How Does the Synod Work?

Letter from Rome

By John P. Shimek

The Synod of Bishops, meeting in Rome for the 14th time since its founding in 1965, is discussing the role of the family until Oct. 24.

Pope Paul VI formally created the institution on Sept. 15, 1965, in his Apostolic Letter Apostolica Sollicitudo. About a month later, on Oct. 28, he signed the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church, inextricably anchoring the Synod in the heritage of the Council. The group meets every two to three years in Rome, and Pope Francis celebrated its 50th anniversary on Oct. 17.

Since the conclusion of Vatican II in 1965, there have been fourteen ordinary general assemblies, three extraordinary general assemblies, and ten special assemblies of the Synod of Bishops. The 1983 Code of Canon Law states that synods are called in order “to foster closer unity between the Roman Pontiff and bishops, to assist the Roman Pontiff with their counsel in the preservation and growth of faith and morals and in the observance and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline, and to consider questions pertaining to the activity of the Church in the world.”

This month’s 14th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops focuses on the “Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World.” To help him better discern the needs of families, Pope Francis has called to Rome 74 cardinals, 6 patriarchs, 1 major archbishop, 72 archbishops, 102 bishops, 2 priests, 13 religious, 18 families, 24 experts in the pastoral sciences, 51 auditors, and 14 fraternal delegates from outside the Roman Catholic Church.

They come from all corners of the globe: 107 from Europe, 54 from Africa, 64 from the Americas, 36 from Asia, and 9 from Australia and Oceania. Their participation in the synodal assembly is by way of election, papal appointment, or ex officio responsibility. 183 members have been elected by their national episcopal conferences have elected 183, Pope Francis has invited 45, and 42 are required to attend as heads of Vatican dicasteries (departments).

Each week the Synod is in session, delegates will study one of three parts of an Instrumentum Laboris (working document): “Considering the Challenges of the Family,” “The Discernment of the Family Vocation,” and “The Mission of the Family Today.” Some of the issues include the admission of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to sacramental communion, and the pastoral care of homosexual persons.

Discussions are divided between 18 general congregations or plenary sessions and 13 circuli minori (small group) workshops. Only synodal fathers (priests, bishops, and cardinals) are permitted to make interventions in the plenary sessions. Everyone participates equally in the small-group sessions, including Catholic and non-Catholic lay women and men. There are thirteen small groups: one German, two Italian, three Spanish, three French, and four English. Each one is moderated and “related” by two elected officials who prepare written reports (relazioni) on group discussions, which are submitted to the Synod’s General Secretariat.

At the end of the three-week program, Synod fathers will vote on modi (amendments) to the Instrumentum Laboris. An 11-member commission will prepare a final report (called a relatio finalis) and submit it to the Pope. It is unknown whether he will issue a document known as a Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation or permit the assembly to write its own statement.

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