October synod: what to expect from the meeting in Rome

By Rev. Thomas Rosica, CSB

The term “synod” comes from a Greek word formed by combining roots meaning “together” and “going” or “way”; literally, journeying forward on the way together. “Synod” been used over the centuries to refer to assemblies of bishops, as in the Orthodox Church, where they are important bodies of church leaders that elect the patriarch and establish church law.

Catholicism had synods, too, but the term largely fell into disuse until the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In September 1965 at the conclusion of the Council, Pope Paul VI, the Council’s helmsman, desired to build upon the tremendous fraternal spirit that reigned during the Council’s sessions and strengthen the bonds that united the Bishop of Rome with the bishops of the world. He created the Synod of Bishops to give the world’s bishops a voice — a sounding board that would advise the pope on various aspects of the church’s life. From the beginning, synodal assemblies would be consultative, not legislative. They encourage dialogue, collegiality, analysis, creativity and solidarity. Synods are like MRIs into the life of the world church.

A cursory reading of each synod’s preparatory documents (especially the working document, called the Instrumentum laboris) gives a fairly accurate idea of what the synod will produce. Over the past half-century, critics would often say that a synod was an expensive, tedious talkfest. Others coming from the ends of the earth to Rome found them to be powerful experiences of collegiality and universality of the church. For them, the synod was not so much the destination but the very journey itself.

Since Pope Paul VI established the format in 1965, the Synod of Bishops has met 13 times in ordinary sessions, twice in extraordinary sessions, and has also held 10 “special” meetings focused on issues affecting specific regions of the world. The global gatherings have not produced tsunamis of new dogma or overturned church teachings, nor have they issued earth-shattering results. The majority of synods took place during the long pontificate of St. John Paul II, and the final documents of these meetings, called “apostolic exhortations” clearly bore the mark of the reigning pontiff.

After the last synod on the family in 1980, Pope John Paul II urged families to “become what you are,” a community of persons committed to dialogue and service in the church and society, reiterating Vatican II’s image of the family as a domestic church.

Similarly, after the synod on the laity (1988), John Paul II praised the active involvement of lay people in the church while reaffirming their primary calling as a “leaven” in society.

An ordinary synod’s (those occurring every four years) cast of characters usually includes about 170 bishops elected by the various bishops’ conferences of the world; 20 bishops who represent the Eastern churches in union with Rome, 25 or so prelates who head the various Vatican departments, and 30-35 bishops who are personally named by the pope. At previous ordinary synods, there were also 10 religious women or men, representing the Unions of Superiors General. That brings the number of voting members to 260.

In addition, there are usually 40 “experts” and 40 “auditors.” Though they are not voting members, they are allowed to speak to the assembly and take active part in the small group discussions. In addition to this group, there are also 10-15 fraternal delegates — representatives from various Christian confessions, including the Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans and Baptists. One of the very articulate invited women to the 2012 synod was a female bishop, Sarah Davis from Jamaica, who represented the World Methodist Council. At the Synod on the Word of God in 2008, Pope Benedict personally invited Shear Yashuv Cohen, Chief Rabbi of Haifa, to address the assembly and at the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization, the former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, delivered a moving address on what it means to evangelize.

No one can deny that the synodal process and structure had grown tired with the passage of time, and little opportunity for evaluation or renewal. Having participated in the last two Ordinary Synods as the English language media spokesperson, it was evident to me that something had to change. One church leader who knew well the need for change was the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina, now Pope Francis. Within months after his election as Bishop of Rome, Francis appointed a new general secretary to head the Vatican’s synod office — an Italian archbishop and Vatican diplomat, Lorenzo Baldisseri. Francis named him a cardinal earlier this year.

The Synod of Bishops’ machinery was turned upside-down one year ago in October 2013, after Francis met over two days with Cardinal Baldisseri’s synod council. Those who attended that meeting were astounded and pleased at Francis’ hands-on involvement in the synodal process.

What is unique about this coming October’s synod, which will run from Oct. 5-19, is that it does not come in the normal sequence of every four years. It is really a preparatory synod bringing together the presidents of national bishops’ conferences, heads of Eastern Catholic churches and Vatican officials. Although the number of participants in the extraordinary synod is smaller, it will include a dozen or more voting members named by the pope, three priests chosen by the leadership councils of religious superiors, a dozen or more expert advisers, about a dozen representatives of other Christian churches and up to 30 observers, more than half comprised of married couples who will be encouraged to address the assembly.

The “Ordinary” world Synod of Bishops, which will include a larger assembly of church leaders, will meet at the Vatican from Oct. 4-25, 2015, to continue the discussion on pastoral approaches to the challenges facing families today. This year’s synod will prepare the agenda for discussion for the 2015 Ordinary Synod.

Pope Francis is putting his mark on this synod, not only on the two-week event in the upper room in Rome, but on the very synodal process. Francis wants to hear from the grassroots for the upcoming synods. Echoes of his new directions for the October gathering can be found in an April 1, 2014, letter to synod secretary-general Cardinal Baldisseri.

In that letter that was made public by the Vatican, Francis wishes the reformed synodal structure to have real power to deliberate on major questions facing the church, just as it did in the early centuries of Christianity. It will be a body outside and above the Curia itself, accountable to the pope but also to the bishops.

Last fall, Francis had the synod department send out a questionnaire to the whole church, raising such topics that included contraception, divorce and remarriage, same-sex marriage, premarital sex and in vitro fertilization. The synod department received responses to the consultation from 114 bishops’ conferences and about 800 Catholic organizations. Though the timing of the questionnaire was somewhat problematic given the short turn-around for responses, the process nevertheless ensured that the synod did not begin with abstractions and hypotheses but from a real, direct knowledge of the cultural challenges sweeping across the globe.

Some responses questioned the church’s teaching or encouraged greater understanding of people who cannot always live up to that teaching. Cardinal Baldisseri said that the bishops “must recognize that the faithful perceive the truth” about the Gospel and its values and their input cannot be ignored. “But the bishops have the responsibility and authority to discern ways to apply the constant teaching of the church” he said.

This year’s synod will not attempt to be a crash course to be completed in three weeks, but will continue a longer discernment process spanning two years. That process included the two-day intense discussion among the cardinals last February, an extraordinary synod involving presidents of episcopal conferences this October, and the ordinary or full synod one year from now.

During the first week of the synod, instead of reading their presentations, the bishops will have “three or four minutes” to summarize their texts — focusing only on one theme — and, perhaps, include ideas or clarifications that have come from listening to their brother bishops. This year’s synod will not issue propositions or documents. It will simply set the agenda and frame the discussion for next year.

It is hardly surprising that there is a huge media interest in the upcoming synod, unlike many previous synods. Because the synod will study issues pertaining to marriage, family, and sexual morality — including those that are controversial both within and outside the church — it has generated increased interest in certain areas of church teaching. The themes to be addressed and discussed are those that the majority of Catholics deal with every day in the real world.

The second week of the synod will be taken up mainly by work in small groups organized according to language. Instead of brainstorming propositions for the pope, the small groups will work, theme by theme, on amending the summary report, which is likely to be used as the working document for the 2015 synod.

There will be fewer papers during the synod on the family, recalling an anecdote from a previous synod in which a Spanish cardinal joked that the theme of the synod ought to have been papelorum progressio — progression of papers — rather than populorum progressio (the progress of peoples)!

To manage the two-week adventure, Pope Francis has named a all-star team of church leaders from around the world to guide the October 2014 synod. Cardinal Péter Erdo, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest (Hungary), will serve as relator general of the 2014 synod, and Archbishop Bruno Forte of the Archdiocese of Chieti-Vasto in Italy will serve as special secretary. The three presidents (daily moderators) of the synod are: Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, Archbishop of Paris (France); Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Archbishop of Manila (Philippines); and Cardinal Raymundo Damasceno Assis, Archbishop of Aparecida (Brazil).

Rosica, CEO of Canada’s Salt + Light Catholic Media Foundation, has served as the Media Attaché at two previous Synods of Bishops (2008 & 2012). Since February 2013, he is the English language assistant to the Holy See Press Office. For the October 2014 synod, he will be English language assistant to the director of the Holy See Press Office.

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