The Vatican is asking the world's national bishops' conferences to respond to a questionnaire about how they serve the needs of young people in their countries in advance of a worldwide meeting of prelates set for 2018 that will consider the church's relationship with youths.
Issuing a document Friday in preparation for the meeting, known as a synod of Bishops, the Vatican takes an open and attentive tone, focusing not on how better to teach or preach at young people but rather how to listen to their needs and understand the changes the digital era has brought to their lives.
The first question asked of the world's bishops points to that tone, with the Vatican's office for the synod of Bishops asking simply: "In what manner does the Church listen to the lived situations of young people?"
The October 2018 synod, announced last year, is taking the theme "Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment." Friday's document, which spans 20 pages and ends with 20 questions, is meant to allow the synod office to prepare for the event, and will eventually lead to creation of an Instrumentum laboris, or working document, for the meeting.
Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the head of the synod office, said in a press conference releasing the document Friday that he is asking bishops to respond to the questionnaire by the end of October, and hopes to have a working document for the synod ready by the beginning of next year.
Pope Francis also issued a separate public letter to young people Friday, asking them to consider the document and think of it as a "compass" on the path towards the synod.
"The Church … wishes to listen to your voice, your sensitivities and your faith; even your doubts and your criticism," the pontiff told youths. "Make your voice heard, let it resonate in communities and let it be heard by your shepherds of souls."
"St. Benedict urged the abbots to consult, even the young, before any important decision, because ‘the Lord often reveals to the younger what is best," wrote Francis. "Such is the case, even in the journey of this synod. My brother bishops and I want even more to ‘work with you for your joy.'"
Friday's document opens with an explanation that the Vatican wants to both examine how it can "lead young people to recognize and accept the call to the fullness of life and love" and to ask them how the church can better proclaim the Gospel today.
"As in the days of Samuel and Jeremiah, young people know how to discern the signs of our times, indicated by the Spirit," states the document. "Listening to their aspirations, the Church can glimpse the world which lies ahead and the paths the Church is called to follow."
The Vatican then says that the document begins a "phase of consultation of the entire People of God" before the beginning of the 2018 synod.
The document itself, however, is addressed only to prelates -- specifically, the synods and councils of the eastern churches, the world's episcopal conferences, the offices of the Vatican bureaucracy, and the Rome-based umbrella group of men's religious orders. The equivalent group of women's orders is not addressed.
The synod office says it plans to include "all young people" in the process through a new website with questions they can answer "on their expectations and their lives." Bishop Fabio Fabene, undersecretary of the synod office, said Friday that the website will be launched in May and will be located at www.sinodogiovani.va.
Friday's document continues with a three-step reflection on the world's current social and cultural dynamics, on the steps of vocational discernment, and on the "key points" of a "pastoral vocational program for youth."
The first part of the document gives a lot of attention to the changes taking place in the world, focusing particularly on young people who are facing poverty or other difficulties.
"In many parts of the world, young people are experiencing particular hardships which pose difficulties for them in making real choices in life, because they have not even the minimal possibility to exercise freedom," it states.
In the second part of the document the Vatican speaks about ministry to young people as a process of accompanying the stirrings of their consciences, citing from the Second Vatican Council's pastoral constitution Gaudium et spes to call the conscience "an inviolable place where a promising invitation is present."
"In the task of accompanying the younger generation, the Church accepts her call to collaborate in the joy of young people rather than be tempted to take control of their faith," the document states. "Such service is ultimately founded in prayer and in asking for the gift of the Spirit, who guides and enlightens each and every one."
The third part of the document calls on bishops and priests to walk with young people and to help them by supporting their ideas for the church, quoting from Francis apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.
"Every community needs to give importance to creative ways of addressing young people in a personal way and supporting personal development," states the document. "In many cases, the task involves learning to allow for something new and not stifling what is new by attempting to apply a preconceived framework."
"In pastoral activity, young people are not objects but agents," it continues. "Oftentimes, society sees them as non-essential or inconvenient. The Church cannot reflect such an attitude, because all young people, without exception, have the right to be guided in life's journey."
The document ends with a listing of the 20 questions, which ask bishops to evaluate their ministry to young people. Three of the questions are differentiated based on region of the world, with questions to bishops in the Americas asking how prelates there respond to situations of "extreme violence" and to a society that is "greatly secularized."
Preparations for previous synod meetings have often involved the Vatican sending questionnaires to bishops based on the topics of the meetings.
Francis however gave the process a wider reach in preparation for the 2014 synod on family life issues, asking then for that questionnaire to be distributed "immediately as widely as possible to deaneries and parishes so that input from local sources can be received."
Baldisseri said Friday that bishops should "get to work immediately" to answer the questions for the 2018 synod. He also said he expects that young people will take part in the meeting as auditors, allowing them to fully participate in the event but not to vote on any documents that come out of it.
[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]