After returning from Rome for the month-long Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment held in October, Bishop Frank Caggiano, the Bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut; Jonathan Lewis, the assistant secretary for pastoral ministry and social concerns in the Archdiocese of Washington; and Sarah Yaklic, the archdiocese’s former director of digital media who now directs the Grotto Network, joined together to discuss takeaways from their experience during a Nov. 13 Theology on Tap at Buffalo Billiards in Washington. Christopher White, the national correspondent for the Crux Catholic website, moderated the panel.

One of the main takeaways that all three discussed was the experience of being a part of a global family in the Church, made up of different people who may disagree at times, but who are all united.

“In Rome, there was a unifying force, and that unifying force was Jesus,” said Yaklic.

As a part of that unity, both Lewis and Bishop Caggiano reflected on hearing about some of the very difficult experiences of young adults in other parts of the world. Bishop Caggiano recalled a story told by an Indian bishop about a young adult who was stoned to death by other young adults who had asked him to renounce his faith.

Lewis said he was particularly struck by the story of a young adult from Iraq named Safa, another auditor at the synod, whose friends were killed in a car bombing outside of a church. Recently, Lewis received a message from another young adult who lives in a country without religious freedom, asking for prayers because he and his family were being investigated because of their participation in the synod.

In the midst of that suffering, Lewis said he was reminded of the unity of the Church, because the other young adults in the group message from countries across the globe were responding, saying that they were praying for him and supporting him.

“We are too often separated from that suffering because of the privilege we have in this country,” Lewis said in an interview with the Catholic Standard.

Another takeaway they discussed was a deepened appreciation for Pope Francis, both in his humility and in the difficulty of his role in keeping the Church’s global family together. Bishop Caggiano said the experience helped him to realize “how beautifully diverse the Church is, how complicated the Church is, and how much I sympathize and need to keep praying for that man.”

The pope would arrive 20 minutes early for each session to meet anyone who wanted to meet him, posing for photos and selfies along the way, said Bishop Caggiano. The pope also took an interest in the very young when he gave Lewis’s wife and unborn baby a blessing.

Lewis recalled how before one of the sessions, Pope Francis walked in from his apartment, holding his umbrella, and saw a big group that wanted to take a picture with him. Pope Francis asked them to wait for one minute, walked over to the coat stand to hand off his umbrella, and then returned for the photo. Lewis noted that even though there was a room full of people who would have happily held the pope’s umbrella for him, he went through the same process as everyone else.

Likewise, he put himself on the same list as everyone else to give an “intervention,” which was the name of the four-minute talk that each Synod participant gave to the assembly, Bishop Caggiano noted.

“There is no fakeness in Pope Francis,” said Lewis. “He is a man of sincerity.”

Lewis also recalled how Pope Francis went out of his way one day to walk up the steps to the very top of the auditorium where the young adult auditors were sitting and introduced himself to each one of them.

“It was a beautiful symbol of the Church that goes out of its way to reach young people,” Lewis told the Catholic Standard. While the pope greeted them, he told them to “keep making noise.”

Because of the noise that the young people had been making, Bishop Caggiano said they changed the dynamic of the synod.

“The young people mixed it up,” he said. “They made their energy felt. They showed when they were happy; they showed when they were not happy.”

White also asked the panel about the abuse crisis in the Church, and whether they were happy with the discussion at the Synod.

“I believe in my heart of hearts, not only is it a moment of crisis, but it is a moment particularly in crisis of leadership,” said Bishop Caggiano. “If you don’t believe in leaders, then you can’t follow what they are saying or asking you to do.”

Bishop Caggiano said he could see the pain on Pope Francis’s face when he gave that message in his intervention, because “my sense is he feels it very deeply.”

Whatever policies or procedures the bishops come up with need to “be accompanied with a conversion of heart by bishops,” Bishop Caggiano said. Since he and other bishops are in positions of power that involve making decisions every day, “If I am not in the mind of Christ; if I am not trying to be a humble man,” he cannot exercise authority correctly, the bishop said.

Another theme discussed in the synod was the role of women in the Church, and Bishop Caggiano said he suspected there would be a future synod on the topic of how to involve women as equal partners in the Church, placing them in decision-making roles. In his own diocese, he said he hopes to appoint their first lay woman to lead a parish.

Yaklic said as a young woman, she has “learned over time there are places for me in the Church where I can give my gifts,” and she feels the Archdiocese of Washington in particular is a place where women’s gifts were honored, since there are many women in leadership roles, such as the secretary for pastoral ministry and social concerns and the archdiocese’s chancellor.

“If more dioceses acted like the Archdiocese of Washington in that regard, I think the Church probably would be a more vibrant, holy, authentic, sensitive and pastoral Church,” she said.

The final takeaway from the synod they discussed was a call to action directed toward the young adults. Bishop Caggiano said the Church today can learn from the early Church, which grew from 5,000 Christians in about 70 A.D. to about 23 million Christians in 312 A.D., during a time when Christianity was a crime, punishable by death.

The two things that the early Christians embraced that helped this growth were a personal pursuit of holiness and a supportive community, Bishop Caggiano said.

“When the martyrs gave their lives for Christ, they knew there was a community left behind who would love their wife, their children to the end – that their family would always take care of them and their family was the Church,” he said, asking everyone to be “all in” for the Church, despite all of the problems and difficulties.

“It means we are like family – we’ll fight, we’ll argue, we’ll love each other, we’ll cry with each other, we’ll walk with each other. But are you and I in to seek personal holiness?” he asked. “Secondly, this is a community. Are we in with each other, arm to arm? Will we love each other, be patient with each other and walk with each other forward? My belief, my friends, is if you and I commit to do that, not only will we see ourselves through the difficulties; not only will we see the vision of the synod; but we will give rebirth to the whole Church.”

On a practical level, Lewis told the Catholic Standard he hopes the implementation of the synod will involve increasing the presence of young people in decision-making leadership roles in the parish, such as on parish council or finance council, and reexamining sacramental preparation such as RCIA or marriage preparation to make them not only opportunities to learn about the faith, but also as opportunities to be invited into friendships that continue after they receive the sacrament, Lewis said.

“The great risk of the synod is not implementing it,” said Lewis. “If we have a synod on young people and don’t do anything about it, young people will grow increasingly distrustful (of the Church).”

But in order for that to happen, it requires renewed commitment on behalf of faithful young people, Lewis said.  Although young adults are living in a busy and transient time of life and it can often be easy to procrastinate getting involved, Lewis encouraged them to commit to a parish and ask the pastor how they can help.

“If we are not registered in a church, the elders of that community are missing you. They are missing your joy, they’re missing your enthusiasm, they’re missing your creativity, they are missing your energy, they are missing the gifts that you bring,” said Lewis. But that is not something that they can solve in a parish council meeting, because “….it stems from each one of us taking that step up and saying, ‘I’m going to do something difficult. I am going to do something hard,’” he added.

Lewis invites anyone who is interested in discussing how they can implement the synod at their parish or school to contact him at [email protected].

“Get plugged in. Do something. Commit. Be a part of the change,” he said. “…You are the water that is called to nourish our parishes in the Archdiocese of Washington.”