The Roman Synod of Bishops

Editorial, May 2009

About every three years I have published an article on a Roman Synod. They usually take place every three years. Representing HPR, I have covered twelve of them since 1971. This month I thought it would be helpful to explain briefly what a Roman Synod is and how it works.

The Roman Synod is a new instrument to help the pope in governing the worldwide Church of over one billion Catholics. At the request of some cardinals and bishops, it was established by Pope Paul VI in 1965 and the first one was held in 1967. Up to the present there have been twelve ordinary Synods and two extraordinary ones (1969 and 1985).

The purpose of the Synod is to advise the pope on a subject of his choice. Some of the topics considered in the past were: evangelization, catechesis, laity, priests, religious, bishops, family. The Synod in 2005 was on the Holy Eucharist. The last one in October 2008 was on the Bible. It is important to note that a Synod is not a governing body in the Church—it is advisory to the Holy Father. An ecumenical council like Vatican I and Vatican II can make decisions for the whole Church; a Synod cannot do that.

In terms of collegiality, a distinction was made at one of the Synods in the 1970s. The Synod said that there are two types of collegiality—effective and affective. Effective collegiality takes place at an ecumenical council; there have been only twenty-one of them in the past two thousand years. Affective collegiality describes what takes place in a Synod of bishops when they advise the pope.

The members of an ordinary Synod are elected in each of the one hundred and thirteen bishops’ conferences. They automatically get one member for each twenty-five bishops; if a country has more than one hundred bishops, then it gets four members. So the U.S.A. has about four hundred bishops; that means we get a maximum of four members in the Synod. When an extraordinary Synod is held, then the president goes ex officio and the same rule is followed of one member for each twenty-five bishops in the conference.

In Rome there is a secretariat for the synod with a president and two assistants. This body is not part of the Roman Curia; it reports directly to the pope. Its purpose is to organize the Synods and take care of all the details.

After the pope has chosen the topic (for example, the Bible in 2008), then the secretariat drafts an outline of the subject matter; it is called in Latin “lineamenta.” This is sent to all the bishops and they are asked to comment on it and make suggestions. The next stage is to draft a new document, taking into consideration the suggestions received; it is called in Latin “instrumentum laboris” or the working document (WD). The WD then becomes a guide for the bishops in the conduct of the Synod.

The actual Synod has three distinct parts. During the first and longest part, all the bishops are given the opportunity to speak on the topic for five minutes. That usually takes about eight to ten days; during the last Synod two-hundred and twenty-two bishops addressed the assembly. At the conclusion the reporter secretary summarizes what has been said and he suggests topics for discussion. During the second part they break up into twelve small language groups—English, French, German, Italian, Spanish—to discuss the points made and to formulate resolutions, or, what are called in Rome “propositions,” to be sent to the pope. A committee, established for the purpose, gathers all this material together and drafts a list of propositions in Latin, usually about fifty. They are then submitted to the whole assembly for amendments. Once the amendments have been made, the propositions are printed up in a booklet and the bishops then vote on them, either “yes” or “no” or “yes, with reservations.”

At the conclusion of the Synod the propositions are sent to the pope along with all of the documentation. The Synod Fathers express the hope that the pope will implement their suggestions, especially by writing an apostolic exhortation on the topic. In the past a number of important documents of the Church have resulted from the Synods, for example, the one on evangelization by Pope Paul VI called Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975).

The Roman Synod of Bishops is therefore an important new instrument to assist the Holy Father in his difficult task of shepherding the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ.

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ About Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, is editor emeritus of HPR, having served as editor for over 30 years. He is the author of the best selling Fundamentals of Catholicism (three volumes) and of the popular introduction to the Scripture, Inside the Bible.