The word synod come to us from Greek and it means “to come together”. It is often used to describe a meeting or an assembly. In the Church, synods are called by someone in the hierarchical authority to discuss a topics concerning faith, morals, or a discipline.
As the Second Vatican Council was entering its final months, Blessed Pope Paul VI released an apostolic letter entitled The Apostolic Concern (Apostolica Sollicitudo) to initiate Synods of Bishops. Pope Paul wanted “to establish even closer ties with the bishops in order to strengthen [the] union with them whom the Holy Spirit has placed to rule the Church of God”ƒ. There have been 26 synods since 1967, most of them called by Saint John Paul II. The most recent was the Synods Of Bishops On The Family.
To honor Blessed Pope Paul VI for developing the idea of Synod of Bishops, the gathering space built for the synods is named for him.
Not The Same As A Councils
In the opening sentence of Vatican II document Lumen Gentium is the phrase “sacrosancta synodus,” which translates to “sacred synod”or “sacred council.”
Synodus is actually a Greek word from which we get the word synod. In Latin, synodus and concilum (Latin for council) were used interchangeably in the Vatican II documents. Since Apostolica Sollicitudo, we reserve the word “council” for ecumenical councils and synod for smaller gathering.
An ecumenical councils such as Vatican II is a gathering of all the bishops of the world in union with the pope to discuss multiple issues of importance. These can take years to plan and to conduct. For example Vatican II was announced in 1959, convened in 1962, and concluded in 1965. To put this into perspective, the Council of Trent lasted 18 years. Of course, there was not world-wide media coverage in 1545.
Synods are often associated with the pope but they can be called by the bishop within the Curia such as the Pontifical Council for the Laity to gather experts on the laity. A national conference of bishops can call a synod to discuss a topic affecting the Church within that country. Local bishops can also call a synod within his diocese to discuss a topic.
Saint John Paul II felt the synod of bishops were so important that he had it put into Canon Law when it was revised in the early ’80s. According to Canon Law 342, Synods of Bishops are:
“a group of bishops who have been chosen from different regions of the world and meet together at fixed times to foster closer unity between the Roman Pontiff and bishops, to assist the Roman Pontiff with their counsel in the preservation and growth of faith and morals and in the observance and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline, and to consider questions pertaining to the activity of the Church in the world.”
Classifications For The Synod Of Bishops
When the pope calls a synod, he defines its importance by calling ordinary, special, and extraordinary.
Ordinary synods are for discussing issues such as “Preserving and Strengthening the Catholic Faith” or “The Consecrated Life and its Role in the Church and in the World” or “The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church”. These tend to be gathering of bishops from across the globe to get a representation of the entire Church. These are often planned many years in advance and occur at semi-regular intervals.
There have been 10 Special Synods called since 1980 to discuss the state of the Church is the various parts of the world. These tend to be focused on certain parts of the world such as Africa, Eastern Europe, or Latin America, only including the bishops from these areas. Saint John Paul used these extensively in preparation for the Jubilee Year celebration in 2000.
Since 1967, there have been three Extraordinary Synods to discuss issues of high importance. These tend to be much shorter notice in their preparation and include a more selected group of bishops from the whole Church.
The first extraordinary synod was in 1969 to address the issues of how the Vatican was to work with the Episcopal Conferences that were formed as a result of Vatican II. The second in 1985 was called by Pope John Paul II to address how the teachings of Vatican II had been implemented over the previous 20 years. From this Synod, we got the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992. The third was on the topic of “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization” and it closed October 18,2014 with this message.
Benefit to the Church
Across the massive array of cultures, the Church works to bring the unity of Christ to the Body. The advantage for the Church to have the bishop regularly meeting is that it help bring that unity which is a form of love which is a critical message of the Gospel.