VATICAN CITY – The Synod of Bishops released Thursday an English translation of the final document of the 2018 session on young people, faith and vocational discernment. The document encourages young people to seek an authentic encounter with God, instead of adopting a morally relativistic outlook on life.
The document highlights the spiritual and religious experiences of young people around the world, both in and outside of the church, noting that in many places “forms of alternative religiosity are on the rise.” It also held out the authentic Christian experience of many young people as a witness of faith and hope to their peers.
“The youth help to enrich what the Church is and not only what she does,” the synod fathers wrote. “They are her present and not only her future.”
The synod met for more than three weeks in October for its fifteenth ordinary general session, and published the original text of its conclusions on October 27. The document was released in English by the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops January 10.
During the meeting, synod fathers were joined in Rome by young people and religious from around the world who participated in the session as auditors.
“The religious experience of the young is strongly influenced by the social and cultural context in which they live,” the document stated.
The synod fathers noted that, while in some places the church and faith were present as a “strong and lively community experience, in which the young participate with joy,” this is not so everywhere.
“In other areas of ancient Christian tradition, the majority of the Catholic population does not experience a real sense of belonging to the Church,” the document said. Instead, many young people are disillusioned with the very concept of religious practice.
Nevertheless, the fathers said, there remains a common pursuit for meaning and truth in the lives of young people everywhere.
Often, those averse to the idea of “religion” are still drawn to other forms of “spirituality.” While reflecting a search for the truth, the document warned that these efforts are often diverted into lesser kinds spiritual satisfaction and missed the opportunity for an authentic relationship with God.
“This attention [to the spiritual], though, can sometimes take the form of a search for psychological well-being rather than openness to encounter with the Mystery of the living God,” the fathers wrote.
The synod’s report highlighted the danger of moral and religious relativism replacing faith and a relationship with Christ through the church.
“Particularly in some cultures, many see religion as a private matter and they choose from a variety of spiritual traditions those elements in which they find their own convictions mirrored. There thus spreads a certain syncretism, which develops on the relativistic assumption that all religions are equal,” the report said.
When the faith is lived within a deeply relativistic culture, the fathers wrote, membership in the church can be “accompanied and sometimes replaced by ideologies or by the cult of success in professional and economic terms, with a view to material self-fulfilment.”
“In Christian communities we sometimes risk proposing, even without intending it, an ethical and therapeutic theism, which responds to the human need for security and comfort, rather than a living encounter with God in the light of the Gospel and in the strength of the Spirit.”
The synod fathers echoed the recent work of Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame.
In his book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Smith argued that the dominant religion among American teenagers is “moralistic therapeutic deism,” in which God is understood as a benevolent creator who, while wanting people to treat each other well, is generally uninvolved in their day-to-day lives.
This impersonal conception of God, Smith said, means that the “central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”
Recognizing that the fullness of human fulfillment comes from an authentic personal experience of the living God, the synod fathers said that authentic communities of faith are needed to lead people out of moral and religious relativism.
“If it is true that life is awakened solely through life, it becomes clear that young people need to encounter Christian communities that are truly rooted in friendship with Christ, who leads us to the Father in the communion of the Holy Spirit,” they wrote.
Such communities do exist, the synod report said, and the active presence of many young people in the church is an essential sign of life and the church’s “present and not only her future.”
“Young Catholics are not merely on the receiving end of pastoral activity: they are living members of the one ecclesial body, baptized persons in whom the Spirit of the Lord is alive and active,” the fathers wrote, highlighting the work done by many youth in catechesis and liturgy, caring for the weak, and volunteer work with the poor.
The synod report stressed that a lived reality of community is an important part of fostering an active faith and effective evangelization, noting that “movements, associations and religious congregations” within the church offer young people particular “opportunities for commitment and co-responsibility.”
“In various contexts there are groups of young people, often from ecclesial movements and associations, who are actively involved in the evangelization of their peers through a transparent life witness, accessible language and the capacity to establish authentic bonds of friendship,” the report said.
“This apostolate makes it possible to bring the Gospel to people who might not otherwise be reached by ordinary youth ministry and it helps to mature the faith of those who engage in it.”
At the same time, the report conceded that there are still cultural barriers to overcome within the church, highlighting “a certain authoritarianism and mistrust from older people and pastors” who could “struggle to share responsibility.”
The synod fathers particularly noted the frustrations of many young people in the church concerning the role of women, saying that many “clamour for greater recognition and greater valuing of women in society and in the Church.”
“Many women play an essential part in Christian communities,” the report said, “but often it is hard to involve them in decision-making processes, even when these do not require specific ministerial responsibilities.”
The synod fathers said that the absence of “the feminine voice and perspective” is something which “impoverishes debate and the Church’s journey.”
“The Synod recommends that everyone be made more aware of the urgency of an inevitable change, not least on the basis of anthropological and theological reflection on the reciprocity between men and women.”
While many young people have a healthy and sustaining relationship with the church as a mother which leads them to Christ, the report noted that scandals and abuse within the church contribute to the alienation of young people from the church and from the sacraments.
The synod fathers warned that sincere attempts by young people to engage with these issues could be misread, and that it is important to recognize both their true intentions and the potential benefits.
“The young ask the Church to offer a shining example of authenticity, exemplariness, competence, co-responsibility and cultural solidity,” the report concluded.
“At times this request can seem like a criticism, but often it assumes the positive form of personal commitment to a fraternal, welcoming, joyful and committed community, prophetically combating social injustice.”