Almost every two years since 1967, the Church has celebrated a Synod of Bishops. This is a special and unique moment in the life of the Church. Bishops from all over the world gather in order to assist the Bishop of Rome with “providing for the good of the universal Church”. In each Synod, the Church “journeys together”, along a specific path, focusing on a theme chosen by the Pope. In the end, the Pope “confirms his brethren in the faith” regarding “matters and situations that bear upon the internal life of the Church and upon the kind of action that [she] should be carrying on in today's world” (Pope Paul VI).
How the Synod of Bishops began
Pope Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops in 1965. The Second Vatican Council had just concluded. Motivated by the experience of the Council itself, Paul VI desired to:
“permanently establish a Council of Bishops, with the aim of providing for a continuance after the Council of the great abundance of benefits that We have been so happy to see flow to the Christian people during the time of the Council as a result of Our close collaboration with the bishops”.
The Role of the Synod of Bishops
In the words of Pope Francis, the Synod of Bishops is a body that “manifests the solicitude of the College of Bishops for the needs of the People of God and for communion among the Churches”. The Synod is a means of gathering information on each particular theme from the local Churches. It provides counsel to the Roman Pontiff in the Synodal Assembly. Pope Francis, repeating what his Predecessor, Paul VI said, stated that the Synod has a “consultative role, offering information and counsel to the Roman Pontiff on various ecclesial questions, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit”. Furthermore, the role of the Synod of Bishops is primarily that of “listening to the People of God”. The Synod, therefore, is the “suitable instrument to give voice to the entire People of God”.
Documents governing the Synod
● The Apostolic Letter Apostolica Sollecitudo, published in 1965, is the document in which Pope Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops. From the outset, he foresaw that the Synod, “like all human institutions, can be improved upon with the passing of time”. This document contains the essential components in outline form which were developed in successive documents.
● Ordo Synodi Episcoporum, first published in 1966, contains all the Norms regarding things as general as how themes are chosen, how the Synod of Bishops is organized, who presides over the Synod sessions, how participants are elected, how information is gathered and communicated; and things as specific as what ecclesiastical garb the Bishops are to wear in the assembly. This document was subsequently updated in 1969 and in 1971 by Pope Paul VI, and in 2006 by Pope Benedict XVI.
● With the publication of the new Code of Canon Law in 1983, a chapter dedicated to the Synod of Bishops appears for the first time under Book II of The People of God, under Part II which develops the Hierarchical Constitution of the Church.
● Lastly, Pope Francis issued the Apostolic Constituion Episcopalis communio less than one month prior to the Synod of Bishops on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment which began on 3 October 2018. In it, Pope Francis articulates the purpose of the Synod and its various components. Pope Francis’ particular contribution in “improving” the Synodal structure is that of including the entire People of God in both the consultation and implementation processes. The norms present in this document supersede any Canons in Canon Law and preceding norms that treat the same subject.
Types of Synods
There are three types of Synods of Bishops. Each type covers a different area of the Church’s lived experience. The type of Synod determines how the participants are chosen.
1) Ordinary General Assembly: this type of Synod is convened in order to reflect on matters “which pertain to the good of the universal Church”. To date, there have been 13 Ordinary General Assemblies, the last of which was the Synod on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment held in October 2018.
2) Extraordinary General Assembly: as its name indicates, this type of Synod is an exception to the rule. It is convened in order to reflect on matters “pertaining to the good of the universal Church, that require urgent consideration”. To date, there have been three Extraordinary General Assemblies, the last of which was the First Session of the Synod on the Family held in 2014.
3) Special Assembly: matters “which pertain principally to one or more particular geographical areas” are reflected on at this type of Synod. To date, there have been 10 Special Assemblies. The Synod on the Pan-Amazon Region of 2019 belongs to this category.
The three phases of the Synod
Each Synod unfolds through three primary phases. The first is the preparatory phase. It consists primarily in the consultation of the People of God on the theme the Pope has chosen. Currently, a preparatory document solicits information from the Bishops, from the Congregations of men and women religious and consecrated laity, and from the Roman Curia. A Pre-Synodal meeting may also be called by the General Secretariat which organizes the Synod assemblies. The first ever Pre-Synodal meeting was held in March 2018 in preparation for the Synod on Young People. Institutes of higher education with specific competence on the theme may also be invited to provide input. Information is solicited through a Preparatory Document. This information forms the basis for the working document (Instrumentum laboris) during the second synodal phase.
Then the Synod enters the discussion phase. The members, experts, auditors and other persons who have been invited to attend the Synod meet in Rome. Only those invited as “members” have voting rights. The Synod Assembly begins and ends with the Celebration of Mass presided over by the Pope. Discussion of the Synod theme takes place through interventions made while everyone is present in General Congregations and conversations within language groups. This discussion contributes to the formulation of the Final Document which is entrusted to a commission. When this Final Document has been approved by the voting members of the Synod, it is presented to the Pope for his approval.
The final phase of the Synod is the implementation phase. Just as the first phase involves Bishops at the local level, so too does this last phase. It is also possible that the General Secretariat request the help of a special commission to aid in the implementation of a Synod.
It is customary that, following each Synod, a document called an Apostolic Exhortation is issued by the Pope. Since the very existence of the Synod is to be at the service of the Roman Pontiff and his universal ministry, it is fitting that he should have the last word. Each Pope draws on the content that has been submitted through the various stages of the Synod and draws conclusions from it for the life of the Church. Some of these documents have had quite a bit of influence on the Church’s life throughout the world. One example is the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi, published by Pope Paul VI after the Third Ordinary General Assembly of Bishops that took place in 1974 on the theme “Evangelization in the Modern World”. Another highly influential Apostolic Exhortation is that of Pope St John Paul II Familiaris consortio published following the Fifth Ordinary General Assembly of Bishops that took place in 1980 on the theme “The Christian Family”.