Synod of Bishops (Assemblies)
SYNOD OF BISHOPS (ASSEMBLIES)
In the first 35 years following Apostolica sollicitudo (1965), there were nine ordinary assemblies of the Synod of Bishops. Paul VI and John Paul II called one extraordinary assembly each. There were eight special assemblies in this period, though one of them was, technically, a particular assembly since it was convened before the 1983 Code of Canon Law.
Paul VI convened the first assembly of the synod of bishops in 1967. The topics reviewed included the revision of the Code of Canon Law, mixed marriages, seminaries, and the liturgy. Finally, the assembly addressed the functions of the synod and worked to better articulate its relationship to the Bishop of Rome and the magisterium.
Two years after the first ordinary assembly, the first extraordinary assembly was convened by Paul VI to explore collegial practices. It was decided that the synod
would be convened every three years and would consist of a general secretariat of 15 members. The latter move was to ensure consistency between assemblies.
The third meeting of the synod, the second ordinary assembly, was held in 1971. The goals of this meeting were less ambitious than those of its predecessors, but it did see the institution of the postsynodal apostolic exhortation. The practice of the bishops had been to draft a "Message to the People of God" as well as a list of propositions for the pope before adjourning. After the synod had met and discussed the topics of the ministerial priesthood and international injustice they forwarded their findings to Paul VI. Paul VI, as a fellow bishop and the convener of the assembly, wrote the postsynodal apostolic exhortation Evangelica Testificatio. It primarily addressed the renewal of religious life within the Church; the pope called religious to greater lives of prayer, emphasizing the interior life and the Eucharist.
The third ordinary assembly met in 1974 and primarily addressed evangelization. Marking the tenth anniversary of the closing of Vatican II, this assembly reflected upon the conciliar documents Lumen gentium, Gaudium et spes, and Ad gentes. In doing so, it hoped to focus the Church's evangelization efforts and articulate for the people of God not only the scope of its mission but the fundamental message of the mission, Jesus Christ. The apostolic exhortation that followed, Evangelii nuntiandi, defined evangelization as the "bringing of the good news into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new." The good news must be shared with all and must always reflect its message and He who revealed it.
The fourth ordinary assembly was the last convened by Paul VI, in 1977. He charged it to develop further the theme of catechesis. The pope recognized the Church's need better to understand religious education within the modern world. After the close of the assembly the propositions were forwarded to the pope, but he passed away without writing the apostolic exhortation. John Paul I had begun preparing the propositions for publication when he too died. The writing of the exhortation was left to John Paul II, who had participated in the assembly as the archbishop of Krakow. The exhortation, Catechesi Tradendae, asserted the centrality of Christ in the Church's instruction. Jesus Christ is the teacher and the subject taught. John Paul II presented a practical understanding of catechesis, asserting that catechists and pastors must be aware of age levels, contexts, catechetical methods,
and nuances of the culture. He recognized the need for inculturation that not only respects the culture but maintains the content and validity of the faith. These would become important themes of future assemblies.
The fifth ordinary assembly of the synod of bishops was the first called by John Paul II, in 1980. The topic was the family in the modern world. The postsynodal apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, is a pastoral document that hopes to both encourage and guide the progress of the family in the modern world. John Paul II affirmed the rights of the family. The modern understanding of freedom, however, must be corrected in that it must be understood within the context of the entire community. The exhortation introduced the concept of the family as the domestic church. The ministry of the family is to society and the community of the church. Finally, this document spoke specifically of the role of women and their legitimacy in the social realm while affirming the importance of motherhood and domestic responsibilities.
Nineteen eighty-three marked the sixth ordinary assembly, which had as its theme "conversion and reconciliation." It dealt specifically with the issues of individual and general absolution as well as the role of catechesis and evangelization in the search for the conversion of the world. The pope's exhortation, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, expanded upon the work of the bishops and addressed their concern more directly to the modern world. John Paul II first addressed the painful divisions of the world and asserted that at their root was an ignorance of both sin and redemption from sin. The Church's primary task, then, is to reconcile people with God, each other, and all of creation though catechesis and the sacraments.
John Paul II convened the second extraordinary assembly of the synod of bishops in 1985. The assembly was called to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and therefore concentrated upon knowledge and reception of the work of the council as well as further steps that could be taken to increase collegiality in the Church. Much of the discussion reflected the difficulties the Church was encountering. John Paul II did not promulgate an exhortation after this assembly but allowed, for the first time, the publication of the entire "Final Report" forwarded to him by the bishops.
Following the theme of communio ecclesiology used by the second extraordinary assembly, the seventh ordinary assembly, which met in 1987, addressed the topic of the vocation and mission of the laity. The apostolic
exhortation, Christifideles Laici, primarily attended to the issue of the vocation of the laity to bring the gospel to the secular world. By nature of their baptism, the laity are permitted to perform certain ministerial roles in the Church. This document clarified these roles and their relation to the ordained. It explicitly affirmed the equality of women in dignity and nature.
The eighth ordinary assembly, which met in 1990, had as its theme "Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day." The role and function of the ministerial priesthood was affirmed, but greater clarification was needed as to the vocation of the priesthood and the appropriate means of training men for this vocation. The council and the exhortation that followed it, Pastores dabo vobis, asserted a twofold characterization of the priest as unique gift in the Church and as directed to the world in the building of the Kingdom of God.
The ninth ordinary assembly met in 1994 as the last general assembly of the second millennium. Since the bishops had recently dealt with the laity and ordained ministers, John Paul II chose as the theme "Consecrated Life and Its Role in the Church and in the World." The bishops again wrestled with issues of inculturation, theology of charisms, and an ecclesiology of communion. Much of John Paul II's apostolic exhortation, Vita Consecrata, was meant to encourage those in consecrated life and remind them of their responsibility to evangelize the world through their witness and labor.
Distinct from the general (ordinary or extraordinary) assemblies of the synod of bishops, there has been one particular assembly and seven special assemblies. The particular assembly was for the Netherlands, convened in January 1980 to address pastoral divisions within the Dutch Church. The propositions were published not only to attempt to resolve some of the tensions but also to establish commissions that would continue the work thus begun.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the bishops of Europe recognized the need to address the great political, social, and religious shifts occurring on the continent. The resulting assembly, the first of the regional assemblies of the synod, convened in 1991 with only the propositions being published afterwards. The theme, "We Are Witnesses of Christ Who Has Freed Us," demonstrates an emphasis on evangelization and celebration of the freedom experienced as a result of the fall of the Eastern Bloc.
Nineteen ninety-four marked the publication of John Paul II's tertio millennio adveniente. This apostolic letter called for several special assemblies of the synod of bishops, organized geographically, in preparation for the new millennium. Six special assemblies took place. The bishops of Africa met in 1994 to address the issues of inculturation and evangelization on the continent. The African context is unique to the rest of the Church, as John Paul II recognized in his apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Africa. This document celebrated the gifts of African Christianity but also warned against the inappropriate mixing of culture and faith. Finally, it addressed several of the problems encountered by the Church in Africa including poverty, starvation, AIDS, and violence.
"Christ Is Our Hope: Renewed by His Spirit, in Solidarity, We Witness to His Love," was the theme of the 1995 special assembly for Lebanon. Lebanon held its own assembly because of the nation's great religious diversity and the peaceful relations that exist within it. Christians constitute a significant part of the population and live fruitfully and peacefully. It was believed Lebanon could stand as an example to the Church of the rest of the world. The apostolic exhortation written by John Paul II, "A New Hope for Lebanon," celebrated the relations between the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Antioch and other Patriarchal Churches, and Muslims. It also recognized the great strain the poverty of this nation was placing upon the family and social structure.
In 1997 the bishops of the Americas met with the chosen theme of "Encounter with the Living Jesus Christ: The Way to Conversion, Communion, and Solidarity in America." Attending the meeting were bishops from the episcopal conferences of the United States, Canada, and Latin America. Again, evangelization played an important role in the meetings but the Latin American bishops continually raised the issues of social justice and social communication. In 1998 John Paul II returned to
America and promulgated the postsynodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America in Mexico. The document located the Eucharist as the source of communion in America.
The next special assembly, which was convened in 1998, reflected upon the theme "Jesus Christ the Savior and His Mission of Love and Service in Asia: 'That They May Have Life and Have It Abundantly."' The Asian bishops reflected upon the uniqueness of the Church in Asia and all its difficulties. Four topics dominated their reflection: the poor, the laity and their relation to the church, interreligious dialogue, and inculturation. The postsynodal apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in Asia, witnessed again the important roles of evangelization and catechesis. This document not only echoed the Christological focus of the Church's message, but it also raised the pneumatological aspects that are effective and influential in Asian catechesis.
Nineteen ninety-eight witnessed a second special assembly, the meeting of the bishops of Oceania. The theme of this assembly was "Jesus Christ and the Peoples of Oceania: Walking His Way, Telling His Truth, Living His Life." The bishops addressed six issues: inculturation, evangelization and catechesis, the laity, justice and peace, the Church as communion, and the Church's responsibility to react pastorally to those who suffer. Through these issues, the bishops also addressed the aboriginal people and their specific needs. As of the end of the Jubilee Year no exhortation had been promulgated by the Holy Father, but the "Message to the People of God" witnessed the great celebration of culture that accompanied the work of the bishops.
After the great political shifts that occurred in Europe during the 1990s, the need for a second special assembly was recognized. It convened in 1999 to reflect on the theme "Jesus Christ, Alive in His Church, the Source of Hope for Europe." As this theme demonstrates, the Church in Europe had experienced a loss of hope and was still experiencing great division and strife. As the other continental assemblies had done, the European bishops reflected upon the Christological emphasis of the new evangelization, the Church as communion, and the role of the laity. The underlying hope of the bishops was to reenergize the faithful and re-present the message of Jesus Christ to a people who had been lured away from the Church and its message of hope. Ecumenism played a central role in the meetings as did recent political and social movements of the continent. Again, no apostolic exhortation was promulgated but the "Message to the People of God" was published in its entirety in the hopes of communicating hope to the European people.
In October of 2001 the Tenth General Assembly convened to discuss the revitalization of the bishops' ministry. The primary concerns of the assembly were the teaching functions of the episcopal office, shared church governance by bishops and Rome, and the relationships of the Vatican and episcopal conferences. Many bishops argued for the value of strong episcopal conferences in order to maintain authority and structure without sacrificing pastoral sensitivities which are more easily accessible to the local church. Again, the issues of social justice and world poverty played significant roles as the assembly reflected on the state of the Church in the modern world.
[b. m. doyle]