As Pope Francis’ Synod on Synodality approaches, questions about the synod’s content and nature have flooded social media as the faithful seek to understand what it is and why it’s happening.
In 2021, Pope Francis launched the then-two-year synodal process with the intention of culminating at a month-long meeting of church leaders in October 2023, dubbing the process the “Synod on Synodality”.
Last October, Pope Francis announced that he would extend the synod into 2024, culminating in a second, month-long meeting in Rome. The synod has been described by some as a “meeting on meetings.”
The history of synods
A synod is simply a gathering of Church leaders, a practice that finds its roots in the New Testament. Synods, while an important time for Church leaders to discuss the status of the Church, carry no ecclesial power. Synods cannot change or set doctrine, nor can they adapt canon law or create policy for the Church. Those gathered develop and submit a document to the Pope with advice concerning matters relevant to the Church.
In chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles, for instance, the early Church Fathers gathered together to debate contemporary matters, such as whether Gentiles should undergo Jewish rituals before joining the Church.
While synods had a place in the early Church, they soon disappeared from Catholic life until the Second Vatican Council. The Church continued to conduct ecumenical councils, however, which, unlike synods, involve all of the bishops and have the authority to set Church doctrine and law.
At the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, through his apostolic letter, Apostolica Sollicitudo, Pope Paul VI created a standing body of bishops, called a synod, elected by their respective bishops’ conferences that would meet every four years. In the letter, he also noted that an extraordinary synod could be called to address pressing issues.
“In order to give (bishops) the opportunity to take part more clearly and more effectively in Our solicitude for the universal Church, of Our own initiative and by Our apostolic authority We erect and constitute in this alma City a permanent council of bishops for the universal Church, subject directly and immediately to Our power and which by its proper name We call the Synod of Bishops,” wrote Pope Paul VI.
The Synod on Synodality will be the fifth synod that Pope Francis has convened, including the 2014 Synod of Bishops on Family Life and a 2019 Synod on Pastoral Care for the Amazon. But the Synod on Synodality is his biggest endeavor to date.
Since the institution of regular synods, each Pope has called multiple synods. In his 27 year pontificate, Pope John Paull II convened 15 different synods. Pope Benedict XVI called four synods concerning a variety of topics, including the Eucharist.
Dreams for the Synod
Aboard the papal plane on his return flight from Mongolia, Pope Francis explained his vision for the upcoming synod.
“There is no place for ideology in the synod. It’s another dynamic. The synod is dialogue between baptized people in the name of the Church, on the life of the Church, on dialogue with the world, and on the problems that affect humanity today. But when you think along an ideological path, the synod ends,” said Pope Francis.
However, multiple bishops and other leaders have noted that they hope to address various issues that could be called “ideological” during the synod, including ordaining women to the diaconate, LGBTQ issues, and priestly celibacy.
Synod participant Bishop Alfredo De la Cruz of the diocese of San Francisco de Macorís in the Dominican Republic shared what he hopes the synod will address:
“In the light of the word, we must address without a doubt, the protagonism of women. The Church cannot turn its back on this entire movement, this growth, these victories of women. I’m going more specific. For example, in the case of the diaconate, we have to address priestly ministry,” said De la Cruz. “We would have to address mandatory celibacy.”
Format of the Synod
In October, representatives from dioceses across the world will gather at the Vatican to discuss the state of the Church and express their hopes for the future. Delegates include cardinals, bishops, priests, religious sisters, and even lay people in what will be the most diverse group of representatives at a Vatican synod to date.
The October meeting comes after two years of local synodal meetings, where dioceses hosted conversations and discussions with a diverse range of Catholics about the daily life of the Church and Church teaching. These conversations were summarized in reports and then submitted to the local bishops’ conferences.
In the United States, 700,000 Catholics, or roughly 1% of U.S. Catholics, participated in diocesan synodal gatherings.
The bishops’ conferences compiled the reports and submitted them to the Holy See which used the reports to construct Instrumentum Laboris, the working document for the October Synod. Pope Francis has expressed a desire that the synod be a time where the faithful can come together in prayer and discern where the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church.
“Precisely at this time, when there is much talk and little listening, and when the sense of the common good is in danger of weakening, the Church as a whole has embarked on a journey to rediscover the word together,” he said.