Vatican City • By age 9 or 10, she had her first doubts about the faith, and not long after, she felt confident telling her parents: The Catholic Church, Agata Leoniddi said, seemed “outdated and backwards.”
The language at Mass was archaic. The teaching was rigid and unwelcoming. And some of the issues most important to her — including gender equality — were not discussed in church, where the leaders were entirely male. Leoniddi had spent her childhood within the church, but more and more, she was reaching the conclusion of so many young people in the developed world who’ve abandoned organized religion and, in particular, the scandal-riddled Catholic faith.
“I don’t think the church understands my generation,” said Leoniddi, now 12, who lives in a village among rolling hills 50 miles outside of Rome. “We are not like our grandfathers.”
The failure to attract and retain young people has become a central focus this month as the Vatican holds a major summit on the topic of youths within the faith. Among the pressing questions is whether an institution often criticized as out of touch can regain relevance for a younger generation — and whether the church’s power brokers are willing to listen to what those people have to say.
At a particularly divided moment within the church, the discussion doubles as an ideological debate over the church’s future, particularly on the extent to which Catholicism should modernize its teachings on sexuality and gender under a pope who has been pushing to adopt a more inclusive tone.
The other key issue is whether the carefully stage-managed event — more than a year and a half in the making — will address clerical sexual abuse within the church. Some outsiders say the discussion can be meaningful only if bishops take on the topic, rather than waiting for a February church meeting on abuse. Pope Francis recently acknowledged that scandals were driving the young away from the religion. The archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, called on Francis in August to cancel the youth meeting altogether, saying the bishops have “absolutely no credibility” to address the topic.
The monthlong advisory meeting of several hundred leading bishops, known as a synod, begins Wednesday and is closed to the public. Three dozen carefully selected Catholics between age 18 and 29 have also been invited — a number that Cardinal Sérgio da Rocha, one of the organizers, said was limited by the space inside the Vatican meeting hall. The event is not believed to include any lapsed Catholics, but one of the synod attendees said he sees the result of defections all around him.
“I am almost reliably the youngest person in any church gathering I go to — and that is a problem,” said Jonathan Lewis, 32, the assistant secretary for pastoral ministry and social concerns at the Archdiocese of Washington. “That’s why this synod is so important. Young people feel lonely and anonymous in our churches.”
Polling and data suggest that the abandonment of organized religion is a defining trait of the world’s young — and even in predominantly Catholic countries like Italy, Mass attendance is on the decline. In Vasanello, Leoniddi’s hometown, “those who go to church are looked at as freaks,” said Fabio Santini, a university professor who leads a church-affiliated youth Scout group.
Leoniddi is a part of that Scout group, and, at moments, she feels at home in her church. She has been going there for as long as she can remember. Only now, she is attending Mass less often. She believes gays and lesbians should be more welcomed. She believes women should be ordained as priests. Her parents say she will drift back to the church as she gets older. Leoniddi says she probably won’t.
“The fact that it’s just men [as priests] — it was like that when the church was formed,” she said. “It’s so old-fashioned.”
For decades, the Catholic Church has been trying to reshape its message for a younger audience, though without much success. A Vatican document prepared for this synod emphasizes the importance of “listening to young people” and mentions many of the challenges facing that generation: poverty, environmental degradation, technology, even fake news. The document — which will be debated, revised and then voted on — also touches on hot-button social issues, though without much clarity.
“Many believe that ‘the sexual question must be discussed in a more open and unbiased way,’” the Vatican’s document says. Some church watchers say it is the first Vatican text to use the acronym LGBT; the document says that some “LGBT youths” want to “experience greater care by the church.”
Amid that agenda, Chaput, a high-profile conservative, has called on the church to discuss abuse, writing in an Italian newspaper that a meeting “dealing with youngsters and sexuality should also tackle — in an honest and thorough manner — the roots of clerical sex abuse involving minors.”
Another American who was supposed to attend, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, withdrew from the synod as he deals with the consequences of an abuse scandal in his own diocese, involving recently resigned Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Meantime, a Dutch bishop has said he is boycotting the event because of the Vatican’s handling of abuse.
The Catholic Church this year has faced a series of abuse-related cases that, taken together, suggest that the Vatican has not done enough to hold accountable higher-ups that protected abusive clerics. In August, an archbishop accused Pope Francis of knowing about McCarrick’s sexual misconduct misbehavior five years ago and taking no action. Neither Francis nor the Vatican has responded to the allegations.
“The pope is remaining silent: that’s incomprehensible, truly incomprehensible,” the Dutch prelate who is boycotting, Bishop Robert Mutsaerts, told LifeSite News, a conservative Catholic publication. “And then carrying on with the agenda. . . If there’s one thing we cannot do, it is that.”
At a news conference this week to kick off the synod, a journalist asked Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, one of the organizers, how the issue of abuse would influence the event. Baldisseri did not directly talk about abuse in his answer, but said the church had a chance to show its worth to the young.
“The church is not represented by some who do wrong, but something more important and fundamental, since, as they always say, the church is saint and sinner,” he said.
The Washington Post’s Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.