The next synod of bishops gathering in Rome has been postponed until 2023 so that an unprecedented consultation of Catholics can take place in advance.
Pope Francis had originally planned a synod on the theme of synodality for October 2022, but in a radical shakeup, Rome is asking every diocese across the world to begin the first phase of the process on 17 October this year.
Each local church will be sent details for a consultation and listening process that must last until April 2022 when a diocese will be required to submit proposals to their bishops’ conference. It is not clear yet what the consultation will focus on but the theme of the synod is: “For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission.”
Bishops will then meet to “listen to what the Spirit has inspired in the churches entrusted to them” and is to be followed by a “continental phase” of discernment.
From September 2022 until March 2023 bishops from various regions will meet and draft a document to be sent to the synod office in Rome. The final phase of the synod will take place in the Vatican in October of that year.
Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has repeatedly called for a synodal church, one where bishops, priests and people “walk together” in a common mission. In a landmark 2015 speech, Francis stressed that synodality is what “God expects of the Church in the third millennium” and has called for the greater involvement of lay people in decision making.
In an interview with Vatican News, Cardinal Mario Grech, who leads the synod secretariat in Rome, said the decision to postpone the Rome gathering was because the “time was ripe for a wider participation of the People of God in a decision-making process that affects the whole Church and everyone in the Church”.
Pointing out that the Second Vatican Council taught that “the People of God participate in the prophetic office of Christ”, it is imperative to listen to the People of God, and this means going out to the local churches, he said.
While synodality is rooted in early Christianity and part of the first 1,000 years of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Grech said it had weakened during the second millennium. The synod of bishops structure was established by Pope Paul VI in 1965, at the end of Vatican II, as a way to assist the Pope in his governance of the Church.
Francis has used the synod as the primary vehicle for implementing his pastoral agenda and renewal of the Church, and has strengthened the importance of the synods. The Pope, however, wants this renewal to come from below, and has said his model of a synodal church is that of an “inverted pyramid” where “those who exercise authority are called ‘ministers’, because, in the original meaning of the word, they are the least of all”. His synods on the family (2014 & 2015), youth (2018) and the Amazon (2019) all included consultations of ordinary Catholics as part of the process.
Meanwhile, churches across the world have announced or begun synodal processes including in Australia, Germany, Italy and Ireland while bishops in Latin America are embarking on a continent-wide process.
Both Cardinal Grech and the new rules for the synod reference church teaching on the sensus fidei,“the sense of the faith” of believers, and the idea “that the Church as a whole is infallible in her belief”.
The cardinal said that unity in the Church is not just achieved by “strengthening the authority of pastors” but requires “circularity, reciprocity, journeying together with respect to the various functions of the People of God”.
He added: “God willing, one of the fruits of the Synod is that we might all understand that a decision-making process in the Church always begins with listening, because only in this way can we understand how and where the Spirit wants to lead the Church.”