On January 13, 2017, the preparatory document for the next Synod of Bishops was presented. The synod will discuss “Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment” and will take place in October 2018.
The document is innovative and could be useful during the period of consultation with the People of God. The simplicity of its structure – an introduction, three parts that apply the method “see-judge-act” and a questionnaire – is the fruit of a mature discernment and not the development of an abstract or idealistic model. The document admits to being “incomplete” from its very opening, and it is proposed as a “map” for the synodal journey. In particular, it proposes a real figure, the young evangelist Saint John, as an icon of the vocational experience.
In this “reader’s guide” we will indicate some key points on which it would be helpful to take some time to benefit from reflection, and others – as indicated by the document itself – where it is possible to make some contribution.
Dialogue and accompaniment
The phase of consultation with the People of God began with the sending of the document and a letter from the pope to young people. Francis says to the young people: “I wanted you to be the center of attention, because you are in my heart,” and he exhorts them to “undertake a journey of discernment to discover God’s plan” in their lives.
The questionnaire at the end of the document hopes to gather information about the condition of today’s young people in the diverse contexts in which they live. This is not to be an abstract type of information but rather one that seeks to include young people themselves by their engagement and testimonials. It also involves those who are working directly with today’s young people in the analysis introduced by the document in order to adequately develop an Instrumentum laboris for the synod.
The document unfolds under the double aspect of dialogue and accompaniment. It is important to note that the introduction is in a dialogical form and that the first words are those of the Lord Jesus, who speaks directly, presenting his mission as a project of joy for all, without exception: “These things I have said to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (Jn 15:11). By allowing the Lord to speak first, the Church enters into dialogue with the young not only as “teacher,” but also as “disciple,” as Church which “by listening to young people…will once again hear the Lord speaking in today’s world” (Doc. Intro.).
In the text, the attitude and tone of the Church when it dialogues with young people are those of one who accompanies another in discerning his or her vocation. The role of “spiritual guidance re-orientates a person toward the Lord and prepares the ground for an encounter with him (cf. Jn 3:29-30)” (Doc. II, 4). As an institution, the Church adopts the attitude of one who reflects on how best to accompany the young. It seeks to encourage them to be protagonists of their own vocation and their own destiny, taking up responsibility for the very Church they are called to serve.
Different tones and accents are used in this search aimed at discerning the will of God. The exhortatory tone, which comes from the challenge of the Lord, is for all. The document reserves to itself, on the other hand, the instructive tone, asking critically constructive questions of the Church as “pastor” and teacher (cf. Doc. III, 1); and when it speaks directly to young people, the tone is primarily one of recognition and appreciation, of encouragement and consolation, of invitation and of the desire to listen to them.
Francis and young people
We know that Pope Francis listens with attention to the People of God, particularly to the young. It is enough to observe him when he listens to the witness given by those who participate in encounters with him. In these meetings, he often sets aside the prepared text to enter into a true dialogue with those present.
In the conversations that he has had with young people, we can glimpse some indications of what the synod might bring. We can consider for example the prayer vigil in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major on April 8, 2017. A synod that seeks to be “by and for young people” – believers and non-believers – is already a novelty. It becomes all the more significant when the pope says, “In the synod, the entire Church wants to listen to young people: to what they are thinking, to what they want, to what they criticize and to what they are sorry for.” In the letter, Francis has written to young people: “Make your voice heard, let it resonate in communities and let it be heard by your shepherds of souls.” Young people cry out often. Making their cry his own and giving them the mission to make it heard is in line with the famous “Let’s make noise!” requested by the pope in Rio de Janeiro, which is integrated with another invitation – a calmer one – to “speak with the elderly.”
With his “four times 20” years, Francis communicates very well with those who are only 20 years old. When he was a young novice master and Jesuit provincial, the themes of young people and vocation occupied a central place in his pastoral activity. Among the many things that the young people of today appreciate about the pope are the following: “he looks you in the eyes,” “he lets you take a selfie,” and “he speaks of real things.” The most significant, however, is this: Francis “doesn’t recite a part.” Young people express this same thought in many ways: “he isn’t stuck up,” “he isn’t stiff,” “he practices what he preaches,” “he is open to dialogue and to difficult questions,” “he listens to you with real interest.”
Paradoxically, this is what some – not particularly young in spirit – rebuke him for: “he doesn’t act like a pope [sic!],” “he desecrates the papacy,” “he talks too much”…
The “positive view” of the Second Vatican Council on young people
Without relying on platitudes, like saying that young people are the hope of humanity, or presenting them with an infinitely long list of all of the evils and dangers that surround them, the document takes up the positive view of the Second Vatican Council, which treats young people like mature adults. The Message of the Council to Young People states: the Church “has confidence that you will find such strength and such joy that you will not be tempted, as were some of your elders, to yield to the seductions of egoistic or hedonistic philosophies or to those of despair and nihilism.” This vision, critical of adults and full of hope in the young, has perhaps lost a bit of its freshness over the past 50 years as a moralistic tone has come back into favor, one to which many young people just close their ears.
More than not making them feel valued, what creates more distance with young people is seeking to discipline them. There are subtle ways of doing so: presenting abstract ideals, giving moralistic advice, diagnosing and admonishing systematically the dangers around them…. The document for the synod, on the other hand, offers concrete ideals: biblical models of young people like Samuel, Jeremiah, John, the Virgin Mary. It seeks advice from young people, and it values their prophetic capacity and the courage to take risks and to get involved.
Recognizing the plurality of young people’s worlds
The document is structured around the steps of vocational discernment: it is resolute that its “seeing” is a recognition; that its “judging” not be abstract but discerning what the Lord says to the Church in these times; that its proposals of “acting” be just that: propositions and not impositions.
In the text, you can note the presence of larger themes treated by Francis and some points where you can perceive the dialogue between a subject (the Church) who “accompanies” and another subject (young people) who discern.
The first section, “Young people in today’s world,” makes its own a bold claim: “It is fair to say that there is a multiplicity of worlds, when speaking of young people, not a single one.” These diverse young people are touched by common themes: the speed of change, multiculturalism, the search for identity and belonging, and the quest for trustworthy and consistent persons. These are themes that Pope Francis has always spoken about. In this preparatory document, it is possible to see how his thought is being assimilated by others and is present already in the planning of the next synod.
The existential dimension: “Where they are”
First of all we see the existential dimension of going out and accompanying the youth “where they are,” in the same way as the pope invites us to welcome families just “as they are.” The analysis of today’s world seeks to “give a concrete foundation to the ethical-spiritual journey” that leads one to vocational discernment and makes it possible. It responds to the challenge proposed in the exhortation Amoris laetitia (AL) to parents (and to pastors) to “understand ‘where’ children really are in their journey. Where are their souls, really?” (AL 261). This “where” is “existential”: it is an understanding of where young people stand regarding their beliefs, objectives, their desires and their projects for their lives.
Just as missionaries often arrived in a new territory without books or any signs of Christianity in order to begin to walk with the people of that land, conforming themselves to the local culture, so too anyone who wants to enter into the world of the new generations must leave aside their excess baggage: “Accompanying young people requires going beyond a preconceived framework, encountering young people where they are, adapting to their times and pace of life and taking them seriously” (Doc. III, 1).
The existential perspective that seeks to transform itself into a concrete pastoral action allows one to see a principle we must always remember: inculturation is not only a “spatial” question, so to speak, but also a “generational” one. This adds a dramatic character to the issue. The problem is not, for example, the fact that it has not yet been possible to access Chinese culture, as if “culture” were static, geographically situated. The fact is that, while abstract questions are being debated, entire generations are lost, generations that do not come for “baptism,” understood as the free and total immersion in the love of the Father who created us, the Son who has given his life for us, and the Holy Spirit, creator and giver of every life and of every culture. Therefore, when the pope speaks of “all young persons,” his attitude is “baptismal.” It is that of one called to ensure that all receive a gift that is complete and unconditional. This is the foundation for all further progress and maturation in the faith.
Key advice: take risks!
Faced with the provisional nature of the decisions typical of the world of today’s young people, the pope tells them: “Take risks!” “How can we reawaken the greatness and the courage of comprehensive choices, of the impulses of the heart in order to face educational and emotional challenges? The phrase I use very often is: take a risk! Take a risk. Whoever does not risk does not walk. ‘But what if I make a mistake?’ Blessed be the Lord! You will make more mistakes if you remain still” (Doc. I, 3).
This can seem surprising but it is part of Francis’ pedagogy not to humiliate young people for their limitations where they are most fragile (for example, in controlling the passions) while, at the same time, he is demanding and audacious where they are at their strongest: giving everything for an ideal.
Faith, discernment, vocation
Wanting to choose an evangelical image that illustrates the proposal of vocation, we can make reference not to the normal one of “fishing” but to one found in the parable of the good seed. The farmer scatters seed over the land. Some grows on its own, and some needs to be taken care of until it matures, without rushing to pull out the weeds.
Also illuminating in the same way is the parable of the master who calls the workers to his vineyard and pays the last the same as the first. Just as the farmer sows seed in all his fields, and the master of the vineyard wants all to work there, the desire of the Church is that of “meeting, accompanying, and taking care of every young person, excluding no one” (Doc. II, 1), giving them the instruments that will help them in “the formation of conscience and an authentic freedom” (Doc. Intro.), so that they can discern their vocation.
Therefore, the document does not begin with the problem of the need for priestly and religious vocations but it “universalizes the question of vocation.” Vocational discernment is presented as “a progressive process of interior discernment and maturation of faith” that belongs to all Christians. This is the way “the vocation to love takes concrete form in everyday life through a series of choices, which find expression in the states of life (marriage, ordained ministry, consecrated life, etc.), professions, forms of social and civil commitment, lifestyle, the management of time and money, etc.” (ibid.).
Discernment is not considered as a singular act but rather as a constant mode of living a “spiritual life” that seeks to be docile to the impulses of the Spirit. Here the accent is on the three births – natural, baptismal and spiritual – of which the Eastern Churches speak. In discernment as the “birth of the spirit” (Doc. II, 3), ancient traditions and current charismatic experiences converge. The mission of the pastors is to safeguard and sustain those freedoms that are still being formed, in the image of Saint Joseph, who helped Jesus to grow and mature in a human way (cf. Doc. II, Intro.).
The joyful awareness of our faith and vocation
In the document, faith is considered not as a mere intellectual assent to dogmatic formulae, but rather as “seeing things as Jesus does (cf. Lumen fidei, 18),” and flowing out of this are “concrete and consistent choices in life” (Doc. II, 1). The place of this listening and of this dialogue is the conscience, the most secret core and sanctuary of a person. There we are alone with God, whose voice echoes in our depths (Gaudium et spes, 16)” (ibid.).
In this section on faith, two convictions stand out. The first is that conscience is an element that has no substitute in making moral judgments; the second is that freedom never entirely loses its radical capacity to recognize and to do the good. This second point affirms the positive nature of our faith, countering that temptation which Dominique Bertrand calls the “unhappy conscience,” that is, the “refusal of what makes us happy.” It is a temptation that has always threatened the Church, and it manifests itself in the tone and in the themes of many preachers and many documents: it is one of those things that most frightens and drives away young people.
On this point, the document speaks this way: “If the vocation to the joy of love is the fundamental call that God has placed in the heart of every young person so that each one’s existence will bear fruit, faith is both a gift from on high and a response to feeling oneself chosen and loved” (ibid.).
The gift of discernment
It is helpful to dedicate some time to the three points that the document picks up from the apostolic exhortation, Evangelii gaudium, n. 51. Pope Francis uses three verbs to describe the path of discernment: recognizing, interpreting and choosing.
1) Recognizing. “‘Recognizing’ requires making this emotional richness emerge and ascertaining these feelings without making a judgment. It also requires capturing the ‘flavor’ that remains, that is the consonance or dissonance between what is experienced and what is in the depths of the heart” (Doc. II, 2).
With the verb “recognizing,” the pope expresses his positive vision of reality. Having the courage to perceive fearlessly all that one feels is essential to interpreting it and to choosing well. Having the courage to recognize what one feels is essential for maturing. “Human beings cannot easily recognize the concrete form of that joy to which God calls each one and to which each one aspires” (Doc. II, 1). A person must “adopt the instruments needed to recognize the Lord’s call to the joy of love and choose to respond to it” (Doc. II, 4).
Recognition requires “personal experience” (ibid.). Therefore, it is necessary to be accompanied by competent persons. Young people seek “persons of reference who are close-by, credible, consistent and honest,” who help them “in recognizing their limits, but without making them feel they are being judged” (Doc. I, 2). At the same time, recognition leads to action: participating in concrete activities of service is “an occasion forming a personal identity.” The model of “recognizing” is the Apostle John, who “will recognize the Risen Lord” (Doc. Intro.).
Let’s recall that the entire document is set up on the basis of a recognition: “we recognize that the pastoral and vocational care of young people, though overlapping, has distinct differences (Doc. III, Intro.).
The theme of young people might seem to overshadow that of priestly and religious formation. Nevertheless, thanks to the way Francis has proposed to take up the question, both themes mutually reinforce one another.
2) Interpreting. It is not sufficient to recognize what one is feeling; it is necessary to “interpret it.” One must “understand what the Spirit is calling you to do, through what the Spirit stirs up in each person.” That is, interpreting is not only “explaining” a phenomenon in itself, but is also discovering its spiritual “meaning.” In a discerning interpretation it is essential to know “where this is taking me,” a movement, more than “from where does it come?” or “what is it?”
Sometimes the origin of an experience is complex. But it is always a fruitful process to ask oneself if something – whatever it might be and from wherever it may come – brings me closer to Christ or distances me from him in the light of the criteria of the Gospel. It is a process that requires time and is not free of temptations, doubts and spiritual warfare, but it always brings clarity. Here is the importance of confronting ourselves with the Word of God and getting help from someone who accompanies us and can give us confirmation. The entire document starts with the question that the Church asks herself: how to accompany young people so that they recognize the call and how to ask their help in identifying the most efficacious ways in evangelization (cf. Doc. Intro.).
This brings to mind a text of Bergoglio on the hermeneutic of conscience itself in which a young novice is formed. It is applicable to every young person: “All problems and human phenomena are susceptible to a process of clarification, an explanation, because all human reality ‘has in itself an immanent explanation that is valid’ […]; a person exercises ‘dominion’ over things in this explanation.” This develops through human means, making use of techniques that the person has discovered. “But every fact of life is susceptible to a salvific meaning, that is, grace, and manifests the eruption of God into that event.” There exist, therefore, two dimensions: an immanent one (the explanation of the event) and a transcendent one (the meaning of the event). Neglecting one of these dimensions leads one to extremes of behavior: either to an unreal spiritualism or to closed immanentism. Sometimes, due to suggestions we receive in our formation, we tend to consider any transcendence as something that is ‘beyond’ what surrounds us, as a kind of horizon. Biblical thought is very different: the true transcendence of God, according to the Scriptures, is in the very heart of immanence, of history. Given this, every time that the process of clarification, of immanent explanation moves forward, one necessarily opens more to the transcendent meaning. […] It is not a matter of giving [to a young person] ‘explanations’ or imposing ‘meanings’ but, on this point, the note of Saint Ignatius to the director of the Exercises is valid: they must remain stable like the equilibrium of scales in a balance, making it such that one who receives the Exercises enters into direct communication with the Lord (cf. Spiritual Exercises 15).”
The criterion of the magis (“the more”) is also fundamental. The document shows that interpretation requires effort and that one cannot be happy with “the legalistic logic of the bare minimum,” but must go beyond. The criterion is that, if you want to dialogue with young people and truly accompany them, the choice of a topic of primary importance is essential: how they will spend their lives. Speaking with young people about vocation is not one topic among many; it is the topic. Situating the topic of discernment of priestly and religious vocation in the framework of a larger dialogue is not one possible frame; it is the frame.
3) Choosing. Francis always speaks about “concreteness.” Choosing is making things concrete. It is also “taking a risk” and then “taking up that which one has desired and chosen” with responsible maturity. Choice is an exercise of authentic human liberty and personal responsibility. Given that choice cannot be avoided (in fact, one is always making choices, in that life is concrete) two temptations must be avoided: that of deciding in obedience to the blind forces of impulses; and that of deciding without making one’s own intimate choice, seeking refuge in the abstract legality in which an abstract “other” is given responsibility for the choice.
Now, this passage – favoring personal decisions – seems to frighten some. In this case, the question of the subject is fundamental. The document affirms: “For a long time throughout history, basic decisions in life have not been made by the individuals concerned” (Doc. II). The subject is every person who acts in the inviolable space of the conscience, for which no one can pretend to substitute (cf. AL 37). Choices are confirmed in life; they “cannot remain imprisoned in an interiority that is likely to remain virtual or unrealistic” (Doc. II).
The document points out the vulnerability of young persons on this point, because they “must choose,” and, in fact, “they do choose” but they cannot count on adequate help in this key dimension of life, given that the transient world of today makes all choices “reversible” (Doc. I, 3) and orients the person toward a “narcissistic self-realization.” The pope’s gamble is that of “reawakening the greatness and courage of major decisions.” It is for this purpose that he advises young people: “Take risks.” That is, choose, even if you make a mistake.
The Church, a companion on the journey
In the matter of discernment, the document speaks of a long process, not of “specific moments.” Discernment confirms a choice that has been made and that requires time: it requires giving up being focused on oneself and means counting on the help of a wise companion.
In this section on accompaniment and the ideal profile of a good companion, we recognize the role the Church has in regard to young people. “At the basis of discernment we see three convictions” (which are the foundation of accompaniment and make it an exciting tool of apostolic work): 1) The Spirit of God works in the heart of every man and woman through feelings and desires that are linked to ideas, images and plans. Listening carefully, the human being has the possibility to interpret these signals. 2) The human heart, because of its weakness and sin, is normally divided because it is attracted to different and even contrary feelings. 3) Every way of life imposes a choice, because a person cannot remain indefinitely in an undetermined state.
These three convictions have consequences. The first is that “a person needs to adopt the instruments needed to recognize the Lord’s call to the joy of love and choose to respond to it” (Doc. II, 4). Another consequence is that those who accompany the young cannot be mere theorists but must have personal experience in order to interpret the movements of the heart and recognize the actions of the Spirit.
Here, the document sketches the ideal profile of the person who accompanies the youth, pointing to five evangelical elements: “a loving look (the calling of the first disciples, cf. Jn 1:35-51); an authoritative word (teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, cf. Lk 4:32); an ability to ‘become the neighbor’ (the parable of the Good Samaritan, cf. Lk 10:25-37); a choice to ‘walk beside’ (the disciples of Emmaus, cf. Lk 24:13-35); and an authentic witness, fearlessly going against preconceived ideas (the washing of the feet at the Last Supper, cf. Jn 13:1-20).” Finally, “in the task of accompanying the younger generations, the Church accepts her call to collaborate in the joy of young people rather than be tempted to take control of their faith (cf. 2 Cor 1:24)” (Doc. II, 4).
From the ideal to the concreteness of pastoral action
The third part of the document treats “pastoral action.” It considers the challenge of pastoral care and vocational discernment and poses a serious question to the Church herself: “How does the Church help young people accept their call to the joy of the Gospel?”
This makes the ideal profile of the one who accompanies even more concrete.
First, that person’s action is described in three verbs: going out, allowing the young people to be the protagonists; seeing young people, spending time with them like Jesus; calling the young, reawakening in them desires, posing new questions, not prescribing norms to be obeyed.
Second, in pastoral action the important elements are the subjects who, on the one hand, are all the young people obviously, and on the other are the credible persons they can to turn to for accompaniment: “This requires authoritative believers, with a clear human identity, a strong sense of belonging to the Church, a visible spiritual character, a strong passion for education and a great capacity for discernment.”
Third, it is necessary to accompany the young in those places, especially those of daily life, in which one becomes an adult. The places of social action, those places where one hears the cry of the poor of the earth, are to be privileged. Listening to and serving the poor helps one to have a spiritual experience and to discern one’s own calling.
Finally, accompaniment must pay attention to the mechanisms. Accompanying requires finding pastoral language and, in order to do this, it is necessary to be aware of how hard it is to break down the distance between ecclesial language and that of young people.
 See also, G. Cucci, “Verso il XV Sinodo dei Vescovi. Giovani, fede e discernimento vocazionale,” in Civ. Catt. 2017 II 380-389.
 The two texts can be found on the webpage of the synod: www.vatican.va/roman_curia/synod/index.htm
 Vocation is presented as a “calling of the Lord”: “Come and see” (Doc. Intro.). Discernment is done “in dialogue with the Lord and in listening to the voice of the Spirit” (Doc. II, 2), while continuing to “monitor the signs used by the Lord to indicate and specify a vocation” (Doc. II, 3).
 Francis, Address of His Holiness Pope Francis at the prayer vigil in anticipation of World Youth Day, April 8, 2017.
 The titles of three lessons of the young provincial, Bergoglio, at the end of the 1970s: “Nuestra misión ante la necesidad de vocaciones”; “Nuestra misión ante las nuevas vocaciones”; “Nuestra responsabilidad como provincia frente a las futuras vocaciones.” See J. M. Bergoglio, Meditaciones para religiosos, Basauri, Mensajero, 2014, 22-42.
 See C. Jácome, “La sencillez del Papa Francisco marca los corazones de los jóvenes” (http://tildenoticias.com), May 25, 2015.
 Second Vatican Council, Message to Young People, December 7, 1965.
 Many differences can be noted, among many of them: the generational geographic one; the historical-cultural one; and the difference between male and female gender in each culture.
 See Francis, Encyclical Laudato si’, n. 15.
 Francis, Address at “Villa Nazareth,” June 18, 2016.
 See D. Fares, “Educare i figli secondo ‘Amoris laetitia,’” in Civ. Catt. II 2016 363-368.
 See H. Rojas, “Invitación a repensar el discernimiento vocacional,” in Mensaje, March-April 2017, 24-27.
 See Francis, Homily during the Mass at the beginning of his Petrine ministry, March 19, 2013.
 See D. Bertrand, “Contro la ‘coscienza infelice’ nel cristianesimo. Ireneo, Ilario, Cesario,” in Civ. Catt. II 2017 29-41; “Against the ‘unhappy consciousness’ in Christianity. Irenaeus, Hilary, Caesarius,” in Civ. Catt. (English Edition), 0617.
 See D. Fares, “Aiuti per crescere nella capacità di discernere,” in Civ. Catt. I 2017 377-389; “Aids for growing in discernment,” in Civ. Catt. (English edition), 0417.
 See Study Document of the CLAR (Confederación caribeña y latinoamericana de religiosos y religiosas), La vida según el Espíritu en las comunidades religiosas de Latinoamérica, 1977, n. 115.
 Ibid., n. 116.
 The expression is one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
 J. M. Bergoglio, Reflexiones espirituales sobre la vida apostólica, Buenos Aires, Diego de Torres, 1987.
 On the “more,” Bergoglio stated: “The magis […] has the virtue of making us aware of the variety of spirits that act in us […] ‘In general, the higher you make your goal in action, faith, hope and love of a person so that you dedicate to that goal your affective and operative strength, the more probable that both good and evil spirits will go into motion’ (P. Favre, Memorie spirituali nn. 301-302). And this is a good way to help those who are tempted in the first way, that is, to ‘sedentarism.’ [Moreover] the magis is never abstractly a good criterion in making choices. It is the ‘environment,’ not an absolute criterion of choice. […] This is a good help to those who are tempted in the second way, that is, to search for a ‘creativity’ based on an abstract magis, without historical connotations, without inculturation” (J.M. Bergoglio, Reflexiones espirituales sobre la vida apostólica, cit.; tr. it. Il desiderio allarga il cuore, Bologna, EMI, 2014, 140).
 “Whether these choices are willfully made or simply accepted, either consciously or unconsciously, no one is excluded from making these choices. The purpose of vocational discernment is to find out how to transform them, in the light of faith, into steps toward the fullness of joy to which everyone is called” (Doc. Intro.).
 It makes a distinction between psychological and spiritual accompaniment: “Spiritual guidance re-orientates a person toward the Lord and prepares the ground for an encounter with him (cf. Jn 3:29-30).