Youth Synod at the Vatican overshadowed by clergy sex abuse scandals

The reality is, if the Catholic Church hadn't had a “summer of hell,” as some called it, over the various clergy sex abuse scandals, very little media attention would be focused on this Synod that began Wednesday in Rome.

But now, Catholic pundits say, it is the most significant meeting of Pope Francis's papacy, as the church faces potentially its biggest crisis perhaps since the Protestant Reformation more than 500 years ago.

Francis celebrated Mass in St. Peters Square to open the Synod on Youth. More than 300 cardinals, bishops, priests and religious leaders from around the world are gathered there for the next three weeks to discuss how the church can better reach out to young people as future leaders of the faith.

Francis told the thousands of pilgrims, "Let us begin a new ecclesial meeting. One that can broaden our horizons, expand our hearts and transform those frames of mind that today paralyze, separate and alienate us from young people, leaving them exposed to stormy seas, orphans without a faith community that should sustain them."

But in the wake of the Pennsylvania grand jury report revealing a 300 predator priests and over a thousand victims – and investigations now underway in several other states, plus the exposed scandal of ex -ardinal Theodore McCarrick, a once powerful bishop with a long history of abusing seminarians – many bishops had called for Francis to cancel this synod and focus solely on the abuse crises.

Philadelphia's Archbishop Charles Chaput had been the most vocal in calling for the change. But short of being able to steer the church in that direction, he wrote in the Italian journal Il Folgio, "A synod that deals with issues of sexuality and young people should also deal – honestly and thoroughly – with the roots of a clergy sexual abuse disaster involving minors."

Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., agrees with his friend Chaput.

"I'm glad that he's raised these questions, because... we cannot simply avoid these questions and pretend that we're all sort of in a calm dialogue when the church and the world are in fact in a crisis at the moment," Royal said. "There's a problem at this moment in the church, of course, because at least in America we know very clearly that there has been the resignation of Cardinal McCarrick, former Archbishop of Washington D.C., and more generally a problem of continuing abuse and cover up."

Francis has called for a three-day meeting of bishops in Rome in February to discuss the clergy sex abuse in the church. But that's nearly five months away, and in the meantime, many pundits believe the crisis will be the elephant in the room of every meeting of the current Synod.

"There seems to be some general orientations of two different camps in the Synod,” said Royal, who is also the editor of an online daily column series called The Catholic Thing. “One is a sort of very positive and assumes that we can just sort of brush past, for example, the sexual abuse crisis and focus on reaching out to young people. And another that, I think, takes that sexual abuse crisis is almost symbolic of the church not being in a position right at this moment to deal effectively with young people."

The big question now is what will be the outcome of the Synod. Will there be real progress in understanding how to reach the young, many of whom are leaving the church because of the sex abuse scandal? Or, will the bishops and church leaders find a way to build excitement in the youth about being part of the church's future?

Paul Jarzembowski, the assistant director for Youth and Young Adult Ministries at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, has hope for the synod.

"[It’s] a chance for us to talk in a positive way about how the church can make a difference,” he said. “It's also going to be honest, it's going to say where we've fallen short and what can we do to move forward."

The answer may lie in the opening pages of the synod's working document, which says "The Church Listens to Reality."

For the next three weeks, that phrase will be put to the test.