On May 21, Pope Francis surprised the Church by announcing that the Synod of Bishops postponed due to the pandemic will be preceded by a synodal process that includes “listening to all of the baptized” in every local diocese before the bishops gather again in 2023.
In comments made to Vatican Media, Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, said the change “from an event into a process” was chosen because “the time was ripe for a wider participation of the people of God in a decision-making process that affects the whole Church and everyone in the Church.
“The Second Vatican Council teaches that the people of God participate in the prophetic office of Christ,” Cardinal Grech said. “Therefore, we must listen to the people of God, and this means going out to the local churches.”
Cardinal Grech explained, “The governing principle of this consultation of the people of God is contained in the ancient principle ‘that which touches upon all must be approved by all.'” He added, “This is not about democracy or populism or anything like that. Rather, it is the Church that as the people of God, a people who by virtue of baptism, is an active subject in the life and mission of the Church.”
Cardinal Grech emphasized the importance of allowing everyone to have their voices heard. “God willing, one of the fruits of the synod is that we might all understand that a decision-making process in the Church always begins with listening, because only in this way can we understand how and where the Spirit wants to lead the Church.”
The theme of the Synod of Bishops concluding the synodal process is “For a synodal Church: Communion, participation and mission.” It will convene in Rome in the fall of 2023.
Timeline for the synodal process
- Oct. 9-10, 2021: Pope Francis opens the three-phase event from the Vatican.
- October 2021-April 2022: Phase 1: The synodal process is held in Catholic dioceses
Each diocese undertakes consultation meetings with local Catholics and hosts its own “pre-synodal” gathering to produce a summary to submit to the national bishops’ conference.
The Diocese of St. Cloud will initiate the local consultation beginning later this year. Details regarding the process are still being worked out. Watch The Central Minnesota Catholic for updates.
“We are all one body in Christ — bishops, pastors, religious and lay people,” Bishop Donald Kettler said. “As Pope Francis has said, all the people of God — all of us — have a role helping to discern where the Spirit is leading our Church.”
In “a period of discernment,” the national conference reviews the texts received from the local dioceses and composes its own document to submit to the Vatican’s office for the Synod of Bishops. Vatican officials will create a first draft of the synod’s “instrumentum laboris,” or working document, from the submitted texts by September 2022.
- September 2022-March 2023: Phase 2: Bishops meet at the continental level
In the second phase of the process, bishops gather on each continent to create texts about their discussions and submit them to the Vatican. A second draft of the “instrumentum” will be created from these texts and released by June 2023.
- October 2023: Phase 3: The bishops meet in Rome for the final phase
The theme of the final phase is: “For a synodal Church: Communion, participation and mission.”
The history of synods
According to Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, “Synods were a typical practice of the first millennium Church, a practice that continued in the Orthodox Church. The theme of synodality weakened in ecclesial practice and ecclesiological reflection over the course of the second millennium in the Catholic Church.
“Pope Paul VI made it clear that the synod can be improved like any ecclesial body. It was a start. Without that beginning, we probably would not be here talking about synodality and the Church as constitutively synodal. The novelty in the Catholic Church is that synodality re-emerges as the crowning of a long process of doctrinal development.
“Synodality helps advance and clarify our understanding of Petrine primacy at Vatican I, collegiality at Vatican II, and today, through a progressive reception of conciliar ecclesiology, especially Chapter II of ‘Lumen Gentium’ on the people of God, expressing the way which synodality is a modality for everyone to participate in the journey of the Church.”
How many synods has Francis convened?
2014 — The Synod on the Family: Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization. Understood as a preparation for the 2015 assembly, the two were considered to “form a single organic unity.” A 2014 session was called to define the current situation of families and collect participants’ experiences and proposals.
2015 — The Synod on the Family: The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World. The purpose was to reflect on points from the 2014 synod and “formulate appropriate pastoral guidelines” for pastoral care of the person and the family.
2018 — The Synod on Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment. Its preparatory document stated, “The Church has decided to examine herself on how she can lead young people to recognize and accept the call to the fullness of life and love, and to ask young people to help her in identifying the most effective ways to announce the Good News today.”
2019 — The Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region. The purpose was “to identify new paths for the evangelization of this segment of the people of God, especially the indigenous peoples, often forgotten and without the prospect of a peaceful future, also due to the crisis of the Amazon rainforest, the lungs of paramount importance for our planet.” (Pope Francis, Angelus Address, Oct. 15, 2017)
Synod and synodality
Synod. In the document “Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church,” the International Theological Commission (ITC) explains that “’synod’” is an ancient and venerable word in the tradition of the Church … Composed of a preposition συν (with) and the noun όδός (path), it indicates the path along which the People of God walk together.”
Synod/Council. “Since the first centuries,” the ITC says, “the word ‘synod’ has been applied, with a specific meaning, to the ecclesial assemblies convoked on various levels (diocesan, provincial, regional, patriarchal or universal) to discern, by the light of the Word of God and listening to the Holy Spirit, the doctrinal, liturgical, canonical and pastoral questions that arise as time goes by.”
Synodality is a term that means “walking together,” based on its Greek roots. Its more frequent use in recent decades, according to the ITC, “is a sign of something new that has been maturing in the ecclesial consciousness starting from the magisterium of Vatican II, and from the lived experience of local Churches and the universal Church since the last council until today, and one that ‘needs careful theological clarification.’”
In his address to bishops commemorating the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops in 2015, Pope Francis defined synodality: “What the Lord is asking of us is already in some sense present in the very word ‘synod.’ Journeying together — laity, pastors, the bishop of Rome — is an easy concept to put into words, but not so easy to put into practice.
“A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening ‘is more than simply hearing.’ It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ (Jn 14:17), in order to know what he ‘says to the Churches’ (Rev 2:7).