Since Vatican II, there have been several assemblies of the synod of bishops. In this regard, the Synod on Synodality is nothing new. However, the Holy Father has set forth three phases for this particular synod: (1) a diocesan phase, (2) a continental phase, and (3) the final conclusive phase.1
In the first phase, which began in October 2021, each diocese, under the guidance of the local bishop, began collecting input from the faithful of that diocese, following documents and a questionnaire sent by the Vatican to the bishops (see “Synodus Episcoporum” here and “The Preparatory Document” here). Then, the dioceses were “to submit their contributions to their Episcopal Conference.”2 Each episcopal conference (e.g., the USCCB) then assembled to discuss the results further, eventually producing a draft text synthesizing the process and results. That text was then sent to the General Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops along with the contributions of the individual dioceses. Additional contributions from Catholic theology faculties/universities and from groups of superior generals of religious orders were also sent to the General Secretariat.3 After consulting these contributions, the General Secretariat drafted a first Instrumentum Laboris, which was used in the subsequent phase.
The second, continental phase involved a dialogue between the bishops of a given continent about the Instrumentum Laboris just mentioned. Together, each continent drafted a document and sent it to the General Secretariat. In turn, the General Secretariat drafted a second Instrumentum Laboris based on the input from the continental phase.
For the third and final (universal Church) phase, the bishops appointed and/or elected for the Ordinary General Assembly received the second Instrumentum Laboris as the basis of their deliberations, the first session of which will take place in October of this year (2023). A second session of the Ordinary General Assembly will take place in October 2024.
Who will participate in the synod? “For now, the list of voting members is complete, numbering 363 cardinals, bishops, priests, religious and lay men and women—a first in the history of the synod.”4 Their names are available here. Other, non-voting participants will also attend, bringing the total to around 450, with more potentially to be added later. Among these will be experts in relevant fields and even “representatives of non-Catholic Christian communities.”5 Bishop Barron was elected by the USCCB as one of the American delegates.
What is the purpose of the Synod on Synodality? It is helpful to start by considering what the purpose of the synod of bishops is in general and then, in light of this, to address the purpose of this particular General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.
Theologically, the synod of bishops is rooted in Christ’s establishment of the college of Apostles, who—under the headship of St. Peter—were entrusted with the propagation of the Gospel and given authority to teach, to govern, and to sanctify. As the Second Vatican Council teaches: “Just as in the Gospel, the Lord so disposing, St. Peter and the other apostles constitute one apostolic college, so in a similar way the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together. . . . These factors are already an indication of the collegiate character and aspect of the Episcopal order” (Lumen Gentium 22).6 Individually, bishops are entrusted with the pastoral care of their particular dioceses. Collectively, they work together—united with the pope—for the good of the whole Church and the advancement of the Church’s mission to the nations. In his apostolic letter establishing the synod of bishops, Pope St. Paul VI states that the synod of bishops is a means of assisting in his own apostolic duties. He therefore specifies its purpose; he established it “with the aim of providing them with abundant means for greater and more effective participation in Our concern for the universal Church” (Apostolica Sollicitudo). In short, the purpose of the synod of bishops is for bishops to work together with the Holy Father to address issues concerning the good of the Church and the advancement of the Church’s missionary activity. The bishops call to his attention the needs and challenges of their own local churches as well as offer their suggestions on how to handle pastoral matters.
This upcoming Synod on Synodality has the same fundamental aim as the synod of bishops in general but—as with all synods—directed toward a particular theme, in this case, how the Church can function in a more synodal fashion at all levels: parochial, diocesan, regional, and universal. As the Instrumentum Laboris for the first session of the General Assembly of the Synod on Synodality puts it, the impetus for this synod is “the desire for a Church that is also increasingly synodal in its institutions, structures and procedures, so as to constitute a space in which common baptismal dignity and co-responsibility for mission are not only affirmed, but exercised, and practiced” (21, emphasis original).
The aim of this synod, then, is more practical than doctrinal. As Archbishop Samuel Aquila (Denver) has stated: “Pope Francis has made it clear that the synod on synodality is not about changing long standing Church teaching.”7 It is about how the entire people of God—clergy and laity alike—can work together more effectively for the advancement of the Church’s mission.
Furthermore, synodal does not mean democratic or congressional. As Bishop Barron reports: “Francis was clear and explicit. He told us, in no uncertain terms, that a synod is ‘not a parliament,’ and that the synodal process is not simply a matter of canvassing the participants and counting votes.”8 The synod of bishops is essentially an advisory body. It gives insight and offers advice to the pope, but it is the pope’s decision on whether or how to implement any suggestions the synod recommends.
Similarly, being more ‘synodal’ on more local levels does not mean that the authoritative roles of clergy are being undermined. While part of synodal cooperation involves soliciting the laity’s perspective—finding out what their questions, struggles, and suggestions are—it does not mean doing what the laity want in every instance. It is still up to the hierarchy to determine concrete actions and to teach doctrine. Accordingly, Pope Francis himself, in his apostolic constitution on the synod of bishops Episcopalis Communio, writes that “during every synodal assembly, consultation of the faithful must be followed by discernment on the part of the Bishops chosen for the task, united in the search for a consensus that springs not from worldly logic, but from common obedience to the Spirit of Christ.”9
This last quote already anticipates and responds to one of the concerns that some Catholics have raised about the upcoming synod. In the next article of this series, we will discuss more concerns that have been raised and how we can approach them.
1 See Note of the Synod of Bishops, May 21, 2021, Vatican website.
4 Carol Glatz, “Pope appoints hundreds to attend Synod of Bishops on Synodality” (July 7, 2023), USCCB website.
6 Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium 22, in The Word on Fire Vatican II Collection, ed. Matthew Levering (Park Ridge, IL: Word on Fire Institute, 2021), 74.
7 Archbishop Samuel Aquila, “Radical inclusion requires radical love,” Denver Catholic, February 1, 2023.
8 Bishop Robert Barron, “What is Synodality?,” Word on Fire (February 18, 2020).
9 Pope Francis, Episcopalis Communio, apostolic constitution, September 15, 2018, vatican.va.