“Walking together” is at the heart of Church synods, synodal preparations

Archbishop of Miami Thomas G. Wenski speaks during a November 17, 2021 session of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fall general assembly in Baltimore. (SNC Photo/Bob Roller)

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In October 2023, Pope Francis will convene the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the theme “For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission”.

Since the close of the Second Vatican Council, the popes have convened such synods, composed of representative bishops gathered from all over the world, to advise them on matters important to the life of the Church. The one that will open in Rome in October 2023 will be the 16th gathering of bishops and other delegations made up of priests, religious and laity, to collaborate with the pope in the exercise of his universal magisterium. Usually, after the synod has closed, the pope will sift through the suggestions, ideas, and recommendations of the Synod Fathers and issue an apostolic exhortation in his own name that seeks to present a plan of action for the whole Church.

In a sense, a synod is an exercise in strategic planning, the apostolic exhortation being the plan. For example, in 1974, the Church of St. Paul VI Evangelii Nuntiandi (“On Evangelization in the Modern World”), gave impetus to the awareness that the Church is essentially an evangelical movement: it exists to evangelize. Again in 1990, the Church of Saint John Paul II Pastores Dabo Vobis (“On the Formation of Priests in Present Circumstances”) helped renew the formation of seminarians after the troubles of the post-Vatican II era — the fruits of which are now seen in the quality of ordained priests in recent years. Perhaps best known to many today is Evangelii Gaudium (“on the new evangelization for the transmission of the Christian faith”), in which the newly elected Pope Francis published in 2013 the direction in which he wished to take his pontificate.

Besides these general synods, the pope can convene a particular synod of a special region. Saint John Paul II held several continental synods; and more recently, Pope Francis held a Pan-Amazon regional synod. Many dioceses also hold synods – here in the Archdiocese of Miami we have had two in our 60+ year history. One convened by Archbishop McCarthy in the late 1980s; the other by myself shortly after my return to Miami as Archbishop. The Eastern churches and several Protestant bodies also hold synods.

The word itself comes from the Greek and basically means “to travel together”. “Synodalism” refers to the very essence of the Church, its constitutive reality and is therefore always oriented towards evangelization. But, as Pope Francis himself admits, “walking together – laity, pastors, bishop of Rome – is a concept easy to put into words, but not so easy to put into practice.”

Usually, the themes of general synods are solicited from the bishops of the world and once chosen by the pope, his collaborators prepare a linear (“a preliminary draft”) for comments from interested parties, from which a instrumentum laboris — a working document — will serve as a basis for the synod’s discussions.

However, Pope Francis has opted for an innovative and potentially very creative bottom-up approach. He wants the participation of each local Church (diocese), followed by consultations at the level of national bishops’ conferences and continental assemblies. This ambitious undertaking will take two years, with the diocesan phase beginning in October 2021.

The General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops sent a preparatory document, together with a questionnaire and a vademecum with proposals for consultations in each local Church. The Holy Father opened the Synod at the Vatican on October 9-10. Bishops have been asked to open their own diocesan “phase” in their cathedrals on October 17. At the end of April 2022, all those who wanted to were given the opportunity to be “listened to” in one way or another so that the pope could benefit from the sensus fidei in credendo (the meaning of faith by believing).

The Pope sees it as an exercise in “spiritual discernment”: “One listening to others; and all listening to the Holy Spirit. (Pope Francis, October 17, 2015)

So, as we begin this “journey together,” let us pray, “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful…and you will renew the face of the earth.

Bishop Wenski has led the Archdiocese of Miami since June 2010.

Martha J. Finley