Everything You Need To Know


(EXPLAINER) The next phase in the highly-anticipated Vatican gathering of bishops known as the Synod of Synodality starts this coming Wednesday. The first phase of this global gathering is the culmination of two years of preparation.

Over that time, much has been said about synodality and what it aims to do for Catholicism.

In recent comments regarding synodality, Pope Francis said the process “may seem something abstruse, self-referential, excessively technical, of little interest to the general public” but it is “something truly important for the church.”

READ: Francis-Strickland Fight Preview Of What’s To Come At Next Month’s Synod

The session that starts next week will last until Oct. 29. The final phase — scheduled for October 2024 — brings together bishops and church leaders from across the planet to debate and prepare a document to counsel the pope.

Here are three things you need to know about a gathering some are already calling Vatican III:

What is a synod?

Vatican II, also known as the Second Vatican Council, transformed the church starting in the 1960s. The effects are felt to this day. Since Vatican II, the church has held many assemblies — known as synods — so this is nothing new. A synod, in the context of Christianity, is an assembly of bishops and other church officials meeting to resolve questions of discipline or administration.

This particular gathering is massive and includes a total of 363 people. That includes cardinals, bishops, priests and lay people. Women — a first in synod history — will take part. These reps all get a vote.

This is what the National Catholic Register reported on regarding who is taking part and the special role some representatives will have:

But far less attention has been given to another novel group that will be participating in the Oct. 4-29 synodal gathering: “facilitators,” part of a larger group of non-voting experts, who include several figures with controversial views and could have a major impact on the synod’s proceedings and its final outcomes.

The inclusion of the novel group was confirmed as far back as April, when Cardinal Mario Grech, the general secretary of the synod office, said non-voting facilitators would be included, after earlier stages of the synodal process had shown that “the presence of experts can create a fruitful dynamic.”

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, who as relator general of the upcoming synod will play a major role in guiding proceedings, added that there was a need for people devoted to facilitating “the spiritual dimension” because “there are bishops who have never participated in a synod.”

In all, there are 464 representatives, with the potential of more during the process, but they don’t get a vote.

What is synodality?

Synodality is defined by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s International Theological Commission in 2018 as “the action of the Spirit in the communion of the Body of Christ and in the missionary journey of the people of God.” The 2021 synod preparatory documents referred to synodality as “the form, the style, and the structure of the church.”

The latest set of document made public by the Vatican added that synodality can also be understood as something that “does not derive from the enunciation of a principle, a theory, or a formula but develops from a readiness to enter into a dynamic of constructive, respectful, and prayerful speaking, listening, and dialogue.”

The National Catholic Reporter, in a recent piece, called on the gathering to become an annual event. Here’s what they said:

Let it be like the assemblies of other religious groups — a chance to gather the community in prayer, a place to discuss differences in respectful ways, an opportunity to bask in the infinite variety of the human spirit, a time to set new directions and shape policy.

It does not have to be in Rome every year. In fact, twice might be enough for this century. Think Mongolia, Malta, Argentina, Canada, Nigeria and Australia.

One year it could be regional gatherings; the next year local meetings with international meetings held every once in a while (think carbon footprint, people). But setting aside a few days, or beginning to think about a “Synod Week” worldwide, would be a way to make this much vaunted “walking together” approach more than divisive rhetoric.

But traditional Catholics, already at odds with this pope, don’t favor such a move and some have even called this synod a “moment of crisis” for the church.

Why is it taking place?

The aim of this synod includes dealing with future doctrine, potential changes to it and the church’s future in how it handled an array of cultural issues.

There are three questions for the assembly, as defined by synod’s guiding document Instrumentum Laboris, to ponder throughout this process:

  • How can we be more fully a sign and instrument of union with God and of the unity of all humanity?

  • How can we better share gifts and tasks in the service of the Gospel?

  • What processes, structures, and institutions are needed in a missionary synodal Church?

The topics to be discussed include some hot-button ones such as female deacons, same-sex unions, whether to keep clergy celibacy and LGBTQ outreach. 

These doctrinal battles have been happening on the sidelines for decades and throughout much of Francis’ papacy since he was elected by the College of Cardinals a decade ago.

The German bishops, for example, have been openly discussing a series of reforms, including allowing for the blessing of same-sex unions by priests and for letting divorced couples receive Holy Communion. In November 2022, following talks with the pope and Vatican officials, the head of the German Bishops Conference said the debate on reforms could not be suppressed.

The ongoing tug-of-war between the German bishops could spill over into the synod, where conservative members will argue that blessing same-sex unions, for example, goes directly against church doctrine.

The document, meanwhile, also calls for greater participation in decision-making by the “people of God.” One of the proposed questions for bishops asks, “What can we learn about the exercise of authority and responsibility from other churches and ecclesial communities?”

Many view Francis as a reformer. This process could very well usher changes and cement this pope’s legacy among the progressive forces in the church. Traditional Catholics, meanwhile, like to remind everyone that the synod has no power to change anything.

The site Real Clear Catholic made the following point:

So whatever final document that comes out of the Synod, no matter how good or how horrible, its purpose is to advise Pope Francis and nothing more. Now if the document itself is sensational, we can expect the mainstream media to immediately pick up on it, and tell the world in such a way as to make people think it is done. Rome has spoken, and the changes have already happened. Don’t fall for it! This is a trick. The mainstream media does this all the time. The Synod has no power or authority of its own. The documents it produces only advise the pope, and that’s all they do. You must remember this. It’s vitally important that you do. Don’t get suckered by the news media.

The real event will happen a couple years later, probably some time after the new year in 2025, and the second stage of the Synod in 2024. This will come in the form of some kind of Apostolic Exhortation or Apostolic Letter, or Motu Proprio. It might also find a higher form of papal document, such as an encyclical or Apostolic Constitution, depending on the situation.

Indeed, only the pope can make doctrinal changes. For now, this synod will bring to the forefront issues that need to be addressed in the 21st century. How these issues will ultimately be addressed and whether church teachings will changed remains the big question.

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