Next month’s gathering will be dominated by one issue

The forthcoming ordinary general assembly of the synod of bishops is dedicated to “young people, the faith and vocational discernment”. On paper, at least. What it is really about is the global crisis of episcopal leadership. That is what reporters covering the event are going to be most interested in discussing with the synod fathers, and that is what most of the bishops will talk about in the small sessions and coffee breaks and meal times, which is when the real work at these sorts of gatherings gets done.

The set pieces in the general sessions, too, will somehow be about the crisis, even if they don’t mention it explicitly. While they may be couched in terms of responding to the needs of young people in their formation in the faith and supporting their efforts at living Christian lives, the subtext will always be: how can bishops effectively teach the faith and credibly govern the lives of Christians if they blithely inhabit a culture that perpetuates corruption of the worst kind?

Several bishops, including the prominent and outspoken Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, have called for a postponement of the meeting, or for a change to the agenda. At least two others – one a favourite of Pope Francis who was hand-picked to participate in the proceedings, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey – have announced they will not be taking part.

The Pope’s recent changes to the law governing the synod of bishops – including the preparation, conduct and conclusion of synod assemblies – adds another significant wrinkle. The new apostolic constitution, Episcopalis communio, basically rubber-stamps the de facto procedure of the last two synod assemblies under the general secretary Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, who, critics allege, has been heavy-handed in his leadership. If Francis was disturbed by his handling of matters, the new law doesn’t show it.

By any measure, the preparatory phase of the synod assembly on young people, faith, and vocational discernment was carefully managed. Participants in the preparations occasionally suggested the prep work was perhaps too strictly supervised. Observers from every part of the Catholic spectrum joined them in those concerns.

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