I was speaking with some confreres a few months ago right around the Youth Synod about a problem most have not realized exists. Do you remember the Youth Synod? How relevant has its work been to your life? Do you recall a single point from the final document? My guess is that you remember it happened, that it did almost nothing but cause concern, and it produced a rather milquetoast exhortation that was probably more or less written before the meeting happened anyway. Okay, fine. That in itself is problematic, but that’s not my point here.
Years ago, we had the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, followed by the Ordinary Synod on the Family. I won’t rehearse the issues there, but it is indisputable that we did indeed have these meetings here in Rome. Okay, fine.
We have another big meeting coming up in two days. (By the way, lower your expectations for that…) There are supposed to be presidents of Bishops’ Conferences from all over the world, plus some other folks from various locales, about 190 people in total officially attending. Okay. Fine.
Here is the big question. How much do these meetings cost?
For this meeting, if we more than generously assume that only 100 people are coming in from outside of Italy for 4 nights, where does that leave us with expenses for travel, room, and board?
Let’s just do the math for travel, and only for those officially attending (not counting any assistants inevitably brought along). A conservative estimate of the average round-trip ticket to Rome for the people showing up would be something like $1,000 in economy class, non-direct. My suspicion is that most bishops want to fly direct if possible, and in business class (arguably justifiable for many older guys, or for the ease of getting work done on the plane). But even giving the BOTD here, we have already spent $100,000. Just to show up and get home. Then 4 days of room and board and who knows what else (rental cars, extra nights, more travel, whatever). Then there’s all the work to prepare the meeting – the planning of the agenda, writing the press releases, getting the venue set up, communicating with attendees beforehand, etc. Let’s be extremely generous and say that the entire thing costs $500,000. (Which I think is a comical estimation – it’s probably deep into the millions.) What will primarily be happening at this abuse summit is listening to a few talks, some group conversations, and then a penitential liturgy with the Holy Father at the end.
The talks may be worth listening to. The group conversations may be worth having (although breaking them into “language groups” seems to encourage ideological incest, but, unfortunately, Latin has been lost, so we are pretty much stuck with this model). The penitential liturgy will surely be poignant.
But is it worth $500,000+ to have everyone there in person? Is it worth leaving the diocese for almost a week at minimum? Is it really worth the time, the money, the effort?
It might have been worth it a few decades ago. Today, there is not really an excuse. There is this new thing, called the internet, which can be used to communicate with many people very cheaply and quickly.
For those of you who don’t know, it’s a series of tubes.
Now, I live in Rome, and I know how slowly things move. I have no delusions that this model going to change any time soon. But it could and should change eventually, and change starts by pointing out the problem and a possible way forward. It is just ridiculous to be spending hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars on these meetings when they could be done almost for free, and much more quickly at that, with a bit of tech-savvy engineering.
Of course, there are elements to a boots-on-the-ground meeting which are desirable. I’m not suggesting that it is never appropriate to come over in person, or that it isn’t important to be celebrating a liturgy in person with the Holy Father, or what have you. I am suggesting that we are seeing in the Holy See a decadent model of communication occasioned by an adaption to the availability of commercial travel without tempering it by an adaption to the availability of digital communications. We are not in 1875 anymore, it is true… We can fly to Rome and back without much trouble. But we are not in 1975 anymore either – we can have a lot of meetings online without much trouble.
Is there nothing better to do with that money, time, and energy?
St. Isidore, patron saint of the internet, pray for us.