What is a Synod?

November 13, 2012

The ordinary general assembly of Synod of Bishops met in Rome for most of last month to discuss the topic of “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.” This event was reported in the secular media primarily because of the prominent role played by a few American bishops, notably cardinals Timothy Dolan (New York) and Donald Wuerl (Washington, D.C.). Yet, despite this fact, many American Catholics know very little about this important institution within the universal Catholic Church. A little history and background might assist in understanding the way the Synod serves the Church.

Even as the Second Vatican Council was drawing toward a conclusion, Pope Paul VI formally created the institution by means of his apostolic letter Apostolica Sollicitudo. The purpose of this institution was to continue forward the powerfully positive experiences of collegiality and collaboration that had emerged out of the council itself. As was articulated in the Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops (Christus Dominus), the governance and pastoral care of the universal Church is the responsibility of the entire College of Bishops together with the pope who is its head. Thus, the Synod was created to be a permanent institution to make visibly evident this collegiality and to provide a venue for ongoing consultation and collaboration between the bishops spread throughout the world and the pope on matters of pastoral importance for the universal Church. Unlike the Roman congregations and councils that make up the Roman Curia, the Synods competence is not limited to particular areas or concerns, but rather it has full power to take up any topic entrusted to it by the Holy Father when he convokes the session. The Synod is not subject or dependent on the Roman Curia but only on the Holy Father.

In the near half century of its existence there have been three distinct types of sessions of the Synod: special assemblies, extraordinary general assemblies and ordinary general assemblies. Special sessions have been called to address issues of only regional concern. Throughout the 1990s, for example, Pope John Paul II convoked several special assemblies to explore and address the pastoral concerns of various regions, including: Europe (1991), Africa (1994), America (1997), Asia (1998) and Oceania (1998). Most recently, in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI convoked a special assembly to examine the situation of the Church in the Middle East. There have been only two extraordinary general assemblies. These are called to discuss matters of particularly pressing importance and generally are brought to fruition much faster. Finally, we have the ordinary general assemblies. The one just concluded was the 13th in the past 47 years.

The process of preparing for an ordinary general assembly is extremely open and collaborative. The bishops who attend ordinary general assemblies include those who are elected as delegates from all of the bishops’ conferences around the world together with those appointed directly by the pope to ensure that those with special expertise or perspectives are present and that necessary balance is preserved. Once the topic is determined by the pope a large group of people collaborate to prepare the Lineamenta (outline) which raises topics for consideration and discussion. After the lineamenta is approved by the pope it is translated into various languages and sent to all the bishops in the world for their consideration. They, in turn, are free to discuss the topics with whomever they wish. Each of them prepares his own thoughts and ideas and returns them to the general secretariat for the Synod. The general secretariat, working with experts, takes these responses and creates the Instrumentum laboris (working document) that becomes the basis for conversation during the Synod itself. This document is not a draft of the final conclusions but only a text which aims at helping to focus discussion on the Synod topic. When the bishops actually gather in the Synod there is an opportunity for each of them to speak with the other bishops. Meeting in smaller groups, they make and vote on proposals. Eventually the entire body of the Synod votes on the final proposals. The pope then, taking them into consideration, composes an apostolic exhortation on the subject.

These post-Synodal apostolic exhortations become very important teaching vehicles and set the pastoral direction of the universal Church. For example, among the most important guiding documents in the areas of evangelization and catechesis remain the post-Synodal apostolic exhortations Evangelii nuntiandi and Catechesi tradendae that followed the third and fourth ordinary general assemblies.
Our own Daniel Cardinal DiNardo was a delegate to the 12th ordinary general assembly on the topic of “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” that led to the exhortation Verbum Domini in 2010.

While we may need to wait a year or two to hear the pope’s final thoughts on the just concluded Synod, it can be very interesting and illuminative to read the thoughts of many of the world’s bishops on this topic. You can find a wealth of information on the Vatican website at www.vatican.va/news_services/press/sinodo/sinodo_index_en.htm. 

Brian Garcia-Luense is an Associate Director with the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.