The Synod with the theme Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment has got off to a lively start. Already there have been at least two suggestions for a permanent Vatican commission to deal with issues facing young people, observers have reported.
As I wrote several months ago, this idea dates back at least to 1962 when Joseph Cardijn, founder of the Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne (JOC) or Young Christian Workers (YCW) movement, presented a similar proposal to Pope John XXIII on the eve of Vatican II.
Although the notion did not progress at the Council, perhaps it is an idea whose time has finally come. In this context, it is worth recalling that Cardijn did in fact set out the principles and methods for such a Vatican center in a 1964 paper for “a Roman Center for the Apostolate of Lay People.”
As a member of the Preparatory Commission on Lay Apostolate for the Council, he was already frustrated by the obsession of many bishops and Roman Curia members with hierarchical control. Tagged as “hierarchology” by the theologian Yves Congar, it was an extreme form of the “clericalism” recently condemned by Pope Francis.
Rejecting this, Cardijn proposed a “Roman center” that would act as “the summit of dialogue between Hierarchy and laity within the Church.”
Emphasizing mutuality and collaboration, he lobbied for a center that would both inform Church leaders of “current trends, problems, and experiences of the lay apostolate” and communicate “the inspirations and suggestions of the hierarchy to lay leaders.”
Above all, the center should avoid becoming a “Secretariat of the Hierarchy for controlling and supervising the laity.” Rather, it should function as a genuine “secretariat of the laity” both for dialogue with the hierarchy as well as other non-Church institutions.
It would include representatives of the various continents, races and “milieux of life” or social classes.
Instead of acting as an “umbrella body imposed from outside,” it would operate as “a peak body, a summit supported by a real and palpable base.” And its leadership would also come from and be representative of the grassroots.
In Cardijn’s vision, the center would also have a major role in formation, which was to be based on “two significant realities,” he argued.
First, the educational material the center produced should “begin from life and its problems which are the raw materials of the lay apostolate and thus of the active apprenticeship that lay people must undergo.”
Secondly, the center’s educational method should be “based both on responsibilities discovered and lived as part of a genuine apprenticeship for the apostolate, and on inquiries, facts, experiences, achievements in life,” a reference to the see-judge-act method that the current Synod has sought to follow.
In no circumstance, Cardijn emphasized, should this formation “be limited to a form of teaching based on theoretical ideas,” by which he meant the Church’s traditional top-down doctrinal teaching approach. Instead, it should use “the method of dialogue and the search for Christian solutions in life.”
Although he was writing about a center for lay people in general, he clearly envisaged that the same principles and methods applied in relation to youth. Indeed, his whole proposal was based on the methods of the JOC that had also been adopted by many other youth and adult movements.
Looking at the 1965 Vatican II Decree on the Lay Apostolate, Apostolicam Actuositatem (AA), there are several clear consonances with Cardijn’s proposal.
“A special secretariat,” §26 of the decree reads, “should be established at the Holy See for the service and promotion of the lay apostolate.”
The secretariat should offer “a well-equipped center for communicating information about the various apostolic programs of the laity, promoting research into modern problems arising in this field, and assisting the hierarchy and laity in their apostolic works with its advice.”
Moreover, various movements and projects “should also be represented in this secretariat” (“partes habeant,” literally “have a part,” in the Latin text).
Even more significantly, AA§26 states that in the secretariat, “clergy and Religious also are to cooperate with the laity.” Innocuous as this may sound today, this radically reversed Pope Pius XI’s famous conception of Catholic Action as “the participation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy.”
Today, the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life established by Pope Francis in 2016 is the “secretariat” envisaged in AA§26. It is also currently responsible for youth issues.
Importantly, the Statutes of the Dicastery do emphasize the “special mission of the lay faithful in animating and improving the ordering of temporal affairs” citing Lumen Gentium 31 and “the spirit of the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes.” (Article 6 §2)
Surprisingly, however, the Statutes make no reference to Apostolicam Actuositatem let alone §26. Moreover, it is difficult not to be struck by the gap between Cardijn’s vision as incorporated in the conciliar decree and the role of the Dicastery as outlined in its Statutes.
Whereas §26 calls for research into “problems” involving the whole of lay life, the Statutes speak only of “research on doctrine on the family and its dissemination through adequate catechesis.”
Is this not the exclusively doctrinal approach that Cardijn decried in 1964? Is it not also inconsistent with Pope Francis’ own approach in Amoris Laetitia?
While the Dicastery does have a good range of members and consultors, including from various movements and projects, it remains top heavy with clerics and academics, not to mention members of the so-called “new ecclesial movements,” as the latest list of appointments illustrates.
What’s more, the process of appointment remains completely opaque. If this is not a current form of “clericalism,” it’s hard to imagine what is. In any event, there is no meaningful sense in which movements are “represented” or “have a (genuine) part” in the Dicastery.
Article 7 does mandate the Dicastery to “accompany the life and development” of lay groups. But it then moves immediately to dealing with its role in erecting, approving and recognizing various international groups.
While this is perhaps understandable in a juridical text, a glance at the Dicastery website seems to indicate a preoccupation with such issues.
While the Statutes avoid mentioning supervision and control of the movements, the Dicastery does indeed “monitor” them. It claims to be “at the service of” bishops conferences and international movements but the only items mentioned are international gatherings and World Youth Day.
In short, there is little in the work of the Dicastery as presently conceived to capture the imagination of lay people in general, let alone young people. What hope then for a new pontifical entity that will be specifically responsible for young people, their challenges and vocations?
The Vatican surely has more than enough disciplinary bodies. What it needs now is a truly inspirational one.
One focused much less on doctrinal and canonical issues but much more on “the joys and hopes, griefs and anguishes” in the lives of young people.
One that is much less concerned with monitoring but far more with ongoing opportunities for genuine dialogue, participation and collaboration by, with and for young people.
One that embodies much more of the spirit of Vatican II and “the joy of the Gospel” that Pope Francis has made the leitmotif of his pontificate.
Tackling these tensions creatively, the Synod now has a unique chance to develop a genuinely new model of partnership between priests and young people, Church and world.
Stefan Gigacz is a researcher with the Australian Cardijn Institute in Melbourne, Australia.