Synods in the life of the Church

The holding of the Fifteenth Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops this year, October 3-28, at the Vatican in Rome, prompts a brief reflection on the Synod of Bishops in the Catholic Church.

Geraldo Luiz Borges Hackman-November 19, 2018-Reading time: 9 minutes

The suggestion of a possible institution of Synods was presented to Pope Paul VI during the celebration of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. At the origin of this proposal is the experience of the ancient Church, which met to deal with questions pertinent to its ecclesial life, and the desire to collaborate more closely with the successor of Peter in the pastoral care of the universal Church. From an etymological point of view, the word synod appears from two Greek words, syn (together) and hodos (ways), meaning "to walk together," to indicate that the bishops "walked together," among themselves and in communion with the pope, on matters of relevance to their particular Churches. The bishops' suggestion called, therefore, for a return to this traditional practice of the Church.

Brief history of the Synods after Vatican II

Accepting this request, Pope Paul VI, on September 14, 1965, announced to the Council Fathers, re-united at the opening session of the fourth period of the Council, the decision to institute, on his own initiative and by his authority, a body called the Synod of Bishops, which would be composed of bishops appointed for the most part by the Episcopal Conferences and approved by the Pope, and convoked, according to the needs of the Church, by the Roman Pontiff, for the purpose of consultation and collaboration with the Petrine ministry, when, for the general good of the Church, this seemed opportune to him. The following day, Pope Paul VI, with the Motu Proprio Apostolica sollicitudo (cf. AAS 57 [1965], pp.775-780.), instituted the Synod of Bishops in the Catholic Church as a permanent institution, by means of which bishops, elected from the various parts of the world, would render more effective assistance to the supreme Pastor of the Church, establishing its constitution: 1) it is a central ecclesial institution; 2) it must represent the entire Catholic episcopate; 3) it must, by its nature, be perpetual; 4) as regards its structure, it will perform its functions, at the same time, temporarily and occasionally.
In the same year, the conciliar Decree Christus Dominus, in number 5, reiterates the importance that the new institution will have in the life of the Church by having the collaboration of the Catholic episcopate, so that it can represent and manifest more effectively the solicitude for the universal Church, as part of the vocation of every bishop. The first regulations for the functioning of the Synod were published on November 8, 1966, and were revised and expanded with the decree of November 24, 1969, followed by subsequent norms. On September 29, 2006, with the Ordo synodi episcoporum, new norms regulating the organization and functioning of the Synod of Rome were published. However, the general legislative framework of the Synod is to be found in canons 342-348 of the Code of Canon Law canon 46 of the Latin canon, as well as in canon 46 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches.

Recently, on September 15, 2018, Pope Francis, with the Apostolic Constitution. Episcopalis communio, has determined some changes in the functioning of the Synod. In the first place, Pope Francis recognizes the benefits that the Synod of Rome has brought to the life of the Church since its institution, in these fifty years of its realization, as a valid instrument of the Synod of Rome. "The Assemblies have not only been a privileged place of mutual knowledge among the bishops, common prayer, loyal confrontation, deepening of Christian doctrine, reform of ecclesial structures and promotion of pastoral activity throughout the world, but have also given a notable impetus to the subsequent pontifical magisterium. In this way, such Assemblies have not only become a privileged place of interpretation and reception of the rich conciliar magisterium, but have also given a notable impetus to the subsequent pontifical magisterium." (n. 1). It then broadens participation in the Synod, in addition to experts and auditors, to include "fraternal delegates", who are those invited from Churches and ecclesial communities not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church, and some special guests, to be designated by virtue of their recognized authority.

Nature, characteristics and types of Bishops' Synods

The Synod of Bishops is an institution of the universal Church, which is convoked on certain occasions and which manifests the collegial collaboration of the bishops with the Pope and of the bishops among themselves, in such a way that they can reflect on certain themes that affect the Church in the whole world or in some country or continent. This is how Vatican II expresses itself: "The bishops chosen from the various regions of the world, in the manner and disposition which the Roman Pontiff has established or may hereafter establish, render to the Supreme Pastor of the Church a more effective assistance by constituting a council designated by the name of episcopal synod, which, since it acts in the name of the whole Catholic episcopate, manifests at the same time that all the Bishops in hierarchical communion are sharers in the solicitude of the whole Church" (Christus Dominus, 5).

The fundamental characteristics of the Synod are four: universality, episcopal collegiality, the diverse forms of its convocation and its consultative activity. The initiative of Pope Paul VI to institute the Synods, following the desire and suggestion of the bishops during the work of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, shows the intention of the new institution to express episcopal collegiality, that is, to contribute to the collaboration of all the bishops of the whole world with the universal pastoral task of the Church exercised by the Pope, the universal pastor, sharing with him the pastoral solicitude for the whole Church. Episcopal collegiality was one of the important themes recovered by the last Council (cf. Lumen Gentium, 22, Christus Dominus, 4), overcoming the understanding of bishops as mere representatives of the Pope in their particular Churches or in rivalry with him, and affirming the hierarchical communion of the entire episcopal college - the bishops of the whole world - with the pastoral solicitude of the Pope for the whole Church (cf. Previous Explanatory Note, paragraphs 1 and 2). Episcopal collegiality is linked to universality, as is shown by the fact that the Synod is an institution of both the Latin Church and the Eastern Catholic Churches. This note of universality is particularly evident in the general assemblies of the Synod, since the entire Catholic world is represented in their composition and functioning.

According to the recent Apostolic Constitution of Pope Francis, there can be three types of Synod: the ordinary General Assembly, which deals with matters concerning the good of the universal Church; the extraordinary General Assembly, if the matters to be dealt with, which concern the good of the universal Church, require urgent consideration; and the special Assembly, when matters concerning primarily one or more specific geographical areas are to be dealt with (see articles 1, § 2, 1st, 2nd and 3rd). It adds in § 3: "If he deems it opportune, particularly for reasons of an ecumenical nature, the Roman Pontiff can convoke a synodal assembly according to other modalities established by him." The Pope is the President of the Synod, and the Synod is directly subject to him (cf. Article 1, § 1). The consultative character of the Synod is maintained, but it can become deliberative, if the Pope so determines, according to article 18, paragraph 2. The phases of the Synod are the following: the phase of preparation, the phase of celebration of the assembly of bishops and the phase of implementation of the decisions of the Synod.

Synod celebrations to date

Fifteen ordinary assemblies of the Synods of Rome have been held so far, fourteen of which have already published documents. The dates, the theme discussed and the final document of each synodal assembly are given below:

- 1st: from 29-IX to 29-X-1967. Subject: Principles to be observed in the revision of the CIC; dangerous views and atheism; seminary renewal; mixed marriages and liturgical reform. Final document: Principia quae.

- 2nd: from 30-IX to 6-XI-1971. Theme: The ministerial priesthood and justice in the world. Two final documents: Ultimis temporibus (ministerial priesthood) and Convenient ex universe (justice).

- 3rd: from 27-IX to 26-XI-1974. Theme: Evangelization in the contemporary world. Final document: Evangelii nuntiandi (DECEMBER 18, 1975).

- 4a: from 30-IX to 29-X-1977. Theme: Catechesis in our time. Final document: Catechesi tradendae (16-X-1979).

- 5a: from 26-IX to 25-X-1980. Theme: The mission of the Christian family in today's world. Final document: Familiaris consortio (NOVEMBER 22, 1981).

- 6a: 29-IX to 29-X-1983. Theme: Penance and reconciliation in the mission of the Church. Final document: Reconciliatio et paenitentia (DECEMBER 2, 1984).

- 7th: from 1-X to 30-X-1987. Theme: The vocation and mission of the laity in the Church and in the world twenty years after the celebration of the Second Vatican Council. Final document: Christifideles laici (DECEMBER 30, 1988).

- 8a: from 30-IX to 28-X-1990. Theme: The formation of priests in the present circumstances. Final document: Pastores dabo vobis (MARCH 25, 1992).

- 9a: from 2-X to 29-10-1994. Theme: Consecrated life and its mission in the Church and in the world. Final document: Vita consecrata (MARCH 25, 1996).

- 10th: September 30 to October 27, 2001. Theme: The Bishop: servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the hope of the world. Final document: Gregorian shepherds (16- X-2003).

- 11a: from Oct. 2 to Oct. 23, 2005. Theme: The Eucharist: source and summit of the life and mission of the Church. Final document: Sacramentum caritatis (22-II-2007).

- 12a: from 5-X to 26-X-2008. Theme: The Word of God in the life and mission of the Church. Final document: Verbum Domini (30-IX-2010).

- 13th: from 7-X to 28-X-2012. Theme: The new evangelization for the transmission of the Christian faith. Final document: Evangelium Gaudium (24-XI- 2013).

- 14a: from 4-X to 25-X-2015. Theme: The vocation and mission of the family in the Church and in the contemporary world. Final document: Amoris laetitia (19- III-2016).

- 15a: from 3-X to 28-X-2018. Theme: Young people, faith and vocational discernment.

There have been three extraordinary assemblies:
- 1st: from October 11 to October 28, 1969. Theme: Cooperation between the Holy See and the Episcopal Conferences. Final document: Prima di concludere.

- 2nd: from 25-XI to 8-XII-1985. Theme: Twentieth anniversary of the conclusions of the Second Vatican Council. Final document: Ecclesia sub Verbo Dei mysteria Christi celebrans pro salute mundi.

- 3a: 5-X to 19-X-2014: The pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization. There was no final document.

Pope John Paul II convoked some Special Assemblies of the Synod, with a particular purpose. They are the following:

- 1a: from 14 to 31-I-1980. Particular Synod for the Netherlands. Theme: The pastoral situation in the Netherlands. Document: Reconnaissants envers Dieu (31-I-1980).

- 2nd: from 28-XI to 14-XII-1991. First Special Assembly for Europe. Theme: We are witnesses to Christ who set us free. Document: Tertio millennio iam (DECEMBER 13, 1991).

- 3rd: April 10 to May 8, 1994. First Special Assembly for Africa. Theme: The Church in Africa and its evangelizing mission for the year 2000: "You will be my witnesses" (Acts 1:8). Document: Ecclesia in Africa (SEPTEMBER 14, 1995).

- 4a: from 26-XI to 14-XII-1995. Special Assembly for Lebanon. Theme: Christ is our hope: renewed by his spirit, in solidarity we are witnesses of his love. Document: A new hope for Lebanon (10-V-1997).

- 5a: from 12-XI to 11-XII-1997. Special Assembly for America. Theme: Encounter with the living Jesus Christ, a cause for conversion, communion and solidarity in America. Document: Ecclesia in America (22-I-1999).

- 6a: April 19 to May 14, 1998. Special Assembly for Asia. Theme: Jesus Christ the Savior and his mission of love and service in Asia: "I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly" (Jn 10:10). Document: Ecclesia in Asia (NOVEMBER 6, 1999).

- 7th: from 22-XI to 12-XII-1998. Special Assembly for Oceania. Theme: Jesus Christ and the peoples of Oceania: following his way, proclaiming his truth and living his life. Document: Ecclesia in Oceania (NOVEMBER 22, 2001).

- 8a: October 1-10 to 23, 1999. Second Special Assembly for Europe. Theme: Jesus Christ living in his Church, source of hope for Europe. Document: Ecclesia in Europa (JUNE 28, 2003).

- 9a: October 4-X to October 25, 2009. Second Special Assembly for Africa. Theme: The Church in Africa at the service of reconciliation, justice and peace. Document: Africae Munus (NOVEMBER 9, 2011).

- 10th: from 10-X to 24-X-2010. Special Assembly for the Middle East. Theme: The Catholic Church in the Middle East: communion and witness. "The multitude of those who believed were of one heart and soul" (Acts 4:32). Document: Ecclesia in Middle East (14-IX-2012).

The contribution of the Synods to the Church

The Synods of Bishops have contributed effectively to ecclesial renewal and have established themselves as an effective reception of post-conciliar ecclesiology, particularly as a means of close collaboration with the Petrine ministry, thus reflecting the nature of the pastoral office of the bishops and of hierarchical communion, since these Synods, insofar as they represent the Catholic episcopate, contribute to the participation of all bishops in hierarchical communion in the solicitude for the universal Church (cf. Christus Dominus, 5). In this way, they bring about episcopal collegiality - collegial affection - reaffirmed by Vatican II as one of its fundamental characteristics. For this reason, Pope Francis affirms: "In a providential way, the institution of the Synod of Bishops took place in the context of the last ecumenical Assembly. In fact, the Second Vatican Council, 'following in the footsteps of the First Vatican Council' and in the furrow of the genuine ecclesial tradition, deepened the doctrine on the episcopal order, concentrating in a particular way on its sacramental and collegial nature. It has thus become definitively clear that each Bishop simultaneously and inseparably possesses the responsibility for the particular Church entrusted to his pastoral care and the concern for the universal Church" (Apostolic Constitution on the Episcopal Ordination of Bishops of the Catholic Bishops' Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faithful). Episcopalis communio, 2).

The topics addressed so far in the ordinary General Assemblies, as well as in the Extraordinary and Special Assemblies, have represented in each era a pastoral need, and thus have favored the growth of the life of the Church, by pointing out the direction in which the Church should walk with

in order to carry out its mission of evangelization (cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, 14) and, also, to determine guidelines for pastoral action in these various regions.

The debates during the Synods constitute updated information for the Pope and, perhaps, suggestions for the exercise of the Petrine office, constituting a privileged moment for the government of the Church in communion. The praxis of the post-synodal exhortations portrays the challenges posed to the Church and the coordinates along which the Church must walk in order to achieve a more effective evangelization capable of reaching the people whom the Gospel of Jesus Christ must call to conversion.

Thus, the intention of Pope Paul VI in instituting the Synods is achieving its goal. The Catholic faithful can now thank God for the fruits brought by the Synods and pray that they will continue to be precious moments for the life of the Church of Jesus Christ.

The authorGeraldo Luiz Borges Hackman

Faculty of Theology of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Soul (PUCRS), Brazil (

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