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10 things to know about upcoming Synod on Synodality

Bishops and laity to meet in Rome Oct. 4 to discuss Church mission, participation

Published: September 26, 2023   
OSV News photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters
Cardinal Matteo Zuppi gestures after a meeting between Pope Francis and bishops and delegates of Italy's Synodal Path in Paul VI hall, at the Vatican, May 25, 2023.

The eyes of the Catholic world turn to Rome Oct. 4, as the worldwide Synod of Bishops convenes on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi to focus on "synodality" and understanding what it means in terms of "communion, participation and mission" in the Church. Here's what it is, how we got here and what to expect.

1. The Synod on Synodality is three years in the making. Pope Francis announced in March 2020 (at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in Italy) that the next Synod of Bishops would be held in October 2022 on the theme "For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission," which quickly became known as the "Synod on Synodality." In May 2021, he postponed the two-part meeting to 2023 (with a second gathering in 2024), due in part to the pandemic, and announced that it would be preceded by a two-year process.

2. Synodality is "the action of the Spirit in the communion of the Body of Christ and in the missionary journey of the People of God." Despite the long history of synods in the Church, the term "synodality" is relatively recent, emerging in Church documents about two decades ago. In 2018, the topic was addressed by the International Theological Commission, which defined it as "the action of the Spirit in the communion of the Body of Christ and in the missionary journey of the People of God."

3. A synod is a meeting of bishops. It has ancient roots in the Catholic Church's history and continuity in the Eastern Churches, but declined in the Latin Church. The modern Synod of Bishops was instituted near the end of Vatican II. "Synod" has been historically interchangeable with "council," such as the churchwide Council of Nicea or the Council of Trent.

4. The Synod on Synodality is the 16th Ordinary Synod since the global Synod of Bishops' institution. Three extraordinary general assemblies have also been held, including in 2014 to complete the work of the 2015 ordinary general assembly on the family. 

5. Preparations for the Synod on Synodality sought to be the most extensive ever, with an invitation to every Catholic to provide input. An unprecedented worldwide consultation occurred at the diocesan/national and continental levels. The synod's two-year preparation process invited all Catholics worldwide to identify areas where the Church needed to give greater attention and discernment. 

6. The Synod on Synodality's objective boils down to answering a two-part question. According to the vademecum, "The current synodal process we are undertaking is guided by a fundamental question: How does this 'journeying together' take place today on different levels (from the local level to the universal one), allowing the Church to proclaim the Gospel, and what steps is the Spirit inviting us to take in order to grow as a synodal Church?"

7. For the first time ever, non-bishops — including lay men and women — have a vote in the synod. The synod's general assembly includes more than 450 participants. More than a quarter of synod members are non-bishops, including laypeople, who for the first time will have a vote during synod deliberations. A deliberate effort was made to include women and young adults. 

8. More than 20 Catholics from the United States have been invited to participate. Participating American bishops chosen by Pope Francis are Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago, Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington, Archbishop Paul D. Etienne of Seattle, Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley of Boston and Cardinal Robert W. McElroy of San Diego, Calif. Additional bishop-delegates selected by the USCCB and confirmed by Pope Francis are Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas; Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York; Bishop Robert E. Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minn.; Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind.; and Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, who leads the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, and serves as USCCB president. American prelates Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, N.J., and Cardinal Kevin J. Farrell, formerly the bishop of Dallas, are also delegates by nature of prior papal appointments. 

9. In the U.S., the meeting has been a source of great expectation and great apprehension. The synod has inspired both great praise and deep criticism for its approach, including allowing laypeople to vote; its subject matter, which includes controversial topics such as leadership roles for women, ministry to Catholics who identify as LGBTQ+, and the relationship between laypeople and clergy. 

10. October's meeting is just the beginning. In an unusual move, the synod general assembly has been divided into two sessions, with the first Oct. 4-29, and the second planned for October 2024. The synod's general assembly opens Oct. 4 with a papal Mass that includes the new cardinals created at a Sept. 30 consistory. Among them is expected to be Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States.

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