How to Help Young People Find Faith: An Interview with Bishop Barron
Recently, Pope Francis ratified five members elected by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to represent the United States at the upcoming Synod of Bishops (October 3-28). The Synod will focus on “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.”
One of the chosen delegates is our own Bishop Robert Barron, and he was interviewed about the Synod in the National Catholic Reporter. Due to space constraints, they could include just a few quotes from the interview, so with their permission we’ve included the full text below. Enjoy!
QUESTION: What is your primary goal in representing the US church at the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment? In other words, what do you think it means to be a delegate? Are you there to represent the views of US young people to the Synod, or are you there representing the US bishops' views on young people? (I’m pretty sure Bishop Barron does not fit the 16-29 age demographic anymore!)
Bishop Barron: Since I was elected by my brother bishops, I suppose that at least part of my purpose is to represent them and their concerns. And as an American bishop, I also see myself, to a degree, as a spokesperson for young people from this country and this part of the world. My overall purpose, however, is to help the Church find a way to bring Jesus Christ more effectively to younger Catholics. I see the Synod’s trajectory as fundamentally evangelical.
QUESTION: You have said that this Synod is even more important than the family synods. Could you elaborate on why?
Bishop Barron: I absolutely believe that this Synod is more significant than the previous two, for it is about the future of Catholicism. I don’t know any issue more pressing now in the life of the Church than addressing the problem of the massive attrition of our own people, especially the young. Those professing no religious affiliation has become a veritable army in our country, and their numbers are especially strong among the young. By some estimates, 40% of those under thirty claim no religion. How to re-engage the “nones,” and to prevent the rise of future “nones,” should be, in my judgment, priority one in the Catholic Church.
QUESTION: You reach many young people through your Word on Fire ministry. What do you think young US Catholics want the Holy Father to know about their lives and their concerns?
Bishop Barron: The young people that I deal with on a daily basis through the web have a thousand skeptical questions about God, about religion, about the institutional Church and its moral teaching, about the Bible, etc. But underneath those questions are always an implicit fascination and a desire for connection. I believe they would like the Holy Father to know that they are still in the game, still eager to learn, still hungry—even when on the surface they might seem angry or disaffected. Their questions are not finally an indication of alienation from the Church—just the contrary.
QUESTION: What are your impressions of the document written by young people who attended the pre-synodal meeting in March? In particular, could you comment on its inclusive tone toward young people who may disagree with the Church on some teachings, such as gay marriage, etc.?
Bishop Barron: I appreciated the candor of the document that came out of the pre-synodal meeting. I was indeed struck by the stated desire for a more conciliatory tone in regard to those who do not subscribe to the Church’s teaching on sexual matters. I know from my work that that the sexual teachings are one of the major reasons that young people choose to leave the Church. So they are telling us that a tone of thundering denunciation would almost certainly not be effective. John Paul II’s insistence that the Church ought never to impose but only propose would be congruent with the instincts of that preliminary document. As I read the piece, I heard the young people asking not so much for new doctrines but for better and more convincing explanations of the Church’s controversial teachings.
QUESTION: Do you think the Synod should be only about young Catholics who have remained in the Church, or should it take into account the concerns and values of those who have left the Church, the so-called “nones”?
Bishop Barron: Emphatically yes! I believe that the Synod should follow Pope Francis’ exhortation to get out of the sacristies and go to the existential margins—that is to say, to those who have lost a sense of God and of transcendent meaning. We should be outward-looking and evangelical in our focus.
QUESTION: You have stressed the importance of evangelization and catechesis of young people, including those who have left the church. Do you think this Synod will be an opportunity to do such evangelization? If so, how? (In other words, how will the monthlong meeting of bishops in Rome in October directly affect young people in the US, including the “nones”?)
Bishop Barron: I doubt whether the Synod will have an immediate practical impact on young people. But I do indeed hope that it will generate ideas and pastoral strategies that will, in the long run, have a positive evangelical effect. If I have the chance to make an intervention, I will certainly want to talk about the need for a new apologetics and for substantial improvement in our catechetical outreach. Study after study has shown that young Catholics have serious intellectual difficulties with the faith and often betray a deeply inadequate understanding of what the Church actually teaches. So we need to think long and hard about how to improve that situation.
QUESTION: What have you done or what will you be doing before October to ensure that you have heard from a wide cross-section of Catholic young people?
Bishop Barron: I’ve been listening pretty attentively to young people for the past twenty years through my Word on Fire apostolate. On various internet forums I have heard literally tens of thousands of questions, concerns, objections, and suggestions. I feel I’ve got a pretty good sense of what both bugs and fascinates young people regarding religion. And I’ve furthermore found that my own impressions have been strongly supported by the massive amount of research data that have emerged in the last ten years or so.
I’ve also been holding listening sessions in my pastoral region in the LA Archdiocese, and we’re having a day-long event for young people in my area just about two weeks before I leave for the Synod. Finally, Word on Fire is planning on sponsoring a Facebook Live session to allow young people from all over the world to chime in with questions, insights, suggestions, etc. I must say that I’m filled with hope and excitement as I contemplate the prospect of participating in the great event of the Synod.