What you need to know about the Synod on Synodality

The first Vatican assembly for the global Synod on Synodality will begin in October bringing together clerics and laity alike for nearly one month of discussions. Here is what you need to know writes Courtney Mares, Catholic News Agency, Rome, September 2023.

WelCom October 2023

The first Vatican assembly for the global Synod on Synodality will begin in October bringing together clerics and laity alike for nearly one month of discussions. Here is what you need to know writes Courtney Mares, Catholic News Agency, Rome, September 2023.

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich (r), relator general of Synod on Synodality, speaks to the media on 20 June, 2023, at the temporary headquarters of the Holy See Press Office in Vatican City. Beside him is Cardinal Mario Grech, the Secretary General for the Synod of Bishops. Photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA

What is the Synod on Synodality?

The Synod on Synodality, initiated by Pope Francis in October 2021, is a multi-year, worldwide undertaking during which Catholics were asked to submit feedback to their local dioceses on the question ‘What steps does the Spirit invite us to take in order to grow in our “journeying together”?’

The Catholic Church’s massive synodal process has already undergone diocesan, national, and continental stages. It will culminate in two global assemblies at the Vatican. The first will take place 4–28 October 2023 and the second in October 2024 to advise the pope on the topic ‘For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission’.

What does synodality mean?

Synodality was defined by the 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 document described synodality as ‘the form, the style, and the structure of the Church’.

The latest document* published by the Vatican adds 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’.

‘At the root of this process is the acceptance, both personal and communal, of something that is both a gift and a challenge: to be a Church of sisters and brothers in Christ who listen to one another and who, in so doing, are gradually transformed by the Spirit,’ the document says.

Pope Francis has said that he envisions the Synod on Synodality as ‘a journey in accordance with the Spirit, not a parliament for demanding rights and claiming needs in accordance with the agenda of the world, nor an occasion for following wherever the wind is blowing, but the opportunity to be docile to the breath of the Holy Spirit’.

What are the main questions that the Synod on Synodality will try to answer?

There are three overarching questions for the upcoming synod assembly as defined by the 2023 synod assembly’s guiding document called the Instrumentum Laboris:

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 main objective of the first session in October will be to design a plan of study in a ‘synodal style’ and to indicate who will be involved in those discussions, according to the Instrumentum Laboris. Discernment will be ‘completed’ in the 2024 session of the synod.

What are some of the topics that could be addressed in the synod assembly?

The Instrumentum Laboris document guiding the discussions at the October synod assembly suggests discernment on questions regarding some hot-button topics, including women deacons, priestly celibacy, and LGBTQ outreach.

The document also highlights a desire for new institutional bodies to allow for greater participation in decision-making by the ‘people of God’. One of the proposed questions for discernment for the synod of bishops asks: ‘What can we learn about the exercise of authority and responsibility from other Churches and ecclesial communities?’

How does the Synod on Synodality differ from past synods of bishops?

A synod is a meeting of bishops gathered to discuss a topic of theological or pastoral significance in order to prepare a document of advice or counsel to the pope.

For the first time, the Synod of Bishops in 2023 will include voting delegates who are not bishops. Nearly a third of the 364 voting delegates were chosen directly by Pope Francis, including laypeople, priests, consecrated women, and deacons. Fifty-four voting members are women.

The October assembly will be held in the Paul VI Hall, instead of the Vatican’s New Synod Hall, with delegates sitting at round tables of about 10 people each. The latter part of the October gathering will focus on deciding the Church’s next steps and ‘the necessary in-depth theological and canonical studies in preparation’ for a second assembly in October 2024.

What other events are happening leading up to the October Vatican assembly?

The 2023 Synod on Synodality assembly at the Vatican will begin with a three-day retreat for the Catholic bishops and participants 1–3 October led by Dominican Fr Timothy Radcliffe, who has drawn criticism from some for his statements on homosexuality.

Pope Francis also announced an ecumenical prayer vigil to take place in St Peter’s Square as part of the Synod on Synodality on 30 September. The prayer vigil, organised by the Taizé Community, will entrust to God the work of the October synod assembly.

Who has participated in the Synod on Synodality?

The General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops has reported that the initial diocesan listening phase concluded with the participation of 112 out of 114 of the world’s Catholic bishops’ conferences.

Who are the key organisers of the Synod on Synodality?

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the 64-year-old archbishop of Luxembourg, is one of the leading organisers of the ongoing Synod on Synodality as the relator general. The Jesuit was recently added to Pope Francis’ council of cardinal advisers. Hollerich said in an interview in March he believes that a future pope could allow women priests and that he finds ‘the part of the teaching calling homosexuality “intrinsically disordered” a bit dubious’.

Cardinal Mario Grech, the secretary general for the Synod of Bishops, is the former bishop of Gozo, Malta. He was one of two authors of the Maltese bishops’ controversial pastoral guidelines on Amoris Laetitia, which stated that divorced and remarried Catholics, in certain cases and after ‘honest discernment’, could receive Communion. Last year, Grech decried the public criticism of the German ‘Synodal Way’ as ‘denunciation’.

Is there a prayer for the Synod on Synodality?

The vade mecum for the synod published the following ‘Prayer for the Synod on Synodality’:

“We stand before you,
Holy Spirit, as we gather together in your name. 

With you alone to guide us, make yourself at home
in our hearts; 

teach us the way we must go and how we are to pursue it. 

We are weak and sinful; do not let us promote disorder. 

Do not let ignorance lead us down the wrong path nor partiality influence
our actions. 

Let us find in you our unity so that we may journey together to eternal life and not stray from the way of truth and what is right. 

All this we ask of you, who are at work in every place and time, in the communion of the
Father and the Son,
forever and ever. 


*[XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops – For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission Instrumentum Laboris for the First Session (October 2023)]

It will be difficult for the work of the first session of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to produce conclusive guidelines on many of the topics and questions that emerged from the consultation of the People of God. This is why the Holy Father has decided the Synodal Assembly will be held in two sessions. The main objective of the first session will be to outline paths of in-depth study to be carried out in a synodal style, indicating the relevant actors to be involved and ways to ensure a fruitful process in service to the discernment to be completed in the second session in October 2024. Proposals on how we can grow as a synodal Church will then be presented to the Holy Father.

Source: Instrumentum Laboris for the First Session – October 2023.