Since its institution in 1965, the Synod of Bishops has been an instrument through which the Pope and the Bishops together undertake their special task as shepherds of Christ’s flock. It is, therefore, a means by which the Church renews its ability to enter into dialogue with and to evangelize various sectors of the Church and society.
A permanently missionary Church
As Pope Francis said in the Apostolic Constitution Episcopalis communio:
“Today, too, at a point in history when the Church is embarking upon a ‘new chapter of evangelization’ requiring her to be ‘throughout the world… permanently in a state of mission’, the Synod of Bishops is called, like every other ecclesiastical institution, to become ever more ‘suitably channelled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation’. Above all, recognizing that ‘the task of proclaiming the Gospel everywhere in the world falls primarily on the body of Bishops’, the Synod needs, in the words of the Council, to ‘give special consideration to missionary activity, which is the greatest and holiest task of the Church’ ”.
The themes that have been chosen throughout the years manifest the various concerns that the Popes have shared with the Bishops. Behind these themes, the pastoral sensitivity of the Church’s pastors to promote a permanently missionary Church comes to life.
Paul VI: faith, episcopal conferences, priesthood, evangelization, catechesis
Paul VI presided over 5 Synods. The first one, held in 1967, covered the “Preservation and strengthening of the Catholic Faith”. This Ordinary Assembly was followed two years later by an Extraordinary Assembly on the "Cooperation between the Holy See and the Episcopal Conferences". "The Ministerial Priesthood and Justice in the World" was the topic of the third Synod in 1971, followed by “Evangelization in the Modern World” in 1974. This was the first Synod that was followed up with an Apostolic Exhortation written by Pope Paul VI and published in December 1975. Just one year before his death, Pope St Paul VI presided over his last Synod on “Catechesis in our time”. Pope Saint John Paul II published the Apostolic Exhortation in October 1979.
John Paul II: Special Assemblies
During Pope St John Paul’ II’s almost 27-year papacy, he presided over 13 Synods of Bishops. The second of the three Extraordinary Synods occurred in 1985, for "The Twentieth Anniversary of the Conclusion of the Second Vatican Council". It was also under John Paul II that the Special Synods, covering various geographic territories, began. One the conclusion of most of these Synods, he subsequently published a Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation. These Special Assemblies include:
The Pastoral Situation of the Netherlands (1980)
“So that we might be witnesses of Christ who has set us free” – I Special Assembly for Europe (1991)
"The Church in Africa and Her Evangelizing Mission Towards the Year 2000: ‘You Shall Be My Witnesses’ (Acts 1:8)" I Special Assembly for Africa (1994); Ecclesia in Africa (1995)
"Christ is Our Hope: Renewed by His Spirit, in Solidarity We Bear Witness to His Love" – Special Assembly for Lebanon (1995); Una speranza nuova per il Libano (1997)
"Encounter with the Living Jesus Christ: the Way to Conversion, Communion and Solidarity in America" – Special Assembly for America (1997); Ecclesia in America (1999)
"Jesus Christ the Saviour and His Mission of Love and Service in Asia: ‘...That They May Have Life, and Have it Abundantly’ (Jn 10:10)" – Special Assembly for Asia (1998); Ecclesia in Asia (1999)
"Jesus Christ and the Peoples of Oceania: Walking His Way, Telling His Truth, Living His Life" – Special Assembly for Oceania (1998); Ecclesia in oceania (2001)
"Jesus Christ, Alive in His Church, Source of Hope for Europe" – II Special Assembly for Europe (1999); Ecclesia in europa (2003)
John Paul II: the family, reconciliation, laity, priesthood, consecrated life, bishops
The pastoral concerns that John Paul II had at heart for the universal Church have left a permanent mark on the Church’s life and story both through the Synods themselves, and through the follow-up Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortations he wrote following.
"The Christian Family" (1980); Familiaris consortio (1981)
"Penance and Reconciliation in the Mission of the Church" (1983); Reconciliatio et paenitentia (1984)
"The Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World" (1987); Christifideles laici (1988)
"The Formation of Priests in Circumstances of the Present Day" (1990), Pastores dabo vobis (1992)
"The Consecrated Life and Its Role in the Church and in the World" (1994); Vita consecrata (1996)
"The Bishop: Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World" (2001); Pastores gregis (2003)
Benedict XVI: the Eucharist, the Word of God, Africa, the Middle East, New Evangelization
Pope Benedict XVI presided over 5 Synods, 2 of which were Special Assemblies. He, too, contributed to the Church’s rich patrimony by publishing Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortations after each Synod.
"The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church" (2005); Sacramentum Caritatis (2007)
"The Word of God in the Life and the Mission of the Church" (2008); Verbum Domini (2010)
“The Church in Africa at the Service of Reconciliation, Justice and Peace. 'You are the salt of the earth ... You are the light of the world’ (Mt 5: 13,14)" – II Special Assembly for Africa (2009); Africa Munus (2011)
“The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness. 'Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul' (Acts 4:32)" – Special Assembly for the Middle East (2010); Ecclesia in Medio Oriente (2012)
"The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith" (2012); Evangelii gaudium (2013, written by Pope Francis)
Pope Francis: family, young people, Pan-Amazon region
Pope Francis’ 6½ -year pontificate has seen all three types of Synods of Bishops. In addition, when he promulgated the Apostolic Constitution Episcopalis communio, he changed the style of the Synod from collegial (something that primarily regarded the College of Bishops in communion with the Roman Pontiff), to synodal (allowing the entire People of God to contribute). Pope Francis is the first Pope to conduct two Synods on one theme.
“The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization” – Extraordinary General Assembly (2014)
“The vocation and mission of the family in the Church and in the contemporary world” – General Assembly (2015); Amoris laetitia (2016)
“Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment” – General Assembly (2018); Christus vivit (2019)
“New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology” – Special Assembly (6-27 October 2019)