Synod of Bishops
SYNOD OF BISHOPS
The Synod of Bishops is a permanent institution, established by Pope paul vi with the motu proprio entitled Apostolica sollicitudo, September 15, 1965, in response to the desire of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council to keep alive the positive spirit engendered by the conciliar experience. The Second Vatican Council affirmed Paul VI's initiative and made explicit reference to Apostolica sollicitudo in Christus Dominus, the Decree on Bishops (no. 5).
Literally speaking, the word "synod," derived from two Greek words syn meaning "together" and hodos, meaning "road" or "way," signifies a "walking together." The synod, generally speaking, represents the Catholic episcopate—pope and bishops—which is convoked by the pope to seek counsel in the governance of the universal Church. In this way, it is a particularly fruitful expression and instrument of the collegiality of bishops.
The "synodal principle" can be traced to the early days of the Church when Roman synods were called to examine serious problems. In the first millennium similar manifestations of the communion and collegiality of the episcopal college can be found in apostolic visits, pastoral letters, and synods of various types (metropolitan, regional and patriarchal). The Code of Canon Law adopts language from Paul VI's motu proprio in describing the administrative structure, membership, procedures, and authority of the Synod of Bishops, but changes some provisions found in Apostolica sollicitudo (c. 342–348).
The purpose of the Synod is "to foster a closer unity between the Roman Pontiff and the bishops, to assist the Roman Pontiff with their counsel in safeguarding and increasing faith and morals and in preserving and strengthening ecclesiastical discipline, and to consider questions concerning the Church's activity in the world" (c. 342). The Synod of Bishops, a standing ("permanent") institution, meets in general assembly when convoked by the pope. Its membership consists of bishops elected to represent their episcopal conferences as determined by the special law of the synod (ex electione ), other bishops designated by this law itself (ex officio ) and bishops (ex nominatione pontificia ) according to the norms of the special law. To this membership are added some priests—religious elected in accord with the norms of the same special law (c. 346). As an institution, the synod has a permanent general secretariat presided over by a general
secretary appointed by the Roman Pontiff, who is assisted by a council made up of bishops, some of whom are elected in accord with the norm of its special law by previous general assembly of the Synod of Bishops and some of whom are appointed by the pope. The responsibilities of all members cease at the beginning of a new general session (c. 348). The synod is directly under the authority of the pope who calls the synod into session, ratifies the election of its members, determines the topics for discussion and the agenda, and presides over the proceedings either in person or through delegates. He alone has the power to conclude, transfer, suspend, or dissolve the synod (c. 344).
Similarly, the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches states that the Roman Pontiff is assisted in exercising his office by the bishops who aid him in various ways, among these is the synod of bishops. Regarding membership, the participation in the Synod of Bishops of patriarchs and other hierarchs who preside over Churches sui iuris is regulated by special norms established by the Roman Pontiff (c. 46, § 2).
Canon law envisages three types of synods: in addition to general assemblies which meet in either ordinary or extraordinary sessions, there are "special" sessions (c. 345). As a general rule, the ordinary general assemblies since 1971 have met every three years. They address particular topics affecting the good of the Church worldwide, selected by the pope who through the general secretariat elicits input from individual episcopal conferences and bishops. A synod of bishops gathered in extraordinary general session deals with matters "requiring a speedy solution." Special sessions convoke bishops to deal with regional issues; most bishops attending a special assembly are from that particular region (c. 346).
Once the pope settles on the theme of a synod, the general secretariat with the assistance of the council
members prepares the lineamenta, a broad "outline" of the topic, presented in such a way as to generate suggestions and observations on the local level. To provide guidance and a structure for formulating responses, a series of questions appears at the conclusion of the document. On the basis of the responses to the lineamenta, the general secretariat, assisted by this same council drafts the instrumentum laboris or "working paper" for submission to the Holy Father for his approval. This document becomes the point of reference for discussions in the synodal assembly. In the case of special assemblies, the Holy Father appoints a Pre-Synodal Council which collaborates with the general secretariat in preparing the above documentation as well as formulating a criteria for participation, for ultimate approval by the Holy Father, according to the foreseen categories, i.e., members ex officio, ex electione, ex nominatione pontificia, fraternal delegates, experts and observers.
The Indictio, that is, the Holy Father's official act of convocation, establishing the dates of the assembly, is communicated by the Secretary of State to the General Secretary, who in turn sees to contacting those concerned as well as rendering the information public. Technically speaking, the Holy Father is president of the general secretariat as well as president of each synodal assembly. Although present at plenary sessions of the synod, he customarily appoints presidents-delegate to oversee the proceedings in his name. He also appoints, the general relator, one or more special secretaries and other officials responsible for the day-to-day working of the synodal assembly, as well as specialists (periti ) in various church and academic disciplines to assist the general relator and special secretaries, not to mention non-voting observers (auditores ). Customarily, representatives from churches, church and ecclesial communities and other religions—depending on the character of each synodal assembly—have been invited to participate as fraternal delegates.
The working sessions of the synod consist of general congregations (congregatio ) at which the synod fathers give their presentations (interventiones ) and listen to those of others on some aspect of the synod topic as found in the instrumentum laboris. In this period, the fraternal delegates are also invited to speak. To further assist the synod fathers in their discussion, similar sessions (auditiones ), depending on time, are also provided for the observers. The discussion period is followed by small groups (circuli minores ) that focus attention on particular
points raised in the general congregations. Subsequently, the small groups make a report to the plenary session and then reconvene to formulate recommendations (propositiones ) which, after an initial presentation in plenary session, are returned to the small groups for possible amendments. A final list of recommendations, compiled by the general relator and special secretary in collaboration with the relators of the small groups and experts, are then submitted to the vote of the synod fathers before they are finally submitted, with the results going to the Holy Father as the primary work of the synodal assembly. Popes Paul VI and john paul ii have used these recommendations, along with the entire synodal documentation, in drafting a post-synodal apostolic exhortation (exhortatio apostolica post-synodalis ), which has become the customary concluding document to a given synodal assembly. It has also become common practice for a synodal assembly, before adjourning, to issue a "Message to the People of God" (nuntius ), as the first "collegial" fruit coming from the assembly, to offer encouragement to the Church on points related to the synod topic. Although the responsibilities of a synod assembly ceases at its conclusion, during each synod assembly the elected bishop-members usually form a council, which is composed of bishops chosen by the synod and those appointed by the Holy Father. This council, through the general secretariat, provides assistance to the Holy Father in analyzing the recommendations and drafting the text to the concluding document, as well as evaluating the follow-up of the synod assembly and attending to related matters.
The First Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (1967) considered a number of timely questions: the preservation and strengthening of the faith, the revision of the Code of Canon Law, and pastoral questions, including seminaries, mixed marriages, and the liturgy. Pope Paul VI convoked three more ordinary
sessions to deal with the ministerial priesthood and justice in the world (1971), evangelization (1974) and catechesis (1977). Paul VI called the First Extraordinary General Assembly (1969) to examine issues of episcopal collegiality vis-à-vis papal primacy.
Bibliography: For the Latin text of motu proprio by pope paul vi that is entitled Apostolica sollicitudo, see: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 (1965): 775–780. Ordo Synodi Episcoporum celebrandae recognitus et auctus (Vatican City 1971). j. a. coriden, t. j. green, and d. e. heintschel, The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary (New York 1985). j. p. schotte, With the Church Towards the Third Millennium: The Second Vatican Council and the Synod of Bishops, Bishops' Conference of Malaysia and Singapore (1986); "The Synod of Bishops: A Permanent Yet Adaptable Church Institution," Studia Canonica, 26 (1992): 289–306; "The Synod of Bishops: History, Work and Recent Experiences," in The Bishop and His Ministry (Vatican City 1998), 375–390.
[j. a. abruzzese]