91rst General Assembly

Ariccia, Casa del Divin Maestro – 21-23 November 2018



Starting again together in the wake of the Synod


Elements for a final synthesis

Pope Francis, during the Angelus of 28th October, the final day of the Synod, stated that “more than the document, it is important to promote a way of being and working together, young and old, in listening and in discernment, in order to arrive at pastoral choices that respond to reality.” He went on to add that, “with this fundamental approach of listening, we sought to interpret reality, to grasp the signs of these times of ours. A communal discernment, carried out in the light of the Word of God and of the Holy Spirit. This is one of the most beautiful gifts that the Lord gives to the Catholic Church, namely that of gathering voices and faces from the most varied realities and thus being able to attempt an interpretation that takes into account the wealth and complexity of the phenomena, always in the light of the Gospel.” He invited us “to carry forward what we have experienced, without fear, in the ordinary life of the communities.”

In continuity with this spirit, the purpose of these few pages is to offer a brief summary of what we have experienced during these days of sharing, after listening to the contributions of the Superiors General who attended the Synod on behalf of the Union of Superiors General. Their words have helped us all to enter into the central event of the Synod of the Youth, that is the Synodal Assembly that took place from 3 to 28 October.  

Our only intent is to provide the participants with something they can use, personally and communally, to begin delving into the Final Document, which is the first and primary working instrument in the hands of the Church. These two days certainly do not exempt us from reading and studying the Final Document, both individually and in community.  

The Synod’s Final Document is the result of a joint discernment process. It should be read and studied, allowing ourselves to become engaged in a discernment dynamics guided by the Spirit, which is at work in everyone.  This makes it possible to value and harmonize regional and cultural differences, which must be respected as a gift of the Spirit. The USG, as well the single Congregations and Institutes, are called to continue this journey and carry forward the Synodal dynamics.

The Apostolic Constitution Episcopalis communio in fact emphasizes that synodality is to be regarded ever more as an ordinary form of being Church and considers the Synod as an ongoing process in the life of the Church, rather than as an isolated event that proceeds in parallel with it. The USG – which came into being thanks to the efforts of father Arrupe, the founding father, whose process of canonization has gotten under way – was established in 1968 with this spirit of synodality, that is to reason together, walk together, discern together.

There have been four moments of sharing on four generative themes of the synodal experience: we have enjoyed together just some “foretastes” of how we can further explore the very many topics that were addressed during the Synodal Assembly, and which deserve our attention.

It is everyone’s task to continue the journey. From a methodological standpoint, in order to engage in a genuine effort of systematic study, it is important to bear in mind how the Instrumentum laboris and the Final document are related. N. 3 of the latter states as follows:

It is important to clarify how the Instrumentum laboris and the Final document are related. The former provides a unitary and synthetic reference framework, which emerged from two years of listening; the latter is the fruit of the discernment that has taken place and brings together the generative themes that the Synod fathers focused on with particular emphasis and passion. We thus recognize the difference and complementarity between these two documents.

    • Letting ourselves to be transformed through listening

Basic insights

We can begin to “walk together” once we are truly capable of ensuring mutual, friendly, empathic listening. A way of listening that is not merely a technique or part of a methodology, but an actual spiritual experience to be lived, with the willingness to allow others to express themselves well, to value what is being said, paying attention especially to those who live on the margins or are cast-off (also in our own communities); letting ourselves be challenged and converted, in our manners and mindsets, surrendering the will to exercise control; engaging in a dialogue, a conversation; recognizing what the Spirit is saying and letting ourselves be guided by it.

We learn how to listen through our relationship with the Lord: we have to make more room for listening to the Word of God, both personally and as a community.  Empathic and non-paternalistic listening transforms our community life as well as our apostolic work, especially when young people are involved.

Critical elements and questions

The need to listen concerns us leaders/Superiors General, first and foremost. Some questions emerged from the groups. In what way and with what aids/instruments/measures can we concretely:  

  • Dedicate the necessary (and priority) time to listening, without getting bogged down in (inevitable) urgent administrative and management-related matters?
  • Listen respectfully to everyone, especially to those who stand or place themselves at the margins?
  • Dedicate time to listening to young people?
  • Form ourselves and form others, to become persons who are capable of listening?
  • Recognize the signs of the times? See the facts, which at times are very “raw” (young people who are far removed from the Church, decline in vocations, abuses), through the eyes of faith and theological hope?
  • Help the members – including the younger ones – of our Congregations and Institutes, as well as the young people we reach out to through our activities and our lay co-workers, to grow in a style of listening?
  • Synodality and joint discernment

Basic insights

Synodality is perceived as a source of renewal for the Church’s life and mission: we have to make room for and discern the work of the Holy Spirit, which helps to transition from cacophony to symphony, from fragmentation to a unity that respects differences and values the contribution everyone offers. According to the groups, embracing a joint and synodal discernment style is a step forward for the Church, and a lot has to be done in order for it to really become part of our daily life, our apostolic work, and especially our structures, so that we may face “together” many inevitable issues we are confronted with. What direction should we take?

The Synodal approach, however, also triggers fears and resistances, and we must be aware of the risks that are entailed in its “mundane” use: slipping into a sort of “democraticism” that does not envisage a serious spiritual discernment but proceeds on the basis of numerical majorities. Or that risks serving as an excuse not to take responsibility, decisions at the local, provincial and general levels (consider for instance “unpopular” decisions like reducing presences or works, merging circumscriptions, etc.).

First of all, it is important to understand what it is about, what requires further reflection. Some insights that emerged from the groups deserve to be taken into account:

  • From an ecclesial and religious life perspective, synodality helps to combat clericalism and abuses of power, as well as to avoid the temptation of an exceedingly democratic approach or of a misrepresentation of obedience;
  • Synodality is missionary: it must not be lived as a “self-referencing” practice that has to do only with the Church’s “walking together”, but also with the Church’s “walking” in the world. As far as the youth is concerned, this means walking with young people where they are;
  • It is an opportunity for evangelical witness for the older members;
  • The basic question for ecclesial discernment is not just or mainly “what should we do” but “what should we be”. The Church is the discernment that God offers to us, so that we may face the challenges of the youth;
  • Collaboration with the laity is ever more crucial at this stage in the life of the Church and of the Consecrated Life.

Critical elements and questions

As Superiors General we must understand the meaning of discernment as a lifestyle – of the Congregation, of the Church – and how to exercise the service of authority according to a synodal dynamics. This urges us to:

  • Remember that discernment is a spiritual experience and is rooted in prayer: in it we find the clarity and freedom we need to make our decisions in our capacity as Superiors General;
  • Contemplate how Jesus himself exercised authority (see Final Document, n. 71): Jesus helps those he accompanies to grow;
  • Rediscover the importance of time: we are gradually understanding the importance of openness, patience, mercy in driving forward and accompanying synodal processes, without imposing ready made solutions;
  • Discover authoritative rather than “authoritarian” decision-making processes according to the style of religious life and of obedience proposed by one’s own charism;
  • Communication on the part of leaders and shared processes present particular difficulties when one or more parties harbor preconceptions. Find ways to overcome the blockages;
  • Find ways to foster participation and promote a culture of co-responsibility in our Congregations and in the Church;
  • Find concrete ways of dealing with interculturalism and intergenerational dialogue in our communities and in our apostolic activities. How can we show that it is possible to build together in a world marked by division?
  • Promote concrete experiences of joint discernment in our Congregations, at all levels;
  • Respond to the “traditionalistic” views young people have of roles of authority. Welcome the wish to have points of reference without abusing their trust and openness;
  • Reflect also on the consequences of synodality in relations with Church authorities;
  • Understand how the anthropological changes brought about by the digital world influence the way in which we live synodality. It is no longer a “means”, an “instrument”, but rather an “environment” that changes the ways in which we interact, relate, comprehend; it offers opportunities for relationships, distance encounters also among different cultures, inclusion, but it can also lead to self-referencing dynamicss and withdrawal. In this young people can be of help and play a leading role.

In particular, it appears that synodality challenges the ways in which decisions are made, especially at chapters or other such instances, in the light of the organizational culture that derives from every charism. This requires that we:

  • Structure responsibility, participation and obedience within our Congregation or Institute, while also bearing in mind that the structures or habits that have arisen from these charisms sometimes need to be converted;
  • Foster our relationship with the laity. Often our decisions concern them, and just as often we do not include them in decision-making processes, imposing our decisions upon them. Equally, it is not easy to find the best way to go about this;
  • Develop formation programs for superiors and formators, to educate them to synodality.

Some proposals

  • Before engaging in discussions or formulating proposals, it is necessary to further explore the matter of synodality as it is presented in the Final Document, reading some important texts on the subject, such as for example the ones produced by the International Theological Commission (Synodality on the Life and Mission of the Church of 2 March 2018) and the ones belonging to the magisterium of Pope Francis;
  • Do not leave it just to good faith and seek help from those who have received formation in communal discernment;
  • Make available more studies on the different models of leadership/responsibility and share them through the USG;
  • Re-read and re-propose the Final Document from the vantage point of one’s own charism;
  • Allow young people to participate in decision-making processes and to be present in places where decisions are made, like chapters or other governance structures/bodies.
    • Accompaniment as a form of the Gospel

Accompaniment is a key element of spirituality and a clear sign of the spirituality we live and proclaim as religious people, and is closely related with our mission to proclaim the Gospel. All charisms have a dimension of accompaniment, which should be further explored. Some elements that deserve special attention are the credibility of the witness offered by religious men and women; sharing our time and life with people, especially young ones; simplicity in announcing the faith; being present among and reaching out to people; valuing people.

Accompaniment is not a technique but an attitude of spiritual life; it urges us to reach out, go to the peripheries, sometimes even moving in the wrong direction. The story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus is especially inspiring as regards the relationship between accompaniment and proclamation: the Lord walks with the disciples as they journey away from Jerusalem; he listens to them, calls them and allows them to call him by name, renders them free to choose to return to Jerusalem as witnesses of an encounter. The way in which Pope Francis exercises leadership also gives witness of this, with his style of closeness to the people and the same time of prophecy.

The dynamics of accompaniment understood as “breaking the bread together” (see Final Document n. 92) is extremely important in order to understand that accompaniment is not just the premise to the announcement, but the style of the announcement as such: in this sense method (accompaniment) and truth (of the Gospel) become one and do not appear separate or confused.

Today accompaniment and announcement

  • Require from us a way of being Church and of proceeding as a community; it is not an individual endeavor. Our religious life too is infected by the virus of individualism and self-reliance, which weakens our ability to give witness;
  • Should be pursued in a spirit of reciprocity, as a Church that accompanies and at the same time lets itself be accompanied; as a Church that announces and, at the same time, receives a new word and discovers new dimensions of the Gospel. Accompaniment and announcement are ways of being Church in dialogue and in conversation. This leads us to ask ourselves what are the “five loaves and two fish” (Jn 6:1-15) that young people can receive and can be made to bear fruit by placing them in the hands of Jesus?
  • Difficulties and questions

On accompaniment

  • Many are willing to accompany but not likewise willing to be accompanied: letting oneself be accompanied is much harder and requires greater openness and flexibility than accompanying;
  • The community is the primary place of accompaniment, as we read in n. 92 of the Final Document. Nevertheless, if we apply such a definition to our religious communities, we realize how deficient and – often – incapable they are of providing accompaniment;
  • While it is true that prayer, fraternity and service to the poor are experiences that facilitate vocational discernment, we wonder to what extent our communities are capable of offering such experiences to young people;
  • We must be careful not to reduce accompaniment to something that is reserved to a restricted number of people, to an elite;
  • We have to learn not to regard accompaniment as a form of “recruitment”; Jesus calls us to freedom and responsibility. That is why it is important to contemplate his way of reaching out to young people and of calling them;
  • How do we really accompany and form young people to take on social and political responsibilities, that they may exercise their prophetic vocation in society? How do we accompany them as they enter into the labor market?
  • It is important for the person who provides accompaniment to be accompanied in turn.

On educational institutions

  • Many of our congregations are involved in education: how effective are our education programs? The same applies to catechetic programs for preparation to the sacraments: how do they structure and promote an adult Christian life? Effectiveness cannot be measured only in terms of numbers (number of people in our churches, in our schools) for life can have other expressions;
  • Are our educational institutions truly schools of discipleship? Are they really formative communities?
  • Why do our Congregations receive few vocations from educational institutions?
  • Our pastoral programs (at least in the United States) focus on young people who are open, but sometimes also push away their peers. How do we teach them to listen to and accompany other young people who may find themselves at the margins of the institutional Church?
  • How can we creatively provide open structures for accompaniment and spaces for pastoral work? How can we engage young people so that they may play an active part in this?
  • Working in schools also involves accompanying families. How are we providing for this?

Formation and accompaniment

  • Formation to genuine accompaniment must be an integral part of our formation program in our houses of formation;
  • The presence of lay young people in our formation teams is important in order to change attitutes;
  • Serious formation on the subject of accompaniment is necessary. What type of ongoing formation do our leaders, and us Superiors General, need? And what about the formation and spiritual directors?
  • How can we provide adequate ongoing formation and accompaniment in the communities? Not only for the young adult religious, but for all members?
  • How can we develop processes of formation of conscience, the deepest inner life of every individual, where the person experiences his/her own freedom, the responsibilities that flow from it, as well as the Transcendence that resides in it?
  • How can we put into practice the observations of the Synod’s Final Document and propose joint formation programs for religious and lay people, especially in the areas of leadership and accompaniment?
  • What should be the fundamental priorities of a general team in its mission of accompaniment? How should the general team be accompanied?
  • In what way does the encounter with young people “convert” our ways of providing accompaniment?
  • What conversion are our communities being called to in order to be willing and ready to welcome and accompany our young people (formative communities)?

The topic of vocation needs to be further studied and explored. The synodal process addressed it from the very outset and looked at it from various points of view. It was considered central, generative, decisive, transversal.  It involves diverse subjects and recipients, events and processes, accompaniment and discernment. It requires conversions of heart, mind and hands.  

The topic of vocations is intricate but not complex, integral though needing integration, decisive but not yet incisive. In the Church it is usually regarded and experienced very much in “recruiting” rather than in “generative” terms. It is a polyhedron with many facets, the most important ones being:

  • The creative dimension: life as a vocation, which concerns everyone and everything;
  • Baptismal dimension: the basic platform, which calls everyone to holiness;
  • Christological dimension: Jesus’ appeal and the dynamics of friendship with Christ, who loves and calls;
  • Ecclesial dimension: discernment on the Church’s vocation and mission today;
  • Symphonic dimension: the different vocations, which only together reveal the symphonic polyhedron we must refer to, according to the logic of a body with many interdependent limbs;
  • Pastoral dimension: vocational culture, vocational animation of all forms of pastoral care;
  • Pedagogical dimension: vocational accompaniment of the environment, group, and individual;
  • Spiritual dimension: vocational discernment as a journey in the Spirit of the Lord.


  • Insights

The conviction emerged that all specific vocations arise from the Church’s vocation. During the Synodal Assembly, the young people helped the Church to become aware of its maternal vocation.  The youth and the Church accompany each other mutually: the child teaches its parents to become parents, through its presence, words and fragilities!

This Church is called to be in synodality and solidarity with the world: synodality as mystics and prophecy of communion is the Church’s way/sign of its being in the world. Now, it is impossible to be with the world without being hurt by what hurts the world and rejoicing for what the world rejoices in: fragility is a  common element that characterizes the condition of the Church as a whole and that of the youth. Conversation can begin from this common and shared foundation.  

The consecrated life leverages on Jesus’ appeal in a very special way (see the Final document nn. 50 and 81). It is defined in n. 88 of the Final document as “joyful witness of love’s gratuitousness” and finds in contemplative (and women’s religious) life an important point of reference that should not be overshadowed. No doubt, the contemplative dimension of the consecrated life – which builds on the value of silence, the beauty of the liturgy and the power of prayer – is appealing to young people who are immersed in a world of noise and media.  

  • Critical elements

The word vocation is no doubt unpopular among young people: but it must be redeemed rather than abandoned.

To feel loved by God, that is what matters. If one has not had this experience, everything else becomes a problem:

  • Vocation: let us expose ourselves to love, radicalness, the progressive pouring out of the Holy Spirit into our hearts (Rm 5:5). Endeavour to overcome the resistances that come from many directions;
  • Love is fulfilled in a paschal way: the person consumes him/herself, those who love, burn: Jesus on the cross says: you matter more than me, I am ready to give my life for you.

There are very substantial ecclesial diversities: churches that are open or withdrawn, more missionary or more conservative, managerial or bureaucratic, marked by scandals, with little hope or great enthusiasm, many or very few young people. Cultural and contextual differences came very much to the fore during the Synod, more so than the different ecclesial sensitivities.

The risks associated with how synodality is understood also emerged: failing to take into account the different forms of synodality that are already in place (consider the different traditions of our Institutes), forgetting about important aspects concerning the reciprocity of vocations in the Church, regarding synodality as a democratic drift …  

The challenge of transmitting the faith today, especially in secularized societies, is great. Young people in the northern hemisphere experience indifference and distance from God, who is meaningless to them. At times we propose an ethical and therapeutic deism: a scentless, colorless, flavorless proposal which is more about psycho-physical wellbeing and worldly happiness.  A prophetic and challenging pedagogy is needed, a biting and provocative proposal that makes the difference: only this way can secularization become an opportunity  to rekindle the faith and freedom, offering an meaningful life and prospect to young people. The vocational dynamics actually responds to the question on how to nourish freedom.

For the consecrated life, the difference between charism and function is crucial: it is important to distinguish and integrate the two dynamics, knowing that the consecrated life is a sign of love’s gratuitousness. The question thus arises: how to overcome a “functionalism” that prevents from going back to the source of generosity and gratuitousness? The charism must be presented for its essential value, which is never functional, but a sign of love’s primacy. Sometimes we are asked if we still trust in the Gospel’s transformative power.  

During the discussion, the phenomenon of consecrated men who abandon the religious life in favor of the diocesan life came up. What happened in the course of their journey and what kind of formation did they receive? The question is raised forcefully: can one be a consecrated person without having a “function”, that is in a gratuitous and disinterested way? These are very important questions, especially where clerical polarization is strong. In some areas, a certain “diocesanization” of male consecrated life in under way, in which career, power, pursuit of prestige sometimes play a crucial role.  

  • Suggestions for action

What is to be done in order to strengthen vocations ministry?

  • Inspiring presentation of our vocation, as fullness of life in love
  • The strong tie between communal and personal accompaniment is central to this process
  • The witness of simplicity is powerful for attraction to the vocation
  • The topic of the faith community as a family that young people belong to
  • Accompaniment as a condition for discernment

How to foster a vocational culture: where to begin?

  • Vocations ministry means going to that place in the human being where he/she seeks the truth
  • Take seriously the youth’s search for the truth
  • Reach every individual in his/her metaphysical capacity to believe in the truth
  • Vocations ministry must start from and attain the truth of life
  • Also by means of a first announcement that is loud and clear
  • Also through catechumenal experiences

Do we have the courage to try something new?

  • Sometimes a wall stands before the wish to do something differently
  • But, let’s face it, what have we got to lose?
  • Sometimes we contradict ourselves: we know that this is not right, but we act as if it is
  • Like our founders, we are called to try to attempt the impossible

Two “institutional” suggestions:

  • Bring the USG and the Congregation for the religious closer: in the past few years, they did not feel very close
  • Greater collaboration and sharing with consecrated women, which represent – also in number – the majority of consecrated people

The Final document provides many insights on this point.

The entire fourth chapter of part one (nn. 45-57) speaks of some features of young people today, which clearly reveal their wish to be in the forefront and to feel part of the Church’s life.

The image of John and Peter in n. 66 is very powerful and speaks to the fact that young people come before pastors and open up new roads.

The image of Mary Magdalene in n. 115 is stirring in relation to the fact that young people are called to bring the first announcement to pastors!

Some central paragraphs of the first chapter of part three are crucial as regards the approach of the whole document to the protagonism and presence of young people in the Church, which takes synodality seriously (see nn.116,118,119-124), along with other extremely interesting numbers (137,160-161).

  • New elements

The shift from “doing for the youth” to “doing with the youth” touched many. It is the theme of missionary synodality. This point was raised many times during the Synod.

We must be convinced that young people are here and now: they are the present of the world and of the Church: “Young people are in the heart of the Church and of God” (n. 117). The Emmaus narrative shows how Jesus enters into the night of our life without being afraid of getting lost.

The Synod was a great call to see, contemplate and be among young people in a different way. There was a strong appeal to regard them as a “theological place”, that is a reality from which God sends genuine appeals to his Church. The Synod was an experience of communion and understanding, which invited us to take a different view and approach with the young generations: we must not indoctrinate, instruct, be teachers, but walk with young people, share with them our struggles, our joys. It is not a slogan: a real change in attitude!  

We must focus on what is good about the Church: this is what the Synod set out to do, without concealing the critical elements: in actual fact, the difference between the good that is done and the evil that is done is huge. We do much good, and it is unnoticed.  

  • Critical elements

In our Congregations, the “generational alliances” do not always work. How can we accompany one another in our lives? What relational approaches are most suitable? It is evident, at any rate, that accompaniment belongs to and takes place in the community.  

Some see the risk of losing our way when confronted with so many issues: the family, the youth, etc. … how we face things is up to us: we have to adopt a systematic approach, in which the family and the youth are two fragile subjects that must be accompanied together.  In concrete terms, Pope Francis’s pontificate is centered on Evangelii gaudium as a “sun” around which various planets revolve (Laudato sì’, Amoris laetitia, the Synod of the Youth, etc. …).

A critical element that must be addressed is the tie between formation and mission. Formation of consecrated people for the youth of today and of tomorrow is crucial.  We worry about the profile of the consecrated person, because at times in the young generations that turn to the consecrated life there are critical elements that need to be dealt with:  dangerous clericalism, pursuit of power, the inability to share the mission, the inability to be truly close, spiritual vagrancy, careerism. We have to rethink with courage the profile of today’s consecrated people.

  • Suggestions for action

The consecrated life is called to play a prophetic role in the world with regard to any type of abuse and any type of vulnerability:

  • Those who have received less from life and those who have been marked by suffering should find a home in the service of the consecrated life
  • Just consider young migrants, whom the Synod spoke so much about
  • The Synod asks us to choose the poorest and the disenfranchised
  • This is the main prophecy in a world that tends to be dominated by a “culture of waste” in its management of things and of the planet, and, when approaching people in this way, easily becomes a “culture of abuse”
  1. 161 of the Final document challenges us consecrated people to offer a quality experience of fraternity, service and spirituality:
  • The consecrated life must offer pilot proposals in this direction, to form adults in the faith
  • If we do nothing, the Church as a whole will struggle to start moving
  • We can be a creative and prophetic force in this direction
  • In many contexts, the “gap year” is already important: what do we propose?

The tie between service and discernment was clarified both during the process of preparation for and the actual Synodal Assembly:

  • Voluntary work – in its many forms – has become part of the youth culture: how do we fit into this?
  • There are experiences of international volunteerism: we have global Institutes, what are we doing? Here too we are called to be creative and innovative: young people are open
  • The idea that young people are the most effective evangelizers of other young people emerged several times during the Synod.

Fr Giacomo Costa sj

[email protected]

Fr Rossano Sala sdb

[email protected]