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Xavier Rynne II: Letters from the Synod on Youth Vol. 7 – October 11

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Auxiliary Bishop Mark Edwards of Melbourne, Australia, talks with Indonesian youth delegate Anastasia Indrawan before a session of the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment at the Vatican on 9 October. PHOTO: CNS/Paul Haring


On 9 October, the Vatican issued a report summarizing the Synod’s first round of small group discussions, which focused on Part One (paragraphs 1 to 72) of the Synod’s working document, the Instrumentum Laboris [IL].  As in past synods, bishop-delegates, Synod auditors, and invited observers divide into language-based discussion groups when the Synod is not meeting in general assembly. In Synod-2018 there are fourteen such groups, or Circoli Minori in Synod-speak: four for English speakers, three for French, one for German, two for Spanish, three for Italian, and one for Portuguese. (Once upon a time, there would be “circle” using Latin, but those days are no more.)

The members of these groups share their thoughts on the Synod’s working document, one section at a time. Each small group has a president to moderate the discussion (although it is reported that some presidents are, shall we say, more active, sharing their thoughts on just about everyone else’s thoughts).  A secretary takes notes and synthesizes them into a record of the group’s discussion.  These reports then become raw material for the adjustment or revision of Synod’s final text, whatever form that might take.  “Raw material” is exactly the right term for these reports.  They are not polished discourses.  They vary greatly in quality and focus.  Asian and African English-speakers, for example, may have very different priorities from those in Europe or North America.  That should be no surprise, but it can make for confused and tedious reading.  Nonetheless, the reports do have value.  Among other things, they hint at the Synod’s major fault lines.

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LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD shared the reports with a range of scholars and others for their overnight assessment.  While quick and incomplete, their comments are interesting.

From a Spanish Catholic journalist: 

The Spanish groups followed the IL closely and made a significant number of criticisms, but still worked with the text. There is nothing troubling in their comments but nothing inspiring, either. The perspective in both Spanish groups is quite Latin American: very little on issues related to sex, a lot on immigration, finding jobs, reaching the mass of youth, etc. In short, nothing unusual.

 From a U.S.-based theologian on the English language group reports:

 It seems to me that the most important thing to stress – really, to go to the wall for – is is to minimize the damaging “LGBT/sexual identity” language, and then to get some positive affirmations in there about the importance of chastity.

I think the chastity piece is strategically important because it is the antithesis of the pro-LGBT position….They have to talk about not seeming negative or finger-wagging, seeking openness. But the rejoinder is to talk about the tremendous suffering that young people are going through precisely because of sexual abuse, pornography exposure, emotional wounds, and broken hearts, from the lies and empty promises of the sexual revolution – and then offer chastity as a positive alternative.  

From a European-based religious:

Some potentially problematic passages from various small groups:

“[There] are many other forms of family other than the nuclear family or the extended family. We had a debate in our small group about non-ideal groupings from the Christian perspective. Does leadership in the Church require bishops and priests to proclaim the Gospel truth by denying that these are families? Or does our leadership require us to accompany the young people in the reality in which they find themselves? Perhaps these are not contradictory realities: St John recounts that Jesus both accepted the woman caught in adultery and proposed something else. Is it possible for us to both accept and even honor the family unit that a young person finds herself in and to share the Gospel ideal to her? . . . “

“It now seems necessary to approach the issue of sexuality more openly with young people and to discuss all the subjects related to it. The Church is called to update her teaching on these themes knowing that she is a servant of the mercy of God. In this sense, it might be useful to elaborate and propose to the particular Churches a document dealing with questions of affectivity and sexuality . . . “

“From the riches of her teaching, including from her ‘treasure trove’ of social doctrine, the Church can offer [young persons] reasons for living and hoping. She does this best with young people by avoiding a moralistic or polemical approach – as if we had all the ‘ready- made’ answers — but instead accompanying young people in a climate of joy and adventure of discovery . . . ”

“We must avoid telling young people ‘that should not be done’ but, rather, make them see the consequences of their actions, since an empathetic Church is the one that accompanies despite the errors, without imposing, prohibiting, or demanding. However, those same points are the least empathetic and there is a need to emphasize the importance of decisions and encourage them to take risks . . .

From a U.S.-based theologian, thoughts on the German group:

Paragraph 2 [of the German language report] is just obvious pandering to youth and a kind of youth-worship: “We hear the youth and look upon them with the ears and eyes of a younger Jesus.” Seriously?

 Paragraph 6 is setting the Synod up for a replay of Amoris Laetitia. After highlighting “joy” and “discernment” as the hallmark of this papacy in Paragraph 5, it emphasizes from the IL (and Amoris Laetitia): “Reality is more important than the Idea.” It goes on to interpret this to mean: “. . . we look with the loving eyes of the youth on the concrete person and concrete situation, and we learn to understand how God’s presence is illuminated there. For example, also there where that concrete reality does not yet correspond to the ideal Christian life.”

First, this is pantheistic – where is truth found? In the concrete conditions of lived experience (natural), not in revelation (supernatural) – which seems to be, of course, the premise of the entire IL.

Second, the German [Synod] fathers are emphasizing a genealogical rather than a prescriptive approach – i.e, the Church is apparently not in the business of proposing things (teaching), but only in mining whatever is already there, embedded in the world. This is grounded in the complete collapse of nature and grace, i.e. theologically, naturalism; philosophically, Feuerbach.

The most important element highlighted, in my view, is the German [Synod] fathers’ discussion of anthropology. And because they have given so much attention to it, and because the Rhineland bishops have historically been so influential, I think the English-speaking bishops would do well to have a fully formulated response concerning anthropology. In their Paragraph 10, the Germans say that the Synod must consider the question of what it means to be human, to be a human person, what is actual freedom, where does one find one’s identity? And then they follow this up in their Paragraph 11 with the following (this is obviously a rough translation): “The question of embodiment and sexuality, the digital world, the inability to discern, the desire for the spiritual – phenomena which require a deeper anthropological investigation, if we desire to propose belief as a way to a successful human life. One Synod father suggested: If we don’t have a clear diagnosis of the human condition, than we don’t have a therapy for it. In any case, we are of the opinion that the meaning of the theme of sexuality for the youth, the mere description of the phenomenon and a few problems in sections 52-53 of the text [i.e., the IL], does not suffice. We beg for an anthropological deepening and orientation of these dimensions with an accent on the quality of human relationships.”

Note, first, that here they are setting the anthropological stage for the LGBT argument – most likely by appealing to the “changing” human condition (think Bernard Häring) Second, note the theological fallacy – i.e., if we don’t understand the human condition, then we can’t address it. For which, the {Synod] Germans fathers will likely offer their assessment and their remedy. But of course the Church does have knowledge of the human condition (sin, virtue, vice, etc.) and therefore she does have the remedy (grace; Word and sacrament). Third, the “accent on the quality of relationships” sounds like a subjective substitution for the objective character of the relationship. i.e., same-sex relationships have the “quality” of love even if objectively they defect from the “ideal” of Christian love and we must “accompany” them.

Lastly, notice that the Germans are angling for something more progressive than what is already in the IL.

 And finally, from a young American priest:

An initial look at the English reports leaves me a bit underwhelmed. There is nothing particularly egregious in there, but there is nothing particularly good about them either. Just a collation of ideas with various degrees of merit and vacuous references to how much fun sports are (seriously).

But Circle D, clearly the best of the English language groups, caught my attention in its debate between a “listening Church” and a “teaching Church.”  A couple of distinctions are helpful here.  First, just because a person is a member of the Church in a canonical/juridical sense does not mean that this person is in a state of habitual/sanctifying grace. A person can be a Christian in numero sed non merito, as Aquinas said, among others. Of course, Jesus ate with (“listened to”) sinners, but that was precisely to bring them to conversion. We cannot just assume that because a person has been baptized that all of his or her opinions about sexual ethics are equally valid.

Second, there is an increasing tendency toward centralization at issue here. “Listening” takes place on the ground level. Any good bishop/priest/person with pastoral responsibilities will certainly listen to others and treat them with respect, even if the opinions they hold are not one’s own. That’s just good common sense and Christian kindness. But sincerely listening to someone is not a code for any other action.  It’s just what it is. If people think that their pastors care about them, they will listen to what they have to say, even if they aren’t in total agreement. But for the Holy See to assume to itself the right to “listen” co-opts the good work of people on the ground every day in various ministry settings who already do this. The dynamic tension of helping people to live in an authentic Christian way cannot be resolved by Vatican fiat. The job of the Pope and the bishops is to teach faithfully and promote good initiatives from those who have internalized their teaching.

 These remarks are raw comments on raw material and should be judged accordingly. The Synod fathers have already pressed for more and earlier emphasis in the text on the person of Jesus Christ, the need for chastity and virtue education, and greater evangelical zeal.  A great deal of discussion remains before the real shape of the Synod’s message becomes clear.

The first round of  Circuli Minori reports may be read in full here:

– Xavier Rynne II.


There are many subtexts to a complex international gathering like Synod-2018, which helps explain both the positive dynamism and challenging tensions within these exercises in collegiality. In 2014 and 2015, for example, the sharp conflict between German-speaking bishops determined to effect a change in the Church’s sacramental disciplines regarding marriage and worthiness to receive holy communion, and African bishops for whose recently-converted people the Catholic concept of marriage came as a great liberation, was full of tang, and occasionally quite sharp. Going farther back in Synod history, one remembers the Synod of 1974, which was unable to agree on a final report (despite the efforts of its Relator, or rapporteur, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła of Cracow); one cause of that division was the ongoing debate over the various theologies of liberation, which led to sharp differences in that Synod over how to “read” Marxism and its relationship to the synodal theme, evangelization. (Cardinal Wojtyla famously remarked later on the difference between those bishops for whom Marxism was a “fascinating idea” and those for whom it was a “lived experience.”)

In the interstices of Synod-2018, one subtext is the concern expressed by some Third World bishops that the bishops of the United States are “against” Pope Francis. This is a misimpression. And while that misimpression need not occupy either general Synod debate or the Synod’s language-based discussion groups, it ought to be remedied in the informal discussions surrounding the Synod’s formal meetings.

It is painful to think that one of those who, in the early days of this pontificate, began to promote this theme of resistance to Pope Francis by “right-wing American bishops” was the now-disgraced former archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick. In itself, McCarrick’s advocacy would not necessarily make the charge of American disloyalty to the Pope incorrect. It is incorrect, however, and the charge that the American bishops as a body are somehow “against” Pope Francis has surely been laid with some frequency by others, likely including American bishops who find themselves unhappy with the direction taken by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops since the election of Cardinal Francis George as conference president. (How advancing this indictment in Rome squares with “collegiality” in any recognizable sense of the term is surely a question, but for another day.)

While virtually everyone in the Catholic world knows about some of the grave problems facing Catholicism Church in the United States, two demonstrable facts remain to be factored into any serious analysis of the U.S. Catholic situation. First, the American Church has worked, with considerable success, since 2002, to address and remediate the crime and sin of clerical sexual abuse of the young. And second, the Catholic Church in the United States is doing more to implement the bold vision of a “Church permanently in mission” proclaimed by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium than any other local church in the West.

And there is more.

The most controversial document of the Pope’s magisterium, Amoris Laetitia, was respectfully received by the American bishops, many of whom wrote thoughtful pastoral letters on it and devised impressive plans for its implementation. Those inclined to believe the canard that the American hierarchy is “against” the Pope might also remember, as counter-evidence, the spectacular welcome afforded Pope Francis in the United States in September 2015, in which the U.S. bishops conference played a leading role. And nowhere was the American bishops’ fundamental loyalty to the Successor of St. Peter and the Holy See more amply demonstrated than in the exceptional welcome the Pope received in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia: a welcome prepared with great effort by the man whom some would like to caricature as the chief “anti-Francis” figure of the American hierarchy, Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.

The American bishops are now faced with a genuine crisis, primarily involving the malfeasance and dereliction of some of their episcopal brethren, past and present. The leadership of the U.S. bishops conference has forthrightly recognized that this crisis is a grave obstacle to living the New Evangelization. The conference leadership knows that the entire episcopate’s credibility is in question, and if the bishops, who have the authority, don’t fix what are clear and pressing problems of episcopal leadership and accountability, the New Evangelization will suffer.

That is why the bishops’ conference leadership is determined to get to the bottom of the McCarrick affair and related matters, and to set in place structures and processes that will ensure that ineffective, malfeasant, or corrupt bishops are called to account. To do that, they need the support and cooperation of the Holy See. To request that support, which includes Vatican help in getting at the full truth of the McCarrick affair, is not an act of disloyalty, but an expression of the bishops’ commitment to collegiality and their recognition of the unique authority of the Bishop of Rome within the episcopal College.

So it is to be hoped that this misimpression of an American hierarchy “against” Pope Francis is corrected during Synod-2018. Misimpressions can harden into falsehoods, and that always damages the Church. And this particular misimpression, left to fester, could become a further impediment to building that Church of missionary disciples that both Pope Francis and the bishops of the United States seek.

– George Weigel


In addition to essays from Catholics explaining what they would tell Synod-2018 about “Youth, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD will offer the occasional interview with men and women having important things to say about the Synod’s theme.

            During the first week of Synod-2018, a Synod auditor, Thomas Andonie, the Federal Chairman of the Bund der Deutschen Katholische Jugend (Association of German Catholic Youth) made an intervention to the synodal general assembly that reflected the progressive Catholic priorities so familiar in the German-speaking Catholic world. Your editor wondered whether there might not be something else afoot in that world. So we asked a young German woman with a personal experience of the New Evangelization and a lively, impressive  faith for help.

            Marie Degenfeld is twenty-four years old and has just finished studies in politics and Russian in Vienna. Of a family with both French and Austrian roots, she was raised in Germany and told LETTERS that, while she had grown up in a practicing Catholic family, “my personal relationship with Jesus Christ began with the help of FOCUS missionaries” she met at Vienna University.

            Our exchange follows. XR II 

LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD: Those of us who don’t live there have the impression that the once-vibrant world of German-speaking Catholicism is now heavy on bureaucracy and light on evangelism, piety, and orthodoxy. Is that a false impression? How would you fill in the picture?

MARIE DEGENFELD: The Catholic Church in Germany and Austria is experiencing another reformation in the sense of a new evangelization. It is true that, due to its extensive structure, the Catholic Church is in many places heavy and inflexible and does not answer the needs of young people. But the new evangelization for which Pope Francis and his predecessors have called has also reached Germany and Austria. And changes can be seen everywhere. There are a few strong groups and movements of young Catholic people longing to live and spread the Catholic faith, longing to follow the teachings of the Church and to be true disciples. They include the ecumenical initiative Gebetshaus Augsburg [Prayer House Augsburg] , several movements like the Lorettos in Salzburg, and theological centers like the Austrian abbey of Heiligenkreuz [Holy Cross]. Social media is very important for the new evangelization movement: many young adults use YouTube videos for further catechetical education (e.g., videos by Bishop Robert Barron, Johannes Hartl, and Father Mike Schmitz are popular). Well-educated young people with critical minds are looking for answers that many of our priests seem unable to give, so we try to find those answers on the Internet.

LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD:  There seems to be a difference between the ecclesiastical concerns and agenda of young adults who are marginally Catholic, and those young Catholic adults in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland who “think with the Church” and regularly share in the Church’s sacramental life. Is that perception accurate? And if so, how would you define the difference?

MARIE DEGENFELD: Yes, that perception is accurate. The official German Catholic youth ministry, the BDKJ (Association of German Catholic Youth), is all about deconstructing the Church as it is. For example, they promote the ordination of women to the priesthood, they urge the Church to adapt its doctrine on human sexuality to secular practices, and they support the LGBT agenda. They are very good at charitable work (e.g. helping with refugees). But when it comes to Catholic faith, they only have what I would call an “anti-creed” in which the sacraments play no role whatsoever. Their approach is built around slogans like “The Church has grown beyond that” and “The Church has to adapt to the world”. In their view, everyone should decide by himself what he thinks is right to believe. They are also very political, in both the ecclesiastical and secular senses.

On the other hand, thanks to the missionary activity of new communities from other countries (e.g., the French-based Emmanuel Community, America’s FOCUS, Opus Dei, the Neo-Catechumenal Way, Chemin Neuf [New Road], new movements like Youth 2000, and two I’ve already mentioned, the ecumenical Gebetshaus in Augsburg and Loretto in Austria), there are a growing number of young Catholic adults who live the life of the sacraments, who are in search of spiritual direction in tune with the Church’s doctrine, and who are longing, for example, to learn about the Theology of the Body and other teachings relevant to their concerns.

It would be good for the world Church to know about an initiative that began this year, called “Mission Manifest”. Its statement of purpose calls for an active “new evangelization” of the German-speaking countries and was signed by many prominent lay Catholics and some bishops, including Cardinal Rainer Woelki and Bishop Stefan Oster. The latter, however, was not allowed to sign as the official representative for youth of the German Bishops Conference, only in his personal capacity. (You’ll remember that Cardinal Woelki and Bishop Oster, earlier this year, resisted the call of other German bishops for a widespread offering of Holy Communion to Protestants.) The German bishops as a group certainly did not want to endorse “Mission Manifest,” which you can find online at

LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD: There is a lot of discussion in the Synod about a “Church that listens.” Is that what German-speaking young adults are looking for?

MARIE DEGENFELD:  As a general proposition, I’d agree that young German-speaking people seek a “Church that listens.” There is a real misconception about the Catholic Church and indeed about God: that both the Church and God are too judgmental about the lifestyle of young people. Young people want to be taken seriously. Many young people who are engaged in their communities feel that they are not heard by old hierarchies; they are looking for a dialogue and often get rejected. The irony, though, is that when a “youth representative” like Thomas Andonie (who was invited to address the Synod) complains that his interest in adapting the Church’s doctrine on human sexuality to secular practices is not heard, the majority of us practicing young Catholics would counter that our bishops are not listening to our desire to learn about the Church’s teachings, on sexuality in particular.

LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD: What are the most vibrant Catholic renewal movements and pastoral initiatives among German-speaking Catholic young adults, and could you please describe some of their work.

MARIE DEGENFELD:  The most vibrant Catholic renewal movements and pastoral initiatives are the Emmanuel Community, Loretto, Regnum Christi, and Youth 2000. They speak the words of the Gospel and the teachings of the Church clearly; they focus on adoration and worship, encouraging young people to pray (Johannes Hartl of Gebetshaus Augsburg is often quoted as saying: “Prayer is not everything, but without prayer everything is nothing”); and they put God above everything else in life. I think it’s very interesting that all these movements are primarily financed by donations, and not through the Church tax, the Kirchensteuer [which amply funds the “official” German Catholic youth group and its bureaucracy – XR II]. It is remarkable that young people belong to these movements and that they are constantly growing. The Loretto community, for example, gathers up to 10,000 young adults for a three-day convention at Pentecost every year, entirely centered on the Eucharist and confession, while the Gebetshaus in Augsburg gathers even more on a yearly basis; and although they are ecumenical, they are completely solid in terms of the teachings of the Catholic Church,; the founder (whom I’ve already mentioned), Johannes Hartl, is a Catholic theologian, married and the father of for children.

LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD: What would you tell the Synod if you had the opportunity to speak in the Synod hall?

MARIE DEGENFELD:  If I had the opportunity to speak in front of the bishops and the Pope during the Synod, I would love to tell them that they should encourage young people to start a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, as the FOCUS missionaries did when they taught me how to pray. I would also like to mention that young people seek the truth and that they have the right to know the whole truth of the Gospel. My experience in Germany is that too many priests do not want young people to know the whole Gospel, especially concerning sexuality. But this is wrong, because Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation.


The following intervention was delivered to the Synod’s general assembly by Bishop Stephen Jensen of Prince George, British Columbia, on October 9:

 In the last 30 years, western Canada has witnessed the emergence of new lay movements working to evangelize youth and young adults, especially on university campuses. This reflects the hope expressed by the Second Vatican Council: “By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity…to illuminate and order all temporal things” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium 31).

Experience shows that the initiatives of these new movements, and the communities they foster, have helped many young people discern God’s call in their lives: both the universal call to holiness and the particular vocations of the priesthood and consecrated life. They have also helped young people to live marriage and family life as a vocation, rather than as a sociological phenomenon subject to the vagaries of culture.

The success of these movements stems from a methodology that reflects the ministry of Jesus and the first disciples. The Gospel pattern replicated today in the work of these movements shows the steps of a young person’s journey in discerning and responding to God’s call.

In the first place, young people need to be welcomed into relationship with others. Such friendship becomes the basis for authentic accompaniment, providing a young person mentorship on the journey of responding to the grace of an encounter with Jesus. This companionship makes possible profound communication, providing the security in which a young person can recognize the call to conversion of life as a gift rather than a burden, and respond in freedom.

This context of relationship produces communities that incarnate the experience of faith and the requirements of following Jesus. This mirrors and extends the formation for life and mission that a Christian family provides its members (as John Paul II indicated in Familaris Consortio 49). This communion of life provides support for young people to resist pressures to secular world. It also shows how relationships, professional work, leisure, and all aspects of life can be transformed by Christ.

With the support of a Christian community composed of young people and elders who offer mentorship, an individual can more easily mature in the discipline of a Christian life and also discern the vocational call of God. Such a community is itself an evangelizing agent and helps its members ask the question about God’s plan for their lives. I have witnessed young people with no religious background come to a living faith, several young men enter the seminary and young women the religious life, and many strong Christian marriages, all through the support of the communities that these new movements foster.

St. John Paul described the Church as a mystery of communion that leads to mission (Pastores Dabo Vobis 12). The Church needs to recognize and encourage these new movements that have shown such spiritual fruit in the faith and vocational discernment of young people.


The following intervention was given to the Synod’s general assembly on October 10 by Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne, Australia:

 Friends, young and old, I refer to paragraph 74 [of the Instrumentum Laboris], and the call to rediscover a Church young in Christ.

To walk into the Sistine Chapel is to gaze upon the story of our humanity. There, in swathes of color, is the story of our creation and redemption, from the First Adam to the Last.

At the center of this vision stands the pinnacle of our humanity, Jesus Christ. He’s gigantic in proportions and majestic in presence. The once Crucified Lord now stands before all creation as the Bridegroom, striding out to meet his Bride. The Risen Jesus is glowing with vitality and beautiful to behold. And he is gloriously young!

Our Redeemer is young because he is alive. He radiates life. But if Jesus Christ is gloriously young, then His Body, the Church, is likewise meant to be young. This is the Church our young people want to discover, one that is vital and alive in Christ. Our task is to rediscover this young Church, as a new gospel fire.

But where might this fire be found? At Pentecost, when the Church was first young. There, the disciples were transfigured by the energising gift of the Spirit, discovering a new missionary horizon. They spoke to all of their life in the Crucified and Risen Jesus. Pentecost set off a Gospel fire in the disciples, anointing them and sending them out into the world.

The Church that strode out of the upper room was one of extraordinary missionary vitality and gospel joy. The disciples did not wait for people to come to them; they got up and went out. They were the first inter-generational missionaries: Peter with John; Mother Mary with Mary Magdalene; Paul with Timothy. The Church was alive, energetic, and young in Christ.

But is this a true description of the Church of today? Are we, the Successors of the Apostles, also the Successors of their Acts? Or have we stagnated in the Spirit, lost our missionary fire, and become beholden to a “fake gospel” of religious maintenance? Then let a pebble of spiritual disruption be dropped into our stagnant pools, to stir us back to Pentecost!

It is time to leave behind a Church that only sits around waiting. Our task is to rediscover a young Church that goes out,  not to re-create a Church for the young to come to.

My dear young friends: you live in a world that is often difficult for us older generations to comprehend, and sometimes you venture down paths that leave us concerned for you.

Yet you are also seekers of a Gospel horizon within which to locate your lives. You hope for faithful witnesses in whom you can place your trust. You seek true guides who will welcome your abundant energies and accompany you on the journey.

Friends, you yearn for this because you are horizon hunters! You are seekers of the fire of a new Pentecost, and pursuers of a young Church willing to start afresh from Christ. May we discover this horizon together.


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