Last December, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) asked the ACCU to assist them in providing Synod consultation opportunities for students at Catholic universities, wanting to ensure that the voices of young adults in the rising generation are included in the process. In response, our colleges and universities gathered Catholic students on their campuses this past spring term to discuss the students’ experiences with the Church.
85 of our institutions accepted the bishops' request. We did not ask our campuses to report the numbers of students participating, but several did report this, sharing that at least 6,000 students contributed but likely many more. Each sent us a short summary of the conversations, which our office submitted to the USCCB Office for the Synod.
In addition, ACCU was asked to create a national summary of the summaries. As you will see, there is a sense of urgency and strength of conviction that characterized these reports, which we attempted to preserve. That summary, provided below, was submitted to the USCCB Office for the Synod. We also had the honor and pleasure of presenting it directly to Sr. Nathalie Becquart in Rome, who is overseeing this process for the Vatican. This happened during ACCU’s Rome Seminar. About 20 of our presidents were in the room as Sr. Nathalie and her colleagues, accepted our ACCU summary, asked truly probing and insightful questions about the students’ responses, and took extensive notes as our presidents spoke.
Last week, the report was presented and discussed by the U.S. Bishops’ Higher Education Working Group (HEWG), a body consisting of five bishops and five Catholic university presidents. All present acknowledged that the summary was a snapshot of sorts, showing both Catholic university leaders and bishops our students’ convictions and helping us think further about how we can support them in their faith journeys and Catholic higher education.
In every instance, I quietly explained that a small number of our institutions chose not to participate because they were not always in agreement with the initiatives of this Pope. That was unfortunate, since there clearly would have been a broader range of thoughts and opinions had those institutions joined the conversation. That said, it’s important to remember that the students who did participate are active in their campus ministries and care enough about their Church that they would take time to join in these conversations. Any survey would be glad to have well over 6000 voices providing such feedback. Their insights cannot and should not be ignored or explained away. They are important voices in the U.S. Church’s rising generation.
The U.S. portion of the Synodal consultation is coming to a close soon, and summary documents from the various bishops’ conferences will be submitted in advance of a worldwide synodal meeting with the Pope in Fall of 2023. We at ACCU are grateful that the bishops asked our students to participate. Our deepest thanks to all who contributed their thoughts and to all who made this participation possible.
God bless you,
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider, CM
"Synod Conversations at U.S. Catholic Colleges and Universities"
Submitted by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU), May 23, 2022
Catholic colleges and universities educate over 900,000 students each year in the United States. At the invitation of the USCCB, our campuses provided students with opportunities to participate in the worldwide synodal consultation, and subsequently sent summaries of those conversations. Nearly half of the ACCU institutions participated. Because we did not ask, it is not possible to know how many students participated overall, though the number certainly exceeds over 6,000 based upon the colleges and universities that did report.
The conversations were rich, insightful, candid, challenging and hopeful for a church that would respond to their pastoral needs. These are students who care about their Church, or they would not have taken the time to participate. This cover letter cannot do justice to the many summaries we received, but certain observations were made repeatedly and bear repeating here. (The many summaries were attached and submitted to the USCCB for further reading.)
- University-age students seek parishes that recruit, welcome, and actively put them to work, but they report that many parishes only begin to take an interest when they seek marriage and/or begin families. They report liking their campus ministry experiences of community, where they are known by name and active, and worry about returning to parish life post-college, where they will not be known. Good liturgies and homilies are appreciated, but frequently mentioned as inadequate. There is a desire that the person of Jesus and the spiritual life be a stronger focus of these homilies, rebalanced from a sense that homilies are more often weighted toward moral issues.
- The students want parish communities and Church where they can ask challenging questions and they seek pastors and church leaders who welcome such conversations rather than marginalizing or punishing critical voices. They don't want to feel like the "bad child" when they disagree.
- Amidst the criticism and suggestions for change, there is a love for the Church rooted in relationship with individuals who inspired and welcomed them. They frequently mention priests, sisters, lay ministers and religious congregations as a whole who have made them feel welcome and included. They feel part of the larger church because these individuals have made them welcome.
- They'd love the Church to become more adept at using social media to minister to them.
OPENNESS TO CHANGE
5. This generation has heard the Church's explanations for some of its teachings and practices and finds them unpersuasive.
a. They have thin patience for any organization that does not embrace their LGBTQ+ friends and family members - nearly every report mentioned this as a high priorty concern.
b. They do not understand or accept that women are not equally welcomed into leadership and clerical roles.
c. They see no compelling reason that clergy cannot marry.
d. They accept that one enters into marriage "for life", but also accept that many marriages do not succeed and believe that the Church should better support and even celebrate those who find their way to healthier and stronger second relationships. They see no reason communion should be tied to these matters.
e. Few find Church teaching on contraception compelling and are aware that the vast majority of Catholics agree with them.
If and when they perceive that their friends or loved ones are affected adversely by these Church teachings, they will choose loyalty to their loved ones over loyalty to the Church. They hope the Church will soon moderate its teachings and practices in these regards.
6. They are well aware of the Church's scandals, having lived their entire lives in a constant flow of such media stories, and it causes them embarassment. What affects them more than the scandal is a sense of hypocrisy in the human structure of the Church. They want to be proud of their Church, and they want Church bodies to give them a steady flow of very public reasons to be proud of their Catholic identity.
7. They see a polarization in Church leadership that mimics the polarization they see in secular society and find it distressing.
8. There is a clear minority of students who love more traditional forms of worship and the clarity that comes with traditional church teaching. For them, parts of the U.S. Church have secularized beyond providing them with something meaningful for their lives, and they have found their ways to intentional communities that provide the faith experience they are seeking.
FOCUSED ON JUSTICE
9. Students desire a Church that is less insular and more focused on the needs of the world. They are proud when their Church takes strong stands on behalf of the poor and social justice more broadly, and when the local church serves the poor in that community.
10. Black Catholics observed that the U.S. Church membership and its leadership are overwhelmingly white, and that the culture in most U.S. parishes is "white Catholic". Some noted that the current move to close parishes for financial reasons is closing the urban black churches, and they can't easily find a new community that feels like home. They hope for a church leadership that "looks like" the rising generation.
11. There is excitement about Pope Francis. They consider him an "admirable leader who addresses needs and dynamics of the day and makes space to listen to the needs of the people."
These constant themes throughout the reports hardly capture the love for the Church that is evident on the pages, or the pain that some feel when they report feeling excluded because their lives are more complex than the Church teachings they have received. There was gratitude expressed that they were consulted and hope that their voices will be heard.
Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, CM, is president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.
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