Frequently Asked Questions
A synod is a council of a church, usually convened to decide an issue of doctrine, administration or application. The word synod is from the Greek sinodos meaning “assembly” or “meeting” and is similar to the Latin concilium meaning “council”. Sometimes the phrase “general synod” or “general council” refers to an ecumenical council, like the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
Synodality is a process of discernment with the aid of the Holy Spirit, involving bishops, priests, religious, and lay Catholics, each according to their gifts and charisms. In the words of the Holy Father, “Synodality is a style, it is a walk together, and it is what the Lord expects from the Church of the third millennium.” The Synod of Bishops in Rome, planned for October 2023, will be the culmination of the process of synodality which the Holy Father has described; it is a world-wide event in three phases:
Diocesan phase: Consultation and participation of the People of God — After a Solemn Opening with Pope Francis at the Vatican on October 9 & 10, 2021, all dioceses throughout the world will then begin their synodal journey on Sunday, October 17. In the Archdiocese of San Antonio, after the opening Mass at the Cathedral of San Fernando on October 17, the process will continue at the Archdiocesan Assembly on Saturday, November 9. The consultation with the People of God in the Archdiocese will be carried out under the guidelines provided by the Vatican Secretariat of the Synod, which will include a preparatory document, a handbook, and a questionnaire. Once completed, the results of the Archdiocesan consultation will be communicated to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which will be collecting results from all US dioceses, as well as from other organizations, such as religious communities and Catholic universities. In the spring of 2022, the US bishops will then convene for a period of discernment and make a synthesis of the results they have received from the People of God throughout the US. These results will be sent to the General Secretariat of the Synod at the Vatican by April 2022. The General Secretariat of the Synod will then draft the first Working Document on Synodality (Instrumentum Laboris), a synthesis of the contribution of the People of God throughout the world, which will be published and sent to every diocese in September 2022.
International phase: Dialogue and discernment — Bishops and lay consultors from groups of Bishops Conferences throughout the world will engage in dialogue on the Working Document. Each international group will then prepare their own considerations based on it, which they will send to the General Secretariat at the Vatican by March 2023. Founded on what is received from these groups of Bishops Conferences, the General Secretariat will prepare a second Working Document on Synodality to be used in the next phase.
Universal phase: The bishops of the world in Rome — The synodal journey will culminate in October 2023 with the Assembly of Bishops in Rome—the Synod on Synodality—which will discuss and dialogue on the basis of the second Working Document. At the conclusion of these deliberations, which can include lay consultors, a Final Document on Synodality is prepared and is presented to the Holy Father, who decides on its publication. Once complete, the Final Document on Synodality is made available to every diocese for implementation.
In his address during the 50th Anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis offered three powerful reasons why we should all embrace his invitation to participate in the upcoming synodal process: (1) to grow and thrive in the world we live in, the Catholic Church needs to strengthen cooperation in all areas of her mission, which is why the Church of the third millennium must be a synodal one; (2) the development of a synodal church will have a great impact in the field of ecumenism. The more we learn to listen and work together – with and under the Pope—the better suited we will be to work and collaborate with other Christians; and (3) the testimony of a synodal Church will have a positive impact in a world in which small and powerful groups tend to determine the fate of entire peoples.
Pope Francis has called for “a synodal Church, which listens, which realizes that listening is more than simply hearing. It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth.’ This process of mutual listening, dialogue, respect, and communal discernment in decision-making under the guidance of the Holy Spirit is a timely one and rooted in the tradition of the early Church. Synodality continues to be relevant today because done well, it energizes the life and evangelizing mission of the Church. It is a response to God’s grace to live as His people in our pilgrim journey towards the fulfillment of the Kingdom. This grace calls all the baptized to pastoral conversion, to “learn to live in communion with the grace received in baptism and brought to fulfillment in the Eucharist: the paschal transition from ‘I’ understood in a self-centered way to the ecclesial ‘we’ … active agents of the one mission of the People of God.” Without conversion of heart and mind and without the discipline for welcoming and listening to one another, the external instruments of communion are practically useless. The true spirituality of communion, “prompting a trust and openness wholly in accord with the dignity and responsibility of every member of the People of God, supplies institutional reality with a soul.”
Because the history of the Church gives ample witness to the importance of consultation of diocesan clergy and faithful in matters pertaining to the good of the Church, these discussions are given special attention. The consultations are followed by discernment on the part of bishops chosen for the task, united in the search for a consensus that does not spring from worldly logic, but from common obedience to the Spirit of Christ. Attentive to the sense of the faith of the people of God – which they need to carefully distinguish from changing public opinion – the Synod Bishops will then work together for ecclesial consensus, which is not determined by the tallying of votes, but is the outcome of the working of the spirit, the soul of the one Church of Christ.
Pope Francis has affirmed that this Synod of Bishops must increasingly become an instrument for listening to the People of God. The results are then submitted to the Holy Father in his capacity as universal Pastor of the Church. Once the results have been accepted by the Holy Father, an implementation phase in every diocese follows, to initiate the reception of the Synod’s conclusions. It must be remembered that given the diversity throughout the world, the results must be inculturated if they are to be respected and applied.
In this way, it can be seen that the synodal process not only has its point of departure, but also its point of arrival in the People of God, upon whom the gifts of grace bestowed by the Holy Spirit through the Synod of Bishops must be poured out.