thinking only in terms of physical relationships. If he was, that is a problematic point of view.  But it is not one that is surprising.  Time and again throughout this synod, I realized that when bishops spoke of sexuality, they seemed to have physical relationships, not interpersonal or emotional relationships.  As long as our church’s leaders continue looking at sexuality primarily through the lens of physical activities, our church will never be able to develop its sexual morality.

Pope Francis:  Master Strategist? I learned that Pope Francis is a better strategist than I have given him credit for. No, he is not directly tackling issues of sexual morality, but he is changing the processes by which these issues can be discussed.  He is allowing for more diverse voices to be heard.  He is letting disagreement happen. And by instituting rules about the synod process that require lay consultation before any future synod is an important innovation.  His push for synodality at all levels of the church—national, diocesan, parish—is a revolutionary move to make the church more consultative, if not democratic.

More Than a Synod on Youth. One way that I look at it is that he called a synod on youth, not just to address ministry to youth, but to allow youth voices to be heard and present at the synod itself.  That’s a major first.  In a way, this wasn’t a synod on youth in the present day, it was actually a synod about where the church should be in the future.

The Way We Were.  The Way We Are Now. Finally, one of the biggest lessons I learned is how far we have come!  Twenty-five years ago, when I first became involved in this ministry, I would have never guessed that I would see the day when a Vatican sponsored event would be having an open discussion of LGBT issues.  I would never have guessed that voices calling for a change in the church’s teaching would be heard during a synod of bishops.  I would never have guessed that a Vatican document would say that the church needs to better examine its sexual teaching, that parishes welcoming LGBT people are needed in the church, and that ministry to LGBT people should primarily be one of welcome and accompaniment, not doctrinal repetition.  And I never would have guessed that I would have been approved by the Vatican to witness and report on these developments.

The synod has taken some steps forward.  When we look at those steps in terms of how far we have come, we can see them as pretty big and important ones.

Arrividerci, Roma!

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 30, 2018

In the coming weeks, Bondings 2.0 will continue its coverage of the youth synod with any follow-up stories, commentaries, and developments that may emerge.


6 replies
  1. Paul Morrissey, OSA
    Paul Morrissey, OSA says:

    Francis, thank you so much for your indefatigable ministry to us and very insightful description of the content and processes of the synod. I feel hopeful to read this summary.
    Blessing to all at New Ways Ministry!

  2. Thomas Smith
    Thomas Smith says:

    Uplifting to hear the positive aspects of this synod. We who have been exhaustively and diligently “building the bridge” for 30 years need to fully appreciate the progress present in current church activities. Never thought I’d see the day either!

  3. Vernon Smith
    Vernon Smith says:

    Archbishop Fisher’s dismissive comment attempting to diminish sexuality as a topic of “legitimate” concern (because, as he puts it, some youth are more concerned with finding their next meal), parallels other demeaning comments that you noted in other posts on the synod. I am thinking of those church officials who seemed to suggest that lgbt concerns are interests coming from affluent, privileged societies in the west . . . But they are not concerns of the materially more challenged global south. You are exactly correct that this creates a false dichotomy that the topics of sexuality and poverty/wealth are mutually exclusive. I think of the powerful talk that Frank Mugisha gave at the New Ways symposium in Chicago last year. He demonstrated with absolute clarity the presence and significance of conflicts in Uganda involving the complex intersections of sexuality, power, disparities in wealth, government, and the Church. Although the contexts and circumstances may differ, they are all complex and intertwined issues in both the global south and in the west. Mugisha exemplified that they are anything but mutually exclusive concerns. When people like Fisher make such simplistic arguments, he fails to realise that he is further oppressing the poor / hungry by denying they are sexual beings with needs of intimacy and connection, like anyone else. And they demean those people in the supposedly affluent west who also face sexual discrimination while desperately needing to find a decent meal. Human needs and human rights constantly intersect in complex ways. To ignore these realities does a disservice to the hungry and to the global south . . . And, indeed, to all of us.


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