Speak honestly and offer constructive criticism about the Church’s attempts to connect with younger generations, Pope Francis told the first sit-down session of the youth synod.
During an opening speech to participants Francis called on the gathering to be courageous when they made their interventions and called for the synod get into the mode of “open listening” where people are free to say things he may not like to hear.
“An honest, transparent critique is constructive and helpful, and does not engage in useless chatter, rumours, conjectures or prejudices,” the Pope told 267 synod fathers and assorted non-ordained experts gathered in the Synod Aula, or hall, in the Vatican.
“A Church that does not listen shows herself closed to newness, closed to God’s surprises, and cannot be credible, especially for the young who will inevitably turn away rather than approach.”
The Pope urged synod members to speak with “parrhesia” – a Greek word meaning to speak openly and with courage and frankness – a word he also used at the synod of bishops on the family in 2014 and 2015.
Francis then referred to the pre-synod gathering with young people where he told them: “If you say something I do not like, I have to listen even more, because everyone has the right to be heard, just as everyone has the right to speak.”
Throughout his papacy, the Pope has called for the Synod of Bishop gatherings to be places of open discussion and careful listening, arguing that it creates the space for dialogue and discernment. This is the approach he believes a “synodal” Church must adopt when devising its pastoral strategy.
The Pope, who turns 82 in September, admitted that most of those present at the youth synod are no longer young – many of them are in the 60s and 70s – but emphasised that those who are older had wisdom that can be passed on to generations coming behind them.
“It is clear that we must pay attention, above all, to the risk of talking about young people in categories and ways of thinking that are already outmoded,” said the Pope.
“We must, on the other hand, cure the virus of self-sufficiency and of hasty conclusions reached by many young people. An Egyptian proverb says: ‘If there is no elderly person in your home, buy one, because you will need him.’ To shun and reject everything handed down across the ages brings only a dangerous disorientation that sadly threatens our humanity.”
The 3-28 October synod is focussing on young people, the faith and vocational discernment. It is taking place at a time when the Church has been battling with the abuse scandals and various cover-ups by bishops. Francis has repeatedly diagnosed clericalism – where power is concentrated in the hands of a few ordained men – as the problem at the heart of the crisis.
“Clericalism arises from an elitist and exclusivist vision of vocation, that interprets the ministry received as a power to be exercised rather than as a free and generous service to be given,” the Pope said.
“This leads us to believe that we belong to a group that has all the answers and no longer needs to listen or learn anything. Clericalism is a perversion and is the root of many evils in the Church: we must humbly ask forgiveness for this and above all create the conditions so that it is not repeated.”
Despite the problems facing the Church, Francis urged them to avoid being tempted by the “prophets of doom”, and not to be afraid of “the wounds of Christ’s flesh, always inflicted by sin and often by the children of the Church”.
He told them to keep their gaze fixed on the good that “often makes no sound; it is neither a topic for blogs, nor front page news”.
As the synod got underway, the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput – who has urged the Pope to cancel the synod in light of the abuse crisis – issued another appeal to edit the synod’s working document to make it more theological and less sociological.
"Keyed to the theme of 'young people, faith, and vocational discernment', a more ironic, and more difficult, confluence of bad facts at a bad time for the meeting can hardly be imagined," he wrote in a column for his archdiocesan website.
“The Francis pontificate has been described as God’s medicine for Churchmen whose notion of the Christian life has grown ill from an overdose of abstraction. In like manner, neither the Pope nor the Church is served — particularly in a time of humiliation and crisis — by an overdose of sentiment, accommodation, and sociology. Faith demands more than that.”