The October 5 Synod of Bishops: What Is It?

by Fr. William Saunders


Question: I understand that there is a special Synod of Bishops taking place in Rome beginning October 5. What is a synod and what are its duties?

On September 15, 1965 (shortly before the close of the Vatican Council II), Pope Paul VI issued “Apostolica Sollicitudo,” a motu proprio for establishing the Synod of Bishops for the universal church. Synods had already existed within dioceses or provinces, so that bishop(s) could consult with their clergy, religious, and laity about issues facing their particular churches.

Pope Paul VI envisioned a synod whereby bishops chosen from various parts of the world would gather together with the Holy Father, the successor of St. Peter, and provide information and advice, as well as make decisions with him. Pope Paul VI stated, “The apostolic concern leading us to carefully survey the signs of the times and to make every effort to adapt the means and methods of the holy apostolate to the changing circumstances and need of our day, impels us to establish even closer ties with the bishops in order to strengthen our union with them ‘whom the Holy Spirit has placed … to rule the church of God,’ (Acts 20:28). We are led to this not merely by the reverence, esteem, and sense of gratitude that we rightly feel toward all our venerable brothers in the episcopate, but also by the very heavy responsibility that obliges us to lead the people of God to eternal pastures.” The Holy Father recognized that the world had changed and had grown “smaller and more complicated.” He saw his need to benefit from the bishops’ experience and wisdom. Therefore, continuing the spirit of collegiality of Vatican Council II, this synod would serve as a way to provide consultation on issues of faith and morals, to preserve and strengthen discipline, to consider questions regarding the church’s mission in the modern world, and to promote unity and harmony throughout the church.

The Synod of Bishops is a permanent council in Rome. It has a permanent general secretariat presided over by a general secretary. The pope appoints the general secretary, and he is assisted by a council consisting of bishops, some elected and some appointed by the Holy Father (Canon Law, 348). When the Synod of Bishops meets, elected representatives from around the world gather with those bishops appointed by the Holy Father, ten religious chosen from the Roman Union of Superiors General to represent the clerical religious institutes, and the cardinals in charge of the departments of the Roman Curia.

Keep in mind that the Holy Father retains direct and immediate authority over the synod. The Holy Father is the one who convokes the synod, ratifies the election of members and designates any other members, determines the topics for discussion, sets the agenda, presides over the synod (or delegates a bishop in his place), and “concludes, transfers, suspends, and dissolves” the synod (Canon Law, 344).

In preparation for an ordinary synod, the general secretariat prepares an outline (lineamenta) which is distributed for comment. From the comments received, a working document (instrumentum laboris), which will serve as the basis of the synod’s discussions, is prepared and disseminated. During the synod, proposals (propositiones) are presented and discussed, and those that are approved are submitted to the Holy Father, which he in turn will use in composing a post-synodal apostolic exhortation.

Most synods are designated as “ordinary general” meetings. Some synods are designated as “extraordinary,” indicating that special pressing circumstances have motivated their convocation, and so fewer members gather. Also, there are “special assemblies,” which are meetings of bishops in a particular geographical area; for example, in 2009, there was a special assembly for Africa, and in 2010, for the Middle East.

The first Synod of Bishops met in 1967 to discuss, “Preserving and Strengthening the Catholic Faith.” Including the upcoming synod, “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization,” there will have been 26 such synods.

Of particular note, several important apostolic constitutions have been the fruits of these synods: St. John Paul II’s “The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World,” (“Familiaris consortio,” 1981); “Penance and Reconciliation,” (“Reconcilatio et paenitentia,” 1984); “The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People,” (“Christifideles laici,” 1988); “I Will Give You Shepherds,” (“Pastores dabo vobis,” 1992); and Pope Benedict’s “The Sacrament of Charity,” (“Sacramentum caritatis,” 2007).

One of the greatest fruits of the Synod of Bishops has been the updating of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In 1985, the synod, which met to discuss the situation of the church on the 20th anniversary of the conclusion of Vatican Council II, recommended to St. John Paul II that a new catechism of Catholic doctrine regarding `faith and morals be composed. The Holy Father, thereupon, established a special commission of cardinals and bishops in 1986, and he promulgated the new catechism October 11, 1992 with the Apostolic Constitution, “Fidei Depositum,” coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the beginning of Vatican Council II.

As the Synod of Bishops prepares to meet to discuss the grave challenges to the family today, let us pray the special Prayer to the Holy Family for the Synod, composed by Pope Francis:

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, in you we contemplate the splendor of true love, to you we turn with trust. Holy Family of Nazareth, grant that our families, too, may be places of communion and prayer, authentic schools of the Gospel, and small domestic churches. Holy Family of Nazareth, may families never again experience violence, rejection, and division; may all who have been hurt or scandalized find ready comfort and healing. Holy Family of Nazareth, may the approaching Synod of Bishops make us once more mindful of the sacredness and inviolability of the family and its beauty in God’s plan. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, graciously hear our prayer. Amen.”

Fr. William Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope in Potomac Falls, Virginia, and author of the two volume book set “Straight Answers.” This article is made available courtesy of The Catholic Herald, the newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.