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Xavier Rynne II: Letters from the Synod on Youth Vol. 4 – October 8

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Bishops and youth delegates leave a session of the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment at the Vatican on 5 October. PHOTO: CNS/Paul Haring

Reports and Commentary, from Rome and Elsewhere, on the XV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops: Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment. Edited by The Catholic Weekly’s Rome correspondent Xavier Rynne II.



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Sophie Scholl, John Henry Newman and the Synod

It would be interesting to know how many of this year’s Synod fathers, staff, and auditors have ever heard of Sophie and Hans Scholl and the anti-Nazi resistance organisation they formed, the White Rose.

The White Rose has not become a global moral reference point, like America’s civil rights movement in its classic period or Poland’s Solidarity movement. But as Paul Shrimpton points out in his fine new book, Conscience Before Conformity (Gracewing), Sophie Scholl in particular has become something of an icon in 21st century Germany. Not only have two feature-length movies been made about her life; almost 200

schools bear the name of this young women who was condemned by notorious Nazi ‘People’s Court’ judge, Roland Freisler, and guillotined for distributing leaflets calling cowed Germans to recover their moral senses during the Second World War. In German Lutheranism, Sophie (who wanted to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church before her death) is an unofficial martyr, and a TV series, Greatest Germans, proclaimed her the greatest German woman ever. I suspect that Miss Scholl, from her present position in the Communion of Saints, may find both those accolades a bit embarrassing.

Why? Because Sophie Scholl was both extraordinary and quite ordinary. That’s why her life-story is a fitting one for those at Synod-2018 to ponder as the Synod enters its first full week of work.

As author Shrimpton explains, Sophie, her brother Hans, their friend Christof Probst, and the other Munich students who formed the White Rose were, in many respects, normal youngsters for their time and place. In their early adolescence, both Hans and Sophie participated for a time in Nazi youth organizations, the militaristic Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls. Neither of the Scholls was exceptionally pious growing up and Hans had a somewhat adventurous romantic life as a young man. Their father was anti-Nazi and their mother was a student of the Bible who took social issues seriously; but there was little in their middle-class family background to suggest that Robert and Magdalena Scholl were raising two children who would become icons of the power of conscience in its resistance to evil.

Sophie and Hans Scholl’s original attraction to National Socialism and its claim to be restoring German greatness crashed and burned because of Nazi vulgarity and brutality – Hans, for example, was repulsed by the gargantuan crowd manipulations staged by Leni Riefenstahl at annual Party rallies in Nuremberg (a city chosen because it sought to link the Austrian-born Hitler to a millennium of German history). But it was only later, at the University of Munich, that Sophie and Hans Scholl encountered the ideas and ideals that led them into resistance.

Some of that discovery was philosophical and literary: Plato and Pascal, Kierkegaard and Bernanos were all influential in forming the minds and souls of the young people of the White Rose. But so were the theologians, including Augustine (paragon of conscientious self-examination), Thomas Aquinas (who taught them about the meaning of justice and the moral duty of resisting tyranny), and above all, John Henry Newman.

I’d learned a bit about the White Rose over the years, and I’d watched one of the films about Sophie Scholl, but it wasn’t until I read Conscience Before Conformity that I understood what a profound effect Newman had had on these youngsters. Some of them read Newman’s books: the Grammar of Assent, the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, The Idea of a University. It was Newman’s collected sermons, however, that had a decisive impact, for they opened up what Sophie Scholl described to her friend Susanne Hirzel as a “wonderful world”. And in that world of homiletic wonders, the crucial text for the White Rose was Newman’s sermon, ‘The Testimony of Conscience’. There, Sophie and her friends learned that (as one of them put it), “…we know by whom we were created, and that we stand in a relationship of moral obligation to our Creator. Conscience gives us the capacity to distinguish between Good and Evil.”

This conviction was at the root of the White Rose’s resistance to Nazism and its demands. For Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, as for Newman, conscience shaped one’s exercise of freedom because a rightly-formed conscience informed a proper understanding of freedom: freedom as a virtue, the moral habit of choosing the good; freedom not to do whatever we like, but to do what we ought. As Paul Shrimpton puts it, Sophie developed, from reading and discussing Newman, a “rich ‘theology of conscience’” in which true freedom was grasped as “the freedom to do what is good, true, and beautiful, to act according to the dictates of a conscience informed by the laws of God imprinted on the heart”.

All of which would find resonance, decades later, in the theological work of another German, Joseph Ratzinger, himself a keen student of John Henry Newman, who would write that “this way of conscience is everything other than a way of self-sufficient subjectivity; it is a way of obedience to objective truth” – the truths that God the Creator built into the world and into us.

Sophie Scholl also read Jacques Maritain and came to love Maritain’s aphorism, “Il faut avoir l’esprit dûr et le cœur tendre [One must have a tough spirit and a tender heart].” Both the tenderness and the toughness were nurtured in her by Newman’s sermon on conscience. Newman taught Sophie and the other young adults of the White Rose that they had an obligation to oppose evil publicly, no matter who listened or followed their lead. Newman’s understanding of conscience as obedience to the voice of God resonating in the depths of our humanity made Sophie Scholl into someone immune to panic,  even immune to fear, such that a 21-year-old could face down an evil maniac like Roland Feisler who held life-and-death power over her, and then lay her head into the guillotine with a serenity the executioner said he had never witnessed before.

As at Synod-2015, there will be a lot of talk about conscience at Synod-2018, in this case about young adults and conscience. Everyone involved here in the Synod’s deliberations, inside the Synod Hall and “Off Broadway” (so to speak), would do well to reflect on the story of Sophie Scholl, the White Rose, and the effect that John Henry Newman’s teaching about conscience can have on young lives looking to challenge, and even convert, culture, politics, and society.




Letters from the Synod-2018 has invited Catholics with a variety of experiences in living the synodal theme, ‘Youth, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment’, to share those experiences with our global audience and with the Synod fathers and auditors. Today’s reflection was written by Louis Cona, a seminarian for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, and a graduate of Georgetown University currently studying theology in Rome while in priestly formation at the Pontifical North American College.

A few years back, on a snowy January night, dozens of college students filled the seats in one of the many chapels on Georgetown University’s campus. No special occasion prompted these young people to turn out for a daily Mass on a school night. It was, rather, a common occurrence for them. After Mass, these 40 or so students walked just outside the main gates of campus to one of the student townhouses affiliated with the university’s Knights of Columbus Council. There at the ‘Knights House’, as we students called it, these nightly Massgoers gathered together with dozens more young men and women to finalise preparations for one of the major conferences of the academic year, the Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life. Here, packed into a 19th-century Georgetown townhouse, these young people formed a joyous scene as their many hours of hard work and sacrifice neared realisation.

People stand near a 60-foot illuminated cross at Holy Land USA, a former theme park in Waterbury, Conn., during a Mass Aug. 12 honoring sainthood candidate Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus. PHOTO: CNS

The O’Connor Conference, the largest student-run pro-life conference in the United States, is one example of a program co-sponsored and assisted by the Georgetown Knights of Columbus Council. The college Knights were not , and are not, like typical Knights of Columbus parish councils. Our entirely student-run council at Georgetown had its own house where we held council meetings, hosted college parties, welcomed guests, and gathered together to pray. We were united in our Catholic faith and shared a commitment to serve the Church, care for the poor, and seek the truth.  This was the first opportunity for many young men to live out their Catholic faith in community, as we challenged one another to grow in virtue and build character. Although our college Knights council was a fraternity, we partnered all the time with a women’s group on campus, the Catholic Daughters of America, for both social and community service events.

What the college Knights offered me, and many other young people, was an alternative to a mainstream college culture that promoted excessive drinking, easy hookups, individualism, the politicisation of academics, and moral relativism. I first recognised this early in my undergraduate days at Georgetown. I vividly recall the day, December 7, 2012, when the Knights of Columbus co-sponsored the final lecture of Fr. James V. Schall, S.J, a legendary professor of political theory. I’ll never forget walking into Gaston Hall and seeing the seats filled to capacity with mostly young students and recent alumni, rivaling the turnout for major celebrities like U2’s Bono, who also spoke in Gaston Hall that year. I remember the astonishment that seized me upon finding so many students giving up their Friday night to hear an 80-something-year-old Jesuit priest speak about life, philosophy, good and evil, truth, friendship, and eternal life.

I’ll always remember Fr Schall’s words towards the beginning of his lecture: “No subject stands closer to the heart of a 20-year old student than that of the proper meaning and practice of friendship, of how it is gained and of how it is lost. If we get that issue wrong, we will get life itself wrong.” Those words hit me like a thunderbolt. I suddenly realised that I was not alone in my desire for find a more authentic way to live, to build lasting friendships grounded not in personal egos or career networking, but in a shared commitment to goodness and truth. Looking around me that evening I saw a hall filled with many young men and women who were all seeking this same end. It is for these moments that the Knights of Columbus exist, to allow for these experiences to take place and to provide the community life possible for such friendships to take root.

The young men in the Knights recognised that no true living of the Gospel could take place without community life and friendship. Many young people were surprised to learn that there was no contradiction between living out our Catholic faith and enjoying our college experience. Contrary to what mainstream culture advertises, living the Church’s teaching frees us to enjoy life in a more holistic way. As Belloc once quipped, “the one who has the faith has the fun,” and that could not have rung truer than in our young adult Catholic community at Georgetown. The Catholic community on campus also had a healthy dating culture, offering a powerful witness to young men and women and demonstrating that they do not have to settle for hooking up. Our community revealed that the Catholic vision of love and marriage is not an impossible ideal for young people, but rather a life within reach that is truly life-giving.

In addition to developing authentic friendships, the Knights were active in our university and local community. We strove to rise above cultural extremes and avoid the all-too-common temptation to close in on ourselves. We went out to the margins and engaged both our campus and the wider DC community, working to be the leaven of the New Evangelisation. It was not unusual to find dozens of young people returning from Eucharistic adoration on campus or serving food to the city’s homeless on our “grate patrol” service project – and then find these same students at the Knights house, watching college football or hanging out with their friends. We brought our faith to the classroom, hosted panel discussions on contemporary topics, launched service projects, brought in guest speakers, hosted parties for the campus community, wrote in the school newspapers, dialogued with ecumenical groups, and organised Mass and Eucharistic adoration. Our faith was integrated into our lives in a healthy, normal, and mature manner. There were, of course, many challenges to be faced during our college years. We, just like our peers, experienced the daily challenge of living in today’s culture and the obstacles it poses to real maturity. The Gospel does not magically remove these obstacles but rather allows us to encounter them with renewed vision and hope.

The world would have us believe in a Christ who somehow shackles our freedom and suffocates our joy. For me, the college Knights and our Catholic student community revealed the truth of Pope Benedict XVI’s words: “If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great… and so… I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.”

The joy that animated our community was contagious. Even after graduation, the fruits of our community speak for themselves. Many religious vocations sprang from these years, many healthy and happy marriages and families formed; many conversions to Christ took place and many young people continue to grow in the faith. The Gospel lived to its fullest is a powerful and life-giving force. Christ breaks into our world, revealing that our expectations of college life paled in comparison to the unexpected joy and adventure that the Gospel has in store.

What we did during those college days was quite simple: we formed community, we lived our faith, and we believed that what the Church handed down to us was true and worth taking seriously. These are universal principles that can be applied in all times and places. Amidst the confusion, pain, and sorrow so often found in mainstream culture, the Church offers us another way. It is the way of truth, goodness, and life that so many young people desire in the depths of their hearts. I found this way during those college days, and I know that this way of the Gospel is not a remnant of the past, but one fully alive in the present.




Bishop Barron’s October 4 Intervention

The following intervention was delivered in the Synod general assembly by Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, on 4 October:

Jesus’ encounter with two erstwhile disciples on the road to Emmaus provides a beautiful template for the Church’s work of accompaniment across the ages. The Lord walks with the couple, even as they move away from Jerusalem, which is to say, spiritually speaking, in the wrong direction. He does not commence with a word of judgment, but rather with attention and quiet encouragement. Jesus continues to listen, even as they recount, accurately enough, all the data having to do with him. But then, knowing that they lack the interpretive pattern that will make sense of the data, he upbraids them (“Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!”), and then he lays out the form (“beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures.”). He listens with love, and he speaks with force and clarity.

Innumerable surveys and studies over the past ten years have confirmed that young people frequently cite intellectual reasons when asked what has prompted them to leave the Church or lose confidence in it. Chief among these are the convictions that religion is opposed to science or that it cannot stand up to rational scrutiny, that its beliefs are outmoded, a holdover from a primitive time, that the Bible is unreliable, that religious belief gives rise to violence, and that God is a threat to human freedom. I can verify, on the basis of 20 years of ministry in the field of online evangelisation, that these concerns are crucial stumbling blocks to the acceptance of the faith among young people.

Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron leaves a session of the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment at the Vatican Oct. 5. PHOTO: CNS/Paul Haring

What is vitally needed today, as an aspect of the accompaniment of the young, is a renewed apologetics and catechesis. I realise that in some circles within the Church, the term “apologetics” is suspect, since it seems to indicate something rationalistic, aggressive, condescending. I hope it is clear that arrogant proselytising has no place in our pastoral outreach, but I hope it is equally clear that an intelligent, respectful, and culturally-sensitive explication of the faith (“giving a reason for the hope that is within us”) is certainly a desideratum. There is a consensus among pastoral people that, at least in the West, we have experienced a crisis in catechesis these last 50 years. That the faith has not been effectively communicated was verified by the most recent Religious Landscape Study, from the Pew Research Center in America. It indicated that, among the major religions, Catholicism was second to last in passing on its traditions. Why has it been the case, over the past several decades, that young people in our own Catholic secondary schools have read Shakespeare in literature class, Homer in Latin class, Einstein in physics class, but, far too often, superficial texts in religion? The army of our young who claim that religion is irrational is a bitter fruit of this failure in education.

Therefore, what would a new apologetics look like? First, it would arise from the questions that young people spontaneously ask. It would not be imposed from above but would rather emerge organically from below, a response to the yearning of the mind and the heart. Here it would take a cue from the method of St. Thomas Aquinas. The austere texts of the great theological master in point of fact emerged from the lively give-and-take of the quaestiones disputatae that stood at the heart of the educational process in the medieval university. Thomas was deeply interested in what young people were really asking. So should we.

Secondly, a new apologetics should look deep and long into the question of the relationship between religion and science. For many people today, ‘scientific’ and ‘rational’ are simply equivalent or co-extensive terms. And therefore, since religion is obviously not science, it must be irrational. Without for a moment denigrating the sciences, we have to show that there are non-scientific and yet eminently rational paths that conduce toward knowledge of the real. Literature, drama, philosophy, the fine arts – all close cousins of religion – not only entertain and delight; they also bear truths that are unavailable in any other way. A renewed apologetics ought to cultivate these approaches.

Thirdly, our apologetics and catechesis should walk the via pulchritudinis, as Pope Francis characterised it in Evangelii Gaudium. Especially in our postmodern cultural context, commencing with the true and the good – what to believe and how to behave – is often counter-indicated, since the ideology of self-invention is so firmly established. However, the third transcendental, the beautiful, often proves a more winsome, less threatening, path. Part of the genius of Catholicism is that we have so consistently embraced the beautiful – in song, poetry, architecture, painting, sculpture, and liturgy. All of this provides a powerful matrix for evangelisation. And as Hans Urs von Balthasar argued, the most compelling beauty of all is that of the saints. I have found a good deal of evangelical traction in presenting the lives of these great friends of God, somewhat in the manner of a baseball coach who draws young adepts into the game by showing them the play of some of its greatest practitioners.

When Jesus explained himself to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, their hearts began to burn within them. The Church must walk with young people, listen to them with attention and love, and then be ready intelligently to give a reason for the hope that is within us. This, I trust, will set the hearts of the young on fire.

Bishop Caggiano’s October 4 Intervention

The following intervention was delivered to the general assembly of the Synod on October 4 by Bishop Frank Caggiano, bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut:

 Holy Father, my brother bishops, and my sisters and brother in the Lord, allow to me to share two points that weigh on my heart as we begin this synodal journey.

The first is the need for the Church to continue to directly address the issue of the sexual abuse of minors and youth by clerics in many regions of the world. It is a both a crime and a sin that has undermined the confidence and trust that young people must have in the Church’s leaders and the Church as an institution, so that they may again trust their priests and bishops to exercise true spiritual fatherhood, serve as adult figures in their lives, and as authentic mentors of faith. The Instrumentum Laboris speaks insightfully of young people’s growing disaffection with civil and social institutions and their desire to address issues of discrimination and exploitation. Building upon this, we must continue to face courageously and honestly the betrayal of young people by clerics to whom they were entrusted. This sin must never again be found in our midst. Only in this way can the youth of the world believe our synodal call to offer them reassurance, comfort, hope, and belonging.

The second issue involves the role that technology now plays in the development of young people. The Instrumentum Laboris rightly identified the key phenomenon that visual images play as the prime medium through which young people understand reality. However, it does not fully explore, nor take advantage of, the formative power that technology now exercises upon the full development of young people. For example, the document notes that music and the arts are powerful ways to open up spaces of interiority among young people that the written word may not do as effectively, [and that young] people are more apt to seek creative solutions and collaborate with a variety of relationships. This shift is as much determined by physiology as it is by culture or theology. I urge the Synod to seek ways to investigate further these fundamental changes now experienced by young people so that the pastoral initiatives we embrace can be as comprehensive as possible.

Allow me to conclude by offering one concrete way towards achieving this goal. It was Saint Thomas Aquinas who taught that the human person can encounter God by three privileged paths: truth, beauty and goodness.  In terms of technology’s formative influence on young people, I would respectfully suggest that it is the path of beauty that must be better explored for the sake of evangelisation and catechesis. In my experience with young people, the questions that haunt them are not simply intellectual ones. They are first and foremost affective questions (i.e., “questions of the heart”), that ask about their self-worth, the reasonableness of hope, the ability to commit to another and to be loved in return. We must unlock the power of beauty, which touches and captures the heart, precisely by utilising the many opportunities now afforded by digital communication and social media to accompany young people to experience beauty in service of the Gospel. Let us offer the sacred liturgy as a celebration of the beautiful, the transcendent, with an engagement of the affective senses. Let us work to capture the heart of all believers to encounter a God who does not promise a sterile [life] but a life that is itself beautiful, rich in meaning, that invites one’s heart to dare to believe that this earthly life is worth living and worth fighting for, in light of an eternal life where the restlessness of the heart will find its final rest in the salvation that alone comes from Christ Jesus the Lord.


For all updates on the Synod on Youth click here.

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