Pope gives new vision for Synod of Bishops

Cardinal Lorenzo Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, attends a Sept. 18 Vatican news conference to announce synod changes. Pope Francis has issued an apostolic constitution, updating the rules of how the synod is prepared for, conducted and implemented.
CNS photo/Paul Haring

Shortly before this paper went to press, and with relatively little fanfare, Pope Francis released an Apostolic Constitution this week entitled, “Episcopalis Communio,” in which he updated some elements of the Synod of Bishops. Though synodality has ancient roots, the current iteration of this phenomenon was created by Pope Paul VI in the 1965 document “Apostolica Sollicitudo.” The current Holy Father’s call for a more “synodal” approach to ecclesiology has been a cornerstone of his papacy since its initial stages. Thus it is unsurprising that he would prioritize the methodology behind these meetings in new statements and structures.

Saint John Chrysostom once famously said, “Church and Synod are synonymous.” This “walking together on the Way,” which is the etymological essence of the Greek word (syn-hodos), is not only an indispensable, but a constitutive, element of our community’s ongoing voyage of faith. Such a vision is intimately tied to the Second Vatican Council’s repeated emphasis that the church is in fact a pilgrim people journeying through history together.

One important article of the new document (art.18 §1) reads in the original Italian that if a synod’s final document is expressly approved by the Roman Pontiff, “it participates in the ordinary Magisterium of the Successor to Peter.” Thus, the church’s official teaching authority will be impacted by the conversations and, importantly, the listening that occurs through this now-revitalized process. It also maintained the current practice of the pontiff’s prerogative in personally naming the organizing council and drafting committee for the gathering’s official statements and final output.

This new constitution, including what the quasi-official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano called its “aim of more directly involving the People of God in the synodal experience of the Church,” insists that the Synod be envisioned as situated within the greater inclusivity of the sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful) of all the baptized.

With the upcoming XV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops scheduled to tackle the themes of Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment from Oct. 3-28, the recalibrations of this particular text will be put to quick use. There will also be a 2019 Synod dealing with issues from the Amazon, which plans to highlight especially “integral ecology.” Though it is merely a consultative body, the new norms do seem to give these gatherings more authoritative weight than was traditionally recognized.

The teaching and learning elements of discipleship continue to inform one another in the Christian life, much in the same vein as was central to Yves Congar’s theological contributions. As he made clear, every Christian — from “the bishop to the last of the lay faithful” as Lumen Gentium puts it — is called to sit at the feet of our divine Rabboni and of our co-travelers on the Way to learn from them. And no one is excused from the mandate to teach the world of God’s salvific presence, perhaps in deeds or service more than didactic proclamations. The Synod process in general, and “Episcopalis Communio” in particular, at least implicitly encourage us to keep these twin charges always in mind.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.