Synod 101

| June 6, 2019 | 0 Comments

For Catholics familiar with the term, a “synod” evokes the idea of the Synod of Bishops, or a gathering of bishops at the Vatican to discuss a particular topic, sometimes over several weeks. Recent synods of this kind include the Synods of Bishops on the Family in 2014 and 2015, and the Synod of Bishops on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment in 2018.

At those synods, the participating bishops voted on recommendations for Pope Francis, who later issued documents known as post-synodal apostolic exhortations on the topics discussed. “Amoris laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love,” was released in 2016 as a response to the Synod of Bishops on the Family, and “Christus vivit,” or “Christ is alive,” was released in March 2019 as a response to the Synod of Bishops on Young People.

In 1965, with the Second Vatican Council’s call to revive structures that deepened the communion of bishops, Pope St. Paul VI established the structure for the World Synod of Bishops. There are three types: ordinary general synods, which address a theme chosen from bishops’ recommendations; extraordinary general synods, which address an urgent need in the Church; and special assemblies, which are limited to a certain region in the Church, such as the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, which is scheduled to meet in Rome in October.

Since 1967, popes have convened 15 ordinary general synods, three extraordinary general synods and 10 special assemblies, including one in 1999 on the Church in America.

So what’s a diocesan synod?

Simply put, a diocesan synod is a coming together of the local Church. According to Canon 460, a diocesan synod is an “assembly … of selected priests and other members of Christ’s faithful of a particular Church which, for the good of the whole diocesan community, assists the diocesan bishop.” The 1983 Code of Canon Law also allows each diocese’s bishop to determine the timing and frequency of synods.

Diocesan synods have a long history in the Church for establishing local Church law and pastoral priorities, and they follow structures outlined in canon law. The 1983 Code of Canon Law — the most current promulgation of the Catholic Church’s law — was inspired by the Second Vatican Council to renew the concept of diocesan synods and dedicate eight canons (Canons 460-468) to outlining their norms. Unlike previous versions, the 1983 Code requires that lay people be involved in a diocesan synod, and it permits the involvement of non-Catholics.

A synod is not a process for changing Church teaching, or wielding or amassing influence or political power. And while the synod itself will include voting, it’s also not a democratic exercise, Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens said. “It’s meant to be a spiritual exercise,” he said. “It’s a process of discernment that is meant to help the shepherds be better shepherds.”

Is it like a Church council?

Synods — whether of bishops or on a diocesan level — are a type of Church council. The best known Church councils are those known as “ecumenical councils” held periodically since the time of the Apostles. The Book of Acts records the first council, the Council of Jerusalem, which met around 50 A.D. to debate whether circumcision was necessary for non-Jewish converts to Christianity.

There have since been 21 ecumenical councils, some focused on Church doctrine, others on pastoral issues. The better known among them are the First Council of Nicaea in 325, which established the date of Easter as well as the wording of the Nicene Creed, and the Council of Trent from 1545 to 1563, which launched the Counter-Reformation in Europe. The most recent councils were the First Vatican Council from 1869 to 1870, and the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965.

What form will it take locally?

Church documents recommend the synod takes place at the cathedral, and require that the archbishop presides over the gathering. Official synod delegates invited from all areas of the local Church attend. While the details are yet to be determined, delegates may hear presentations and engage in discussion on the synod’s topics, and then vote on recommendations to be made to the archbishop on those topics.

Following the synod, Archbishop Bernard Hebda and his consultative bodies are expected to reflect on those recommendations. Ultimately, he anticipates publishing a pastoral letter addressing the work of the synod. That letter may include a pastoral plan to guide the work of the archdiocese over the next five to 10 years.

What’s the role of the laity?

Not only does canon law allow lay Catholics to participate in a synod, the archdiocese’s pre-synod process and synod itself are designed to leverage as much input as possible from Catholics in the pews, executive team members said. The prayer and listening events, parish consultation process and deanery consultation process aim to engage lay Catholics to share their perspectives and ideas, and lay Catholics will be among the official delegates at the synod.

Bishop Cozzens pointed to Canon 212, which states that laypeople have a responsibility to make their needs known to their pastors: “Conscious of their own responsibility, the Christian faithful are bound to follow with Christian obedience those things which the sacred pastors, inasmuch as they represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith or establish as rulers of the Church.

“The Christian faithful are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires.

“According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.”

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Category: Archdiocesan Synod