(OSV News) – The eyes of the Catholic world turn to Rome Oct. 4, as the worldwide Synod of Bishops convenes on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi to focus on “synodality” and understanding what it means in terms of “communion, participation and mission” in the Church. Here’s what it is, how we got here and what to expect.
- The Synod on Synodality is three years in the making.
Pope Francis announced in March 2020 (at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in Italy) that the next Synod of Bishops would be held in October 2022 on the theme “For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission,” which quickly became known as the “Synod on Synodality.”
In May 2021, he postponed the two-part meeting to 2023 (with a second gathering in 2024), due in part to the pandemic, and announced that it would be preceded by a two-year process.
- The term “synodality” is relatively new, though the idea is not.
Despite the long history of synods in the Church, the term “synodality” is relatively recent, emerging in Church documents about two decades ago.
In his homily for the Mass opening the synod process, Pope Francis said, “Celebrating a synod means walking on the same road, walking together.” He said that when meeting others, Jesus would “encounter, listen and discern,” and those verbs “characterize the synod.”
“The Gospels frequently show us Jesus ‘on a journey’; he walks alongside people and listens to the questions and concerns lurking in their hearts,” he said. “He shows us that God is not found in neat and orderly places, distant from reality, but walks ever at our side. He meets us where we are, on the often rocky roads of life.”
- A synod is a meeting of bishops.
It has ancient roots in the Catholic Church’s history and continuity in the Eastern Churches, but declined in the Latin Church. The modern Synod of Bishops was instituted near the end of Vatican II.
“Synod” has been historically interchangeable with “council,” such as the churchwide Council of Nicea or the Council of Trent, or more localized meetings, such as the Plenary Councils of Baltimore, which brought the U.S. bishops together in 1852, 1866 and 1884. The late Jesuit Father John W. O’Malley, a theologian at Georgetown University, noted in a February 2022 essay for America magazine that local councils declined in use following the First Vatican Council.
The idea for a permanent bishops’ council surfaced during the Second Vatican Council, and in 1965 St. Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops with “the function of providing information and offering advice.”
“It can also enjoy the power of making decisions when such power is conferred upon it by the Roman Pontiff; in this case, it belongs to him to ratify the decisions of the Synod,” St. Paul VI wrote.
- The Synod on Synodality is the 16th Ordinary Synod since the global Synod of Bishops was instituted.
Three extraordinary general assemblies have also been held, including in 2014 to complete the work of the 2015 ordinary general assembly on the family. An additional 11 special Synods of Bishops have been held to address issues facing a particular region.
Among them was a special synod on America in 1997 and one on the Amazon region in 2019.
Synods have regularly resulted in the pope, who serves as the synod president, writing a post-synodal apostolic exhortation.
- Preparations for the Synod on Synodality are the most extensive ever, with an invitation to every Catholic to provide input.
An unprecedented worldwide consultation occurred at the diocesan/national and continental levels. The synod’s two-year preparation process invited all Catholics worldwide to identify areas where the Church needed to give greater attention.
That feedback was gathered and synthesized by dioceses and then episcopal conferences, before being brought to the continental level. That information was then shared with the Holy See.
However, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ report indicates that only about 700,000 Catholics in the U.S. participated, representing just over 1% of the U.S. Catholic population of 66.8 million.
- The Synod on Synodality’s objective boils down to a few questions.
The working document released in June to guide general assembly participants includes many reflection questions, but it particularly asks participants to reflect on these questions: “How can we be more fully a sign and instrument of union with God and of the unity of all humanity?”; and “What processes, structures and institutions are needed in a missionary synodal Church?”
- For the first time ever, non-bishops – including lay men and women – have a vote in the synod.
The synod’s general assembly includes more than 450 participants – 363 of whom are voting members – with leaders from the Vatican curia and episcopal conferences.
More than a quarter of synod members are non-bishops, including laypeople, who for the first time will have a vote during synod deliberations. A deliberate effort was made to include women and young adults. As of July 7, when the Vatican released the initial list, the number of voting women was the same as participating cardinals: 54. The list was subject to change ahead of the synod, organizers said.
In previous synods, some non-bishop participants held the non-voting role of “auditor,” which has been eliminated at this assembly, although some attendees will be non-voting observers, called “special envoys,” or non-voting facilitators or advisers.
- More than 20 Catholics from the United States have been invited to participate.
Participating American bishops chosen by Pope Francis are Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago, Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington, Archbishop Paul D. Etienne of Seattle, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston and Cardinal Robert W. McElroy of San Diego, California.
Additional bishop-delegates selected by the USCCB and confirmed by Pope Francis are Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas; Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York; Bishop Robert E. Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota; Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana; and Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, who leads the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, and serves as USCCB president.
- In the U.S., the meeting has been a source of great expectation and great apprehension.
The synod has inspired both great praise and deep criticism for its approach, including allowing laypeople to vote; its subject matter, which includes controversial topics such as leadership roles for women, ministry to Catholics who identify as LGBTQ+, and the relationship between laypeople and clergy.
At least one cardinal expressed concern that the meeting could lead to confusion and error in Church teaching.
Bishop Flores, speaking recently with OSV News, said the meeting aims to better understand people’s realities so it can better minister to them.
- October’s meeting is just the beginning.
In an unusual move, the synod general assembly has been divided into two sessions, with the first Oct. 4-29, and the second planned for October 2024.
The decision, announced in October 2022, has parallels to the Synod of Bishops on the Family, which met in 2014 for an extraordinary general assembly of the Synod of Bishops, and then continued its work the following year as an ordinary assembly.
The work of both meetings culminated in the post-synodal apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), released in 2016.
The synod’s general assembly opens Oct. 4 with a papal Mass that includes the new cardinals created at a Sept. 30 consistory. Among them is expected to be Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States.