Pope Francis pulled off a “synodal surprise” last Sunday, when he announced that the final phase of the synod on synodality due to take place in October 2023 will now be spread over two gatherings, with the second one a year later, in October 2024.
The decision to extend the global synod by a further year is significant. One source in Rome told me that it indicates the Pope intends to remain in post until at least the end of the autumn of 2024.
On the other hand, there is the possibility that a conclave could occur in the middle of the process, in the same way that the Second Vatican Council was begun by one Pope (John XXIII) and shepherded to its conclusion by another (Paul VI).
The extension of the synod suggests three things.
First, it underlines that this is a process rather than a one-off event: Francis wants synodality to become what he calls a “constitutive” part of the Church.
The decision to spread the final phase of the synod over two sessions shows he believes more time is needed for the synodal way to become embedded in the life of the Church, and is an implicit recognition of the resistance to the process. It also seeks to tackle the mentality in some quarters that the synod will soon be “over”.
Second, it is recognised that changes in discipline and developments in teaching need a careful process of assimilation and cannot be rushed.
The Pope made his latest announcement two days after meeting the synod office leadership team and having read the synthesis of what the local churches and communities around the world have been saying. Calls for expanded roles for women, for the inclusion of LGBT Catholics and for the problem of clericalism to be addressed feature prominently. All these questions are likely to be hotly contested.
The “fruits of the synodal process underway are many”, Francis said last Sunday, but they still need to come to “full maturity”.
Third, by spreading the final phase of the synod over two years it is less likely to become mired in an ideological clash. Rather than seeking to have the last word, the October 2023 meeting will be an important step in a longer journey.
Something similar happened during the synod on the family in 2014 and 2015: the added time allowed for the bishops to find a resolution to the contested issue of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, leading to the Pope opening a path for this to happen in his teaching document, Amoris Laetitia.
It’s also possible that when Francis gathers the bishops in the Vatican in 2023 and 2024 he will seek to move them away from voting on particular issues but instead seek consensus on the principles of a synodal Church.
Throughout this pontificate, the synod of bishops has become the vehicle through which the Pope has implemented his pastoral agenda. The structure, however, is evolving, and in 2018 Francis opened the possibility for the synod to exercise formal teaching authority in the document Episcopalis Communio.
Although the Pope has the final say, the synod's authority has been significantly beefed up.
Another evolution has been in the name of the synod structure, which in Francis’ constitution for the Roman Curia, Praedicate Evangelium, is termed the “synod” rather than the “synod of bishops”. This suggests a desire for a body which includes all the People of God and not just the hierarchy, although it will primarily be the bishops who meet in assembly in the Vatican.
With its greater authority and lengthier time span, some have likened the global synod to a "Vatican III". A synod, however, is not an ecumenical council, and the global synod is an attempt to implement the reforms of Vatican II, not to convene a successor.
The structure of the synod of bishops, however, was established by Pope Paul VI in 1965 at the end of Vatican II to continue the conciliar experience. Might the move to a synodal church eventually lead to a Vatican III in the longer term?