07 October 2023, The Tablet

How does the new synod process work? An interview with Austen Ivereigh

How does the new synod process work? An interview with Austen Ivereigh

Participants in the 16th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in the Paul VI hall at The Vatican.
AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

The October 2023 synod assembly in the Vatican is adopting a very different process to the one used by previous gatherings, which is demonstrated by the arrangement of round tables in the Pope Paul VI audience hall. 

The sight of bishops and cardinals seated around tables with lay delegates is deliberate and designed to foster what Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the synod co-ordinator, described as “genuine sharing and authentic discernment”. 

Significantly, the seating is not “hierarchical”, symbolising the vision of the Church as primarily the “People of God”, which is at the heart of the synod process.

So, how does it all work? Austen Ivereigh, the journalist and papal biographer, is one of the expert theologians working inside the hall and in this episode he talks about the nuts and bolts of the process. We spoke as the synod was getting underway. 

Previous synods, he explained, took place in a theatre-style assembly where some of the work was done in small groups of 10-12 people. The participants were primarily bishops, and they sat according to hierarchal rank. 

The “big shift”, Dr Ivereigh says, is that most of the work for this synod is being done in small groups in a method called “conversations in the spirit”, which he pointed out is not about having a small-group debate but instead listening and responding to points that are raised. 

Each group gathered around a table seeks to respond to questions raised by the working document for the synod with the end goal of producing a document that brings together all the reflections. The new process adopted by the Vatican synod assembly also reflects the methods adopted by local synod gatherings that have taken place during the process, which began in October 2021. 

Dr Ivereigh points out that everyone can speak within their small group and to the whole assembly; they can also submit written submissions on any given topic to the synod secretariat.

“The object of this whole exercise is synodality itself,” he says. “It’s a new way of proceeding, of operating, of thinking within the Church which centres on communion, participation and mission, that is to say the involvement of people in processes of discernment prior to decision taking in the Church.” 

While the synod is likely to raise major points of disagreement, Dr Ivereigh points out that the synod aims to find a way to “contain those tensions” rather than fall into “sterile polarisations” and to find harmony or “reconciled diversity” between people with different positions. 

The “synthesis document” produced by the October synod assembly, he said, will aim to “capture the result of these deliberations”, and then the whole Church will be asked to reflect on that text ahead of the October 2024 synod. 

“It [the synthesis document] may say, ‘these are the questions that need answering’, ‘these are the things that need further exploration’, ‘here there is great agreement, or here there is great disagreement’, it's literally capturing what’s happened,” Dr Ivereigh explains.  

He added that there will likely be “various commissions set up to study the proposals”, including “canonical commissions, theological commissions, pastoral commissions,” following the synod assembly's conclusion.

Dr Ivereigh said that while the synod assembly will be aware of opposition to the process, it was unlikely to affect the internal proceedings. 


The Church’s Radical Reform podcast is sponsored by the Centre for Catholic Studies at the University of Durham in partnership with The Tablet. 

Producer: Silvia Sacco

Editor: Jamie Weston 



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