Synod on Synodality

— ‘The Biggest Thing in the Catholic Church Since Vatican II’

Pope Francis meets with officials of the upcoming assembly of the Synod of Bishops in the library of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace Sept. 18. From the left are: Father Riccardo Battocchio, one of the synod’s special secretaries; Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, relator general; Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the synod secretariat; and Jesuit Father Giacomo Costa, the other special secretary of the synod assembly scheduled for Oct. 4-19.


Meetings today are common occurrences at work, in neighborhoods, schools, and churches, but an almost month-long meeting — coming on the heels of a two-year consultation process at the parish, national, and continental levels, and then followed by another gathering a year later before submitting a final report, to the pope no less, is hardly an average meeting.

That is what is about to take place Oct. 4-29 at the Vatican as part of the Synod on Synodality initiated by Pope Francis, also called “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission.” More than 450 people from around the world — cardinals, bishops, clergy, religious, and laypeople — will be taking part in this gathering to discuss the state of the Church and its path forward, and 363 will vote on the proceedings. Delegates were chosen by bishops’ conferences and Pope Francis, and this is the first time a synod will include laity and women as voting members.

Although the assembly officially starts Oct. 4, participants will take part in a three-day retreat Oct. 1-3, and an ecumenical prayer vigil that is part of the synod will be held in St. Peter’s Square Sept. 30.

The word “synod” is defined as a church assembly. For centuries, church leaders have gathered, often in councils, but in 1965, just after the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI officially established the Synod of Bishops as a regular listening and collaborative session of the world’s bishops to provide counsel to the pope.

Since that time, there have been more than a dozen of these gatherings, every few years, focusing on specific areas in the Church such as family life, vocations, evangelization, catechesis, priestly formation, and young people. A synod typically ends with a formal statement that gives guidance and direction for the whole Church.

But the word “synod” also has another meaning from Greek words of together and path and viewed that way it emphasizes a process of walking together, similar to the disciples in the Gospels who walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus.

The pope has described the synodal process as a way to examine how the Church can better fulfill its mandate to preach the good news of Jesus across the world and has urged those taking part to listen in it to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the entire Church at this moment.

The Synod on Synodality started with listening sessions around the world where Catholics were invited to share their thoughts and experiences about the Church. These responses were gathered into national and then continental reports to summarize the concerns of the faithful.

The preparatory document for the synod says that its purpose is to “inspire people to dream about the Church we are called to be, to make people’s hopes flourish, to stimulate trust, to bind up wounds, to weave new and deeper relationships, to learn from one another, to build bridges, to enlighten minds, warm hearts, and restore strength to our hands for our common mission.”

And just as most meetings have schedules and handout materials, the Synod on Synodality has its own paperwork: a working document called the “Instrumentum Laboris” that includes open-ended questions.

The document includes summaries and insights from the continental assemblies and outlines what a synodal Church is and how it should proceed. It also includes worksheets with questions for the October meeting delegates.

The worksheets will be used to guide the small-group discussions taking place in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall. The sessions will also include plenary sessions for the group at large. Some of the discussions will focus on hot-button topics such as women deacons, priestly celibacy, and LGBTQ outreach.

The final part of the meeting will focus on determining next steps for the Church.

Pope Francis has said a few things that the synod is not. In a May 28 homily on Pentecost, the pope described the synod as a “a journey in accordance with the Spirit, not a parliament for demanding rights and claiming needs in accordance with the agenda of the world, nor an occasion for following wherever the wind is blowing, but the opportunity to be docile to the breath of the Holy Spirit.”

And most recently, on a Sept. 4 return flight from his visit to Mongolia, the pope told reporters that the synod was “not a television program where you talk about everything; no, it is a religious moment, a religious exchange.”

And when he first announced in March 2020 that this synod would take place, he described it as “a walk together, and it is what the Lord expects from the Church of the third millennium.”

Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, just outside Philadelphia, said the Synod on Synodality is “an historical event” and that its upcoming gathering in Rome “will be very intense and unique.

“This is the biggest thing happening in the Catholic Church since Vatican II, there is no question about that,” he told The Tablet.

He noted that he has followed everything that involves the synodal process in the past few years and is excited not just as an historian but is “curious to see how it unfolds as a Catholic member of the Church.”

Faggioli, who has written books about the Church and the papacy, also pointed out that “a lot of things are at stake, I think, and a lot might happen that we don’t expect.”

In the weeks leading up to the October synod gathering, some U.S. Church leaders and commentators have speculated that the gathering could cause harm to the Church and undermine Catholic teaching on the Eucharist and sexual ethics.

The pope announced on the recent papal flight that the sessions would not be livestreamed, nor would reporters be given access to the proceedings, instead, a committee will summarize the discussions for the press “to safeguard the religiosity and safeguard the freedom of those who speak” but may not want to do so publicly, Catholic News Service Rome reported.

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