Pope Francis and the assembly of bishops called for a “synodal” Church, one that listens and reflects with young people across all aspects of Catholic life.
In this vein, The Tablet sponsored a group of students and their principal from the English Martyrs Catholic School in Leicester to visit Rome for their own "mini-synod" during the last week of the Synod of Bishops on Young People. The aim was for students to engage with the Youth Synod and respond with how relevant the content of the synod was to them; how relevant the Church is to them and to report back about their experience.
The four sixth form pupils, accompanied by their principal, Marius Carney, and vice-principal, Shelley Conaghan, spent three days in the Eternal City reflecting and writing on faith and vocation, the main synod themes.
Their time in Rome started with a meeting with Greg Burke, the Director of the Holy See’s Press Office, before heading up to the synod hall where they saw Pope Francis on his way to a meeting with young people and said hello to the Primate of All Ireland, the Archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin.
Two highlights took place on Wednesday 24 October when, after attending the General Audience in St Peter’s square, the group met with Archbishop Paul Gallagher in the Terza Loggia of the Secretariat of State.
The Liverpool-born archbishop, who is the Holy See’s equivalent of a foreign minister, spent almost an hour with the group answering their questions and before showing them onto a balcony with stunning views over St Peter’s Square.
The students with Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Holy See's Secretary for Relations with States
After this, the group was shown around the Venerable English College by Maurice Whitehead, the college archivist, and Alexander Balzanella, who is training for the priesthood. During this tour, the students got to see some extraordinary artifacts relating to the English Martyrs including St Ralph Sherwin, the first member of the English College to be martyred for the faith, St John Fisher, and St Thomas More.
They also had meetings with Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi and the Rev Justin Lewis-Anthony at Rome's Anglican Centre, and before leaving were welcomed into the residence of the British Ambassador to the Holy See, Sally Axworthy. Ambassador Axworthy spent over an hour with the group, talking about her role as a diplomat accredited to the Vatican and the soft-power influence of the Pope.
Below, the students reflect their time in Rome, and how the Church can better engage with young people.
The Tablet's Rome correspondent, Christopher Lamb, with the four students and staff
By Marius Carney, Principal, English Martyrs Catholic School, Leicester
Andoncia, Kenji, Karolina and Sam, students from English Martyrs Catholic School in Leicester, had come all the way to Rome, and they knew that the Synod was talking about them. But they couldn’t get in. Vatican Synods are closed to outsiders, and this can frustrating to any journalist – not just sixth form journalists. Yet, the whirlwind programme put together by Christopher Lamb, Rome correspondent of The Tablet, didn’t disappoint.
Four hours after the plane had touched down, we stood next to Bernini’s great colonnade, the Synod Hall visible but tantalisingly out of reach. “Pope Francis should be driving past in a minute. Look out for a small car. He’s usually very punctual.” They knew about this man and his message of Christ’s love, forgiveness and humility. In Rome this week, they saw their impressions confirmed. He returned their waves; his words connected.
The students noted that everyone they met took them seriously and answered their questions with candour. Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States of the Holy See, despite arriving back in the middle of the night from his meeting with Patriarch Ilia of Georgia, took the time to meet them and explain how the diplomatic services of the Holy See work as a means of preaching the Gospel by bringing healing in a divided world. After an hour of discussing diplomatic work in China and the Middle East, persecution of religious minorities and the role of women in the church, we were treated to a tour of his place of work and taken out on the roof overlooking St. Peter’s Square. As they moved around the frescoed loggia, the students were chatting easily and informally with the Archbishop – one could see in him the school chaplain or parish priest. Reassuring.
Even if they couldn’t get into the Synod itself, the students’ experience in Rome was truly “synodal”, they listened and were listened to. They enjoyed learning of the rich history of the English College. Its protomartyr Ralph Sherwin is one of our school’s House Saints.
They learned how the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion work together to proclaim the Gospel through education and providing help for women and men caught up in trafficking. This was eye-opening as was the joint work of the UK government with the church on a host of issues ranging from treaties to ban chemical weapons to initiatives to combat modern slavery.
These young people who travelled to Rome are committed young Christians. They have leadership roles in school, and two are Eucharist Ministers. Like many young Catholics in the UK, they live in an inter-religious environment, in non-nuclear families, they have Catholic friends who are LGBT+. They expect women to take a leading role in society and were surprised to hear from Ambassador Sally Axworthy (UK Ambassador to the Holy See) just how much has changed in this regard in the British Foreign Office in the last 30 years.
What are they taking home?
Certainly Pope Francis: “He’s so much more than a celebrity. This is someone you actually want to be like.” But they are now aware of the role of the Vatican in promoting God’s dignity, unity and peace for all people. They know that women need to play a much more significant role in the leadership of the Church and soon.
And they want to continue to be taken seriously in their life of faith and involved in thinking and talking about building their parishes and communities. They have heard that the Church wants to create a culture of lay leadership. And they are up for the challenge.
Vice-Principal Shelly Conaghan and Principal Marius Carney in Rome
Rome was truly inspirational and enlightening, from seeing the Colosseum and sitting on the Spanish Steps to interviewing so many different people including senior officials in the Vatican. Experiencing the Papal blessing, with thousands of other people from many countries, young and old, was a real highlight of the week.
Overall I come away convinced that are three things the Church needs to hear from young people like me. Together we need to change the mindset of conservative thinkers; the church needs to get rid of clericalism and look again at having female priests and it needs to become more welcoming to LGBT people.
In order for the Church to be accepted by young people we need to start through practical steps, for example forums for young and old people to discuss church teaching. Hopefully by changing people’s perspectives on issues like contraception and LGBT people, we can start to create a more welcoming Church. If the more conservative clergy were exposed to the views of young people, it could have an impact on everybody’s faith.
Some feminists are against the Catholic Church because of its opposition to women clergy. I think that simply relying on arguments such as "Jesus is male" and "apostolic succession" may be no longer be good enough. It’s time to listen and think again.
Although we heard in Rome that the Catholic Church feels it should be "more" welcoming towards LGBT people, we need greater urgency. Young gay people often still face prejudice in their parishes and schools, even in some catholic schools. Although the Catholic Church is perhaps welcoming at an individual level it could do so much more – there is still a long way to go for gay people to be seen as equal to straight people by church, to really know that they are created in God’s image. Mindsets need to change in order for the Church to grow.
Finally, having just 36 young people from five continents attending the Synod on Youth is hardly representative of all the young people in the world, but I accept this initiative is a big step in the right direction. Such open dialogue between the Church hierarchy and youth does indeed create a good precedent for the future. Perhaps there could be such a meeting every year?
Archbishop Bernard Ntahotouri, Director of the Anglican Centre, with the students
I have learnt so much during this week in Rome. It has inspired me as a young person to think more deeply about my own life and to speak out and act for the things I care about and for those who do not a have a voice. I had the privilege of meeting Ambassadors. They have the capability to change and impact our futures in their hands, but they also suggested that I myself as a young adult can take a leadership role in my own community and contribute to making changes that would benefit the people around me and the wider world.
But as I take this on myself, I would like to recommend to church leaders to put dialogue into action. I accept that it is a Synod of Bishops and essentially a meeting for them to decide what is the best course of action for us. However, could it be possible to have Youth Synods? Maybe there could be one in each individual country to have representative youth groups to voice their opinions on matters that affect the young people of the Church, with senior representatives from the Church there to be present and listen? The future of the Church lies with us, and we must start taking action now.
We were invited to Rome to write about our experiences of the Youth Synod, and I can’t help but show my appreciation of what a truly beautiful city it is. Walking the streets of Rome and finding fascinating pieces of history in every street from over the centuries was amazing. I had the unique experience of seeing the Pope drive past our group outside the gates of the Vatican. His love of young people was truly shown when he saw us from afar waiting for him and waving and smiling at us as he drove past! It was also an awe-inspiring experience to go inside the Vatican and be shown onto a balcony with a magnificent view overlooking St Peter’s Square. Rome really does come alive in the evenings as well, the stunning views, restaurants and general atmosphere. Rome has been ever so kind to us, and we shall be back soon!
Greg Burke, Director of the Holy See Press Office, discusses media coverage of the synod
Half term in Rome was an unforgettable experience. It opened my eyes to the significant impact of Catholicism in different parts of the world and empowered me in my own faith for which I will always be grateful.
As one of only four students, I had the opportunity to stand face to face with the beating heart of Catholic Church, the Vatican. Three amazing three days were filled with meetings about the Synod on Youth. We also saw so much of the Eternal City itself. Before I came to Rome, I didn’t know about how important diplomacy is within the Vatican. We met the British Ambassador to the Holy See and the Vatican diplomat responsible for "Relationships with States". Together with them we explored what diplomacy means within the Church. I also learned a lot more about what impact the Church has on issues within and outside the Church, such as or banning chemical weapons or married clergy.
I think that many young people find it hard to create a strong link between the Church and politics. In a religious context, power can be hard to define, and we can feel like what we can contribute is just a small drop in a vast ocean. It therefore surprised me that Pope Francis asks lay people to get involved in politics. It was during this visit to Rome that I understood that politics and diplomacy are means to seeking the common good and acknowledging this as a part of our responsibility as Christians.
I was also struck by how diplomacy can connect and unify people and how far it allows for the word of God to be spread. In Rome I met a Vatican diplomat, an Anglican priest and a British ambassador. It occurred to me that they all had something important in common. They have faith in God, and they believe in a common goal. They see what needs to change in today's society, and they are passionate about making a difference.
Many young people struggle to understand the purpose of faith and belief in the existence of a higher being. I believe that if the Catholic Church was more transparent about the good things they do in the big worldm, this would open eyes to how faith can power the cogs of change.
Professor Maurice Whitehead, Schwarzenbach Research Fellow at the English College and archive co-ordinator, shows students artifacts relating to the English Martyrs
I was incredibly tired when I got back from Rome, but I was feeling “Rome-sick”, missing the vibrant city. Crowds of tourists thronged the streets, as life continued for many the locals. The beauty of Rome at night is something that will stay with me forever, as will the amazing food. I did wonder though as to how many people knew about the historic synod happening behind the closed doors of the Vatican.
The Synod’s themes included vocation, the family and inter-faith relations. At the Venerable English College we heard about the martyrs of the English Reformation, and we met Alex, a seminarian at the college, who told us what it means for him to be called by God. The Anglican Centre gave us an alternative view into what the role of women in the Church can look like. This was thought-provoking, and ideas as to how the two Churches are working together for the common good showed that ecumenism is the way forward for the Church.
Attending the Papal audience in St Peter’s Square was a truly humbling experience. I am just one part of God’s Church on Earth. I contemplated the challenge of a response from the Bishops on young people which still proclaims the Gospel. Looking around, I was among Western Catholics, and Catholics from the developing world. We are united in our faith and by our prayers, but I knew that we would have very different ideas about what young Catholics want.
The sheer size of the Church’s diplomatic branch was a revelation. Archbishop Gallagher introduced this, and conversely, the British Ambassador to the Holy See, Sally Axworthy, made me consider the life of a diplomat. She showed that despite some differences, the Church and the British Government have common aims and goals. Gallagher’s insightful responses were matched only by his hospitality, making us feel welcome and giving us the privilege of seeing hidden gems of the Vatican, and a breathtaking view of the pilgrims in St Peter’s Square.
Moving on from the Synod, the Church must consider what it can do to get young people involved. A striking aspect of the Synod was the lack of youth representation at the Synod. I would advise Bishops to engage in local initiatives, and something that I feel would benefit the Bishops would be to hold mini-Synods with representatives from their Diocese. This would certainly make me feel respected.
In Rome the students met Sally Axworthy, British Ambassador to the Holy See since 2016
Vice-Principal Shelley Conaghan
I have a watch that counts steps. The aim of course is for me to track my fitness, and for the most part I pay attention to it. It turns out my watch has done so much more than that recently. Between Tuesday and Thursday my tracker told me I’d done 68,000 steps. Pretty impressive in fitness terms. Together with four Sixth Formers and a colleague, I went to Rome to learn about the inner workings of the Vatican.
Feeling smug at my step count, I reflected on where those steps had taken me. St Peter’s Square, the Colosseum, photos with a Swiss Guard; the list goes on, but we also found ourselves inside palaces and meeting with Archbishop Gallagher, head of the Vatican’s diplomatic service and Ambassador Sally Axworthy, UK Ambassador to the Holy See, both of whom were warm and welcoming and taught us all so much about their role. We were also made most welcome by the archivist of the Venerable English College and Alex Balzanella, a seminarian. We saw treasures from the archives and then were graciously received at the Anglican Centre by its director Bernard Ntahoturi, former Primate of the Anglican Church in Burundi, and his deputy Justin Lewis-Anthony. The Centre promotes dialogue between Anglicans and Catholics. I was thrilled to be introduced to the Vatican Press Office by its director Greg Burke and to see the inner workings of all we read in the press and see on television.
For me those steps were not about just what I had seen. It was the end product of the steps that I was most affected by. I had never been to Rome before and feel blessed to have been there with such committed, wonderful people. On the plane home I reflected on my 68,000 steps. Those steps were linked to my spiritual journey as a Catholic. As a result of this trip, my faith is fitter and stronger. I had time to think and absorb what faith means to me and how it fits into my busy life. I was enriched by listening to the young people with me and seeing how important their Church is to them and learning from them that no matter what, Jesus should remain central in your life. Note to self: alongside my physical health checks make sure I also do a spiritual one, in many ways it’s more important!