Isaac Withers is a 21-year-old communications intern for the Bishops Conference of England and Wales. He recently graduated from the University of Birmingham with a degree in English and Creative Writing. Withers, who grew up Catholic, spent his teen years participating in youth ministry — an activity he says was rooted in adoration and confession. He continued his involvement in the Church with the Catholic Society at his university.
“The Church has given me so many opportunities to grow spiritually,” Withers wrote recently, “to go to incredible places, and to also witness it do so much for my friends. Discovering Jesus in the sacraments and finding well reasoned answers to my questions in the Church’s teaching has really formed me over the years.”
This year, as a result of his work with his local bishops, he was selected to be one of about 300 Catholic youth — ages 16 to 29 — who were invited to travel to Rome to participate in “the inaugural Pre-Synodal Meeting of Young People” earlier this month. The purpose of the meeting was to draft an advance document to to “give the Bishops a compass, pointing towards a clearer understanding of young people” in anticipation of the upcoming Synod of Bishops this October. The topic of that synod will be, “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.”
In a blog post on the Facebook page of the UK bishops, Withers wrote about the anticipation and uncertainty he felt about what was to come. “When I found out that I would be the representative for England & Wales this week in Rome,” he said, “none of my office could tell me how it was going to work, saying that they knew how a synod functioned, but that a pre-synod meeting of young people was a totally new idea.”
“I was intrigued, he continued, “to see that we were somehow going to be drafting, editing and finalising a document for it to then go to the Synod of Bishops with Pope Francis in October. I was really impressed that we were being given this responsibility and again I think it speaks to the Pope’s intention to not have a filter between the Church and young people.”
And yet Withers — who was selected during the meeting in Rome from among the 300 international youth representatives to be part of a small, core group that drafted the final pre-synodal document — has found himself suddenly at the center of controversy as some participants in the gathering began accusing him and the other drafters of exactly that: putting a filter on what young people say they want from the Church.
The controversy centers around a disconnect between the in-person working groups in Rome and comments left in a special Facebook group called “Synod2018”, which was set up to allow young people from around the world to add their thoughts to the document. At 2,260 members, the Facebook group is significantly larger than the in-person gathering was. And as it turned out, many members of that group were repeating a common theme about what they wanted from the Church: namely, more access to reverent liturgy — specifically the traditional liturgy, otherwise known as the “Extraordinary Form” of the Mass.
Membership in the Facebook group had specific limitations: applicants needed to be within the specified age range, they had to apply in advance to join the conversation, and they had to be approved by the moderators. But although the group rules indicated that the content of the forum was “reserved for an internal discussion” and “not to be published externally,” following the release of the final pre-synod document, screenshots expressing discontent began quickly making their way out of the group. Images of comment threads showed a number of participants expressing frustration that the large number of requests for the traditional Mass were not adequately represented in the final text. Other comments began appearing outside the group, or in other forums.
“I’m sure by now you’re probably aware,” read an image of one Facebook comment with all the identifying information redacted, “of the dumpster fire that is the 2018 Pre-Synodal document.” “Refreshingly, the VAST majority of responses in the group were demanding greater access to the Tridentine Mass, recapturing tradition, and greater reverence in the Mass (Whether it be EF or OF)”. Nevertheless, the commenter wrote, “many of us were shocked to find there is no mention of this in the final document” and “many young people are not happy with the current way things are going, despite what the Pre-Synodal document would have you believe.”
At the outset of our conversation, Withers insisted that I be clear on one thing: that he was not a “hand-picked Vatican stooge” — a phrase he repeated later in our discussion. The situation, he told me, “has already been skewed way out of proportion”. In some of the screenshots of the Facebook Group obtained by OnePeterFive, Withers can be seen attempting to smooth ruffled feathers by explaining the process, telling unhappy participants that the “internet community was less present” to the writing group than those gathered for the in-person meeting. “I’m not sure where the communication breakdown was,” Withers wrote, “but there seems there was some.”
The singular mention of the allegedly numerous requests for more access to reverent liturgy, specifically the old Mass, comes on the second-to-last page of the 20 page, 7000-word final document. It reads, “Some of us have a passion for ‘the fire’ of contemporary and charismatic movements that focus on the Holy Spirit; others are drawn towards silence, meditation and reverential traditional liturgies. All of these things are good as they help us to pray in different ways.”
Withers explained that the problem boils down to nothing more than a “quick editing decision among many”. “Here’s the whole thing,” he tells me, “the full reason why the words ‘Extraordinary Form’ don’t appear. I had turned to my Lebanese and Latin American editing colleagues and had asked them if the phrases ‘Extraordinary Form’ or even ‘Latin Mass’ translated for them. They both said that they did not know what I meant, so I included the phrase, ‘reverential liturgies’ hoping to express those things.”
“The reason why the online shouting didn’t reach us,” Withers continued, “is because we were drowning in notes and the online summary was only a part of this. Online it was blowing up, but to us it was just one more note in a full-on few days.” When asked whose job it was to pass along that summary to the team drafting the final document, Withers didn’t hesitate: “The Synod social media team. I should say emphatically: they put the Extraordinary Form on that summary.”
I asked Withers how it was possible that ten years after the release of Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, people in the Church who were invited to work on a pre-synodal document had never even heard of it.
“It didn’t seem weird to me,” he replied. “I had never heard of it before going to university and living near the Birmingham Oratory. I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t know about it.”
In a comment posted by the Synod2018 English Facebook group, the controversy over the liturgical question was addressed directly. “Some people inside the group,” reads the post, “have been commenting that their voice has not been heard”. The post explains that the group was “tasked with summarizing, into a mere three pages … over 1,100 comments we received”. “Even though the discussion was not specifically about liturgy, nor were the majority of the comments on this topic, we still included the request of the Extraordinary Form three times in our summary.” Members of the group I spoke with said that requests to see the summary document were refused by the moderators. Others said some critical comments appeared to have been deleted.
The post then takes a bizarre turn, first insisting that “it must be made clear that there has not been any kind of conspiracy against those who prefer traditional forms of liturgy” before suggesting a conspiracy of its own: “We did sense a kind of lobby during the course of the week, which contributed to the appearance that there were more voices talking about traditional forms of liturgy than what was actually the reality.”
The accusation that there was some organized effort on the part of group participants to highlight the liturgical issue was not well received. “It was this that hurt me in particular,” said Beth McMullan, a 29-year-old participant from Ireland who took an active role in the discussion about the concerns of the online group. McMullan told me that she does not have access to the traditional Mass, as the closest one is several hours away from her location. “As a young person who values tradition and right worship, I’ve often felt quite isolated. Youth groups and young adult groups are generally not welcoming of people who value tradition. I’ve been accused of being stuck in the past, and have often felt like the odd one out. If I ever mentioned Gregorian chant or Latin, I was often made to feel like some sort of alien, the only person who didn’t know that Vatican II had rid us of that sort of thing”, she said.
“In the online group,” McMullan continued, “when I saw so many comments from people who feel and think the same ways as I do about the Church and the Liturgy, I finally felt connected. I no longer felt like the odd-one-out. I believe that if we had been asking for clown Masses or even abortion, there would have been no such accusation regarding the presence of a lobby. I felt I was being given the opportunity to speak, so I did. As did many others. Once again, fingers were pointed and the young people who are faithful to the Church are the ones being made feel like we’re in the wrong. In one of my comments I noted that I feel as though … those in power know that because we are faithful, we will never abandon the Church. We will stay and will continue to feel like outcasts whilst the Church is run into the ground trying to bend to the whims of secular culture.”
I asked McMullan how she felt when she read that Pope Francis had said, during his Palm Sunday homily — the day after the pre-synodal document was released — that young people needed to keep shouting and not let older generations silence their voices or “anesthetize their idealism”.
“I honestly laughed out loud.” She said. “It reminded me of the time he claimed that answering questions was a big part of his ‘job’, whilst refusing to answer the dubia. It seems to me that it’s okay to shout as long as you’re shouting the ‘right’ thing.”
Matthew Leitner, a 25-year-old machinist from Washington State, told me that while the questions asked by the moderators in the Facebook group were vague, the answers from members of the English-speaking section “always revolved around tradition, reverence, and standing firm in the Church teaching.”
“Many of us,” Leitner said, “felt inspired and optimistic that the Holy Father would hear something about this. That there were a lot of us, at least in the English group, that cared about the truth and beauty of the Church, not wanting ‘radical change.'”
“Of course,” he continued, “this optimism quickly faded when seeing the final document.”
On Reddit, another group participant echoed Leitner’s frustration. “I wish the pre-synod group was open,” redditor Omaestre wrote in a post that has over a hundred comments at the time of this writing. “Then you could all see how so many are shocked and outraged that the Facebook users have been largely ignored.”
“I don’t know what to do,” the writer continues. “I feel as if words have been put in my mouth. Given the duplicitous nature of the Vatican PR team as exposed by the letter incident with Pope Benedict, I can’t help but suspect that the document was written and finished without even reading the online comments.”
Withers categorically rejects the idea that the document was a product of other constituencies in the Vatican. “It was entirely written by the writing team.” He said. “It was all us.” He said that even the grammar was edited by members of the core group of young people.
Withers, who continuously insisted throughout our conversation there was no conspiracy at work, lamented the controversy that had ensued. “I don’t think it’s worth this storm,” he said. “It’s such a shame that such a good thing is being used as another divisive weapon in the Church after an expression of such unity.”
Connor McLaughlin, a 20-year old Theology, Psychology and Business student at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, sees things differently. He said that the final document was “a missed opportunity for the youth to give the whole Church an idea of what we believe and desire.” McLaughlin, who says his passion is helping his peers “live the faith in the modern day” through the videos he produces for his YouTube channel, Rise Up Jerusalem, volunteered to help set up some social media accounts — including a new Facebook group — for those who felt disenchanted with the outcome of the pre-synod process. The goal is to continue working on a document they feel more accurately represents their concerns.
“As you have probably seen,” McLaughlin told me, “there was a lot of concern after the pre-synod document came out about many popular opinions being ignored.” McLaughlin says that in addition to liturgy, other challenges facing the youth were insufficiently dealt with in the final text — issues like abortion, the relationship between men and women in the modern world, dealing with mental health issues, and a more detailed look at vocations and their role in the Church. “I acknowledge the work done by the 300 youth that helped write the piece, but given the short time constraint and the short amount of pages they were limited to, they were not able to properly address the concerns facing youth.”
“There are some things in the pre-synod document that we all can agree with,” McLaughlin explained, “such as how hard it is to be a young person in the Church in the modern day. But there needs to be more than that included, especially since this will be the guiding document for the bishops at the synod. Having seen what occurred with the Synod for Marriage and Family,” — here McLaughlin says he is referring to the well-documented rigging of the synod process and the work of the St. Gallen Mafia — “I refuse to allow the same thing to happen to the youth.”
“To that end,” McLaughlin explains, “many of us will be writing letters to our bishops expressing our concern over the document, in addition to putting together a petition for youth to sign [saying] that they have felt misrepresented in the Church today. In the long term, we’re trying to write our own document to present to the bishops with more specifics concerning the Church today, with emphasis given to the different problems in different countries.”
Throughout my research on this story, I found myself surprised by the strong and articulate convictions of young Catholics about their search for a faith that really means something. It seems that among those who care about their Catholicsm, even where they are immersed in progressive ideologies that have clearly influenced their views, Millenial Catholics are being drawn away from the superficiality of a technologically-dominated secular culture — or, as the pre-synodal document calls it, “a culture and dictatorship of appearances,” and towards a more traditional and authentic expression of Christian life. This can be seen in examples like that of Alina Oehler, the 27-year-old German theologian and journalist who, despite telling a group of radical feminists who want to change the Church that she supports things like female cardinals, nevertheless told that same group — not unapprovingly — about the growing interest she has observed among the youth in the traditional Latin Mass. Such a juxtaposition would have been previously unthinkable, and anyone who thinks a person with such disparate views can be easily co-opted to support an entire ideological agenda is, in my opinion, making a big mistake. As the pre-synodal document and the process and controversy that surrounds it make clear, this generation is coming of age in an incredibly difficult era, and they have developed complex and often unexpected views about just about everything.
These are, the realities that the Church will have to contend with in its efforts to evangelize, catechize, and retain the next generation of Catholics — a generation of young men and women who have lived their entire lives online, with every information sharing tool at their disposal and few natural filters, for whom total transparency is a non-negotiable part of their involvement. When Pope Francis and his collaborators invited them to take part in the development of this upcoming synod, it’s not clear that they knew what they were getting themselves into. If the events of the past week are any indication, they’re about to find out.
As we concluded our conversation, I told McLaughlin that after speaking to a number of participants in the pre-synod youth event, I saw a lot of frustration with something that didn’t work the way it should have, but no actual malice. “This was a process that failed.” I said. “And I’m glad it failed in front of a whole bunch of 20-somethings who know how to use social media and get the word out.”
McLaughlin laughed at that. “As I like to say,” he quipped, “Francis Xavier had Asia as his mission field, we have the internet.”