By Percival Holt
Vatican City, Oct. 31, 2018: If I were to express my experience of the Synod on Youth in a sentence, I would say, “It is indeed the work of the Holy Spirit.”
I went to the synod expecting it to be like a parliament — 300 people seated in a hall discussing, debating and having arguments about various matters. But when I got there, it was completely different.
We only presented our views and thoughts on any relevant matter with reference to the “instrumentum laboris” or working document, in four minutes per person, over three weeks.
The “instrumentum laboris” was divided into three parts and thus the Synod in itself too.
The first week corresponded to “realities of young people,” followed by “understanding vocation, discernment and accompaniment” in the second week and “pastoral plans or action plans” in the third week, while the fourth week was dedicated to drafting and presentation of the document and amendments to produce the final document of the Synod.
People began arriving on October 2 at Rome, and reached our respective accommodations. At the place where I was, we were about 40 people — young people, priests, nuns, bishops and cardinals. I must acknowledge it was a comfortable stay.
On October 3 we began the Synod with Mass in the morning at the St. Peter’s square, presided by Pope Francis, during which he welcomed us and declared the Synod on Youth open.
The assembly began the same evening at the Paul VI Hall of the Vatican. As we reached there we were awestruck to see the Pope standing at the entrance to welcome everyone. None of us could absorb this gesture of humility and affection and that was my first encounter with him and his charming smile. It was as though something went through me.
Our working hours would be 9:00 am to 12:30 pm and 4:00pm to 7:30 pm, with a break at 10:30 am that again left us amazed, as Pope Francis would join us in breaks to meet and interact with people casually.
He would go and stand at a table and chat with people while sipping his coffee and munching some snacks just as any other person. It took us a while to comprehend his humble, people-oriented and non-clerical approach.
The day would begin with a typical Latin chant of Psalms and prayers, and end with the Angelus. Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri told us the first day, “This is not a parliament where we will argue but a place where each one speaks and shares his thoughts inspired by the Holy spirit.” Truly I saw this methodology unfold to take its shape over the weeks.
We would spend first three days of the week in giving our interventions in the Synod hall, one by one, for four minutes each and the rest three days in small language groups or “circoli minoris” as they were called, where we would have the chance to discuss the parts of the document, topic by topic in detail and produce our recommendations or amendments for the final document.
In all there were about 270 synodal fathers, 50 auditors (young people, priests, nuns), 23 experts (from different fields, both spiritual and intellectuals) and a few invited guests from associated areas of Christian faith, which also included representatives from Eastern Churches, a female cleric and Bro. Alois of Taize.
We experienced some amazing and beautiful testimonies and sharing in the aula (main auditorium) by synodal fathers as well as others, some intense from the heart while some full of knowledge and real scenarios. Some synodal fathers just had the gift of the Holy Spirit as they spoke while some had thorough preparation and as we proceeded we began becoming a family that was sharing their feelings about young people, to which we young people would applaud in appreciation.
The intensity of our applause expressed how much we loved their speech and they loved this lively fun element in the hall. Pope Francis would look up to us sitting in the top right corner and give a big smile and so we were encouraged to continue.
In the small groups, we young auditors were welcomed with a warm heart and involved as much in discussions. Though as per rules we were not allowed to be a moderator or secretary or give recommendations in the document, but we were given the space and freedom to express our thoughts as young people and respected for our contributions.
The recommendations to the final document were then to be voted by each synodal father. The secretaries of the 14 groups would then present the report in the hall on the 3rd day. This methodology continued for 3 weeks, corresponding to the respective parts.
Initially we wondered that we were not getting to the point or the focus was drifted at times but by the end of 3 weeks everything began falling into place and so we had covered every aspect and associated factors of the life of young people and role of the Church.
That’s how we reckoned the work of the Holy Spirit in inspiring everyone gradually.
We also had a lot of leisure time, where we would be invited for lunch and dinners to different places by different members of the synod. Sometimes we would go site seeing, sometimes invitations for a leisure evening with some music, good food, interaction, knowing one another and so on.
There were some groups down in Rome specially to provide us with avenues of relaxation and leisure which was appreciative. This helped us bond with one another towards better synodality and working environment.
Sundays would be vacation ideally. I personally took the opportunity to visit Orvieto and Assisi on two Sundays. On October 14 was the canonization of 7 saints by Pope Francis at St. Peter’s square.
As a group we also went on tours around the Vatican gardens, the breath taking Vatican museum and Sistine Chapel, as well as some events organized by various groups. October 25 was a pilgrimage to St. Peter’s Basilica Via Francigena – an ancient pilgrim trail from Canterbury to Rome.
At the thanksgiving cultural evening on October 26 young people performed various acts to represent our continents and a flash-mob. Several bishops and cardinals joined us later.
We also presented a letter of gratitude and offering our support and love to Pope Francis and the Catholic Church in all its endeavors towards its people.
This was followed by adoration organized by young people at San Lorenzo Youth Centre and then dinner at a restaurant together with many priests, bishops and cardinals. It was indeed a warm and emotional evening spent well in fellowship.
On the day — October 27 — the final draft of the document (55 pages) was read and voted paragraph by paragraph (167 paragraphs) by each synodal father and thus approved. Pope Francis presented a gift to us, a rectangular bas-relief in bronze in a case, depicting Jesus and the young beloved disciple. A creation of Italian artist Gino Giannetti, the souvenir was made in the Vatican mint.
The Synod ended with a Eucharistic celebration on October 28 during which “a letter from Synodal fathers to young people was read out by Cardinal Baldiserri.” I was blessed to be able to read a prayer intention in Hindi during this Mass at the Basilica.
I presented my intervention on October 16 and introduced the assembly to the 3rd part of the document, about pastoral and action plans. In my intervention I spoke about the concerns of young people in India and suggested a few proposals towards pastoral accompaniment.
The following day, the Indian delegation met Pope Francis and I had the privilege to give him a gift on behalf of the “Youth of India” – Pope’s very own “Good Shepherd Cross” carved on sandalwood with a lotus at the bottom and Indian touch to it, designed by a Hindu young man – Ishan Pattnaik from Kolkata and made by his company – KARU.
Pope Francis was amazed by it, and so were many others and seemed to love it. He then recorded a message for the “Youth of India” asking them to have courage and move ahead in life and to pray for him.
In all, the Synod was a very enriching experience, but personally I was touched by how many synodal fathers prepared themselves before coming here. While some really connected their heart and soul with us others really supported us and made efforts to understand and journey with us on this path to helping the Church help young people discern and choose their vocation.
Another beautiful experience was to connect and feel like family with so many people from across the globe, especially my fellow young people. We never realized we would bond so much to make it difficult to part on the last day. Many bishops and cardinals were so warm and approachable. It was indeed a little Synod family of the Church.
Our encounter with the Holy Father in all these days was just heart-warming, to see his humility, simplicity and sensitivity towards people. It was never enough to meet him or speak to him.
It was a blessing in disguise to be able to spend so much time with him and understand his vision for the Church of Christ and the world in which He asks of us to be stakeholders.
On the last day when I got to hug him, it felt like a rejuvenation of faith and a spark of new fire for my life ahead. Now as we return to our countries, we hope to carry forward the “synodality” and spread it across, down to the grassroots of communities, parishes and people.
We, together with the Church and her people, continue to embark on the journey that has just begun with this historic “Synod on Youth”, towards a renewed approach of forming better lives.