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Highways to heaven

Carlo Acutis doesn’t look like your typical saint. In a photo widely circulated on the internet, he is wearing a red polo shirt with a navy blue collar. He stands against a dazzling mountain backdrop, rucksack straps over his shoulders, with a hint of teenage shyness in his narrowed eyes. Carlo was born in London in 1991, which means that if he were alive today he would be just 27. In the months before he died from leukaemia, aged 15, he created a website that documented Eucharistic miracles. The Eucharist, he said, was “my highway to heaven”.

Last week Pope Francis set the millennial on the path to canonisation when he issued a decree recognising Carlo’s “heroic virtues”. He also advanced the Cause of another teenager: Alexia González-Barros, who died in 1985, aged 14, after a battle with cancer.

It seems significant that the Pope has issued these decrees a few months before the world’s bishops gather in Rome for a synod on “Young people, the faith and vocational discernment”. Last month the Vatican published the synod’s instrumentum laboris, or working document, which will guide the bishops’ discussions. Critics argued that the text dwelt too much on the problems of today’s youth and too little on how the Church can remedy them. One pointed out that the document makes 25 references to sexuality and just 17 to Jesus.

This is perhaps unfair. The instrumentum laboris is meant to give an overview of the challenges, rather than

The youth synod text has 25 references to sexuality and just 17 to Jesus suggest ready-made solutions before discussions have even begun. It was compiled with the help of young people, so to some extent it genuinely reflects their concerns.

Still, we must remember that what the Church offers young people is not sociological analysis – however acute – but salvation. It is not presenting youngsters with a provocative set of opinions, but rather the grace to make progress in a lifelong journey towards God. The lives of Carlo Acutis and Alexia González-Barros are worth a million working documents because they testify to this truth. They didn’t seek to change the Church, but rather allowed the Church to transform them.

Both Carlo and Alexis were unusual in that they faced mortality at a young age – and with incredible courage. How can the Church inspire the vast majority of youngsters whose lives are less dramatic? It could start by introducing them to Gaudete et Exsultate, the homely reflection on holiness that Francis issued in March. There, the Pope discusses what he calls “the saints next door”: those who draw nearer to God through daily perseverance rather than astonishing deeds.

Above all, the Church should stick to what it’s good at when the youth synod convenes in October: guiding souls to God, rather than offering an exhaustive survey of 21st-century social trends.

Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Vatican department for Laity, Family and Life, has said that priests lack credibility when it comes to marriage preparation. In an interview with an Irish magazine, His Eminence said: “My theme is that priests are not the best people to train others for marriage. They have no credibility; they have never lived the experience; they may know moral theology, dogmatic theology in theory, but to go from there to putting it into practice every day … they don’t have that experience.”

This argument is by no means unfamiliar. But it is normally made by members of Christian denominations with married clergy. It is a weak line of reasoning that can be extended further

Cardinal error and further, to the point of absurdity. How could male priests, for example, have credibility in counselling women whose experience of being women is one that clergy do not know? How can priests have credibility with young people when they are not young themselves? What is surprising is that these words came from a cardinal, a bishop and a priest. For surely the criticism of priests applies just as much to cardinals and bishops – and indeed to the Pope himself. Why, a provocateur might ask, is a celibate male leading a dicastery that deals with the laity? Does he have sufficient credibility to do so, given that he is not a layman himself?

The cardinal might also have considered the effect of his words on parish priests. They have to juggle marriage preparation with numerous other calls on their time – and do so generously and to the best of their abilities. The cardinal might have stopped to acknowledge that these pastoral men often know their flocks well, and have usually observed marriages and family life from close up, as well as having been raised in families themselves.

Most parish priests, on hearing the cardinal’s words, will shrug and move on; a few may become demoralised. None, we believe, will find them helpful. While making a legitimate attempt to correct the error of clericalism, the cardinal has dealt the role of the priesthood an unexpected and undeserved blow.


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