With the release of the apostolic constitution “Episcopalis communio” on Sept. 18, His Holiness, Pope Francis, has ordered a change to the way that the Catholic Church understands the authority and work of assemblies of bishops.
The Synod of Bishops, which grew as a concept out of the Second Vatican Council, was, in fact, an ancient idea given new life by Blessed Pope Paul VI.
Synods come from two concepts: first, that a bishop holds responsibility and pastoral care not only for his own diocese, but also for the universal Church, and second, according to Pope Francis, the Synod “is called, like any other ecclesiastical institution, to become more and more an adequate channel for the evangelization of the present world, rather than for self-preservation.”
The Synod of Bishops is meant to be a consultative process involving not only the pope listening to the bishops, but also the bishops themselves listening to the people of God. The document states: “Although in its composition it appears as an essentially episcopal organism, the Synod does not therefore live separately from the rest of the faithful. On the contrary, it is an instrument apt to give voice to the whole People of God, precisely through the Bishops, who are constituted by God as, “authentic guardians, interpreters and witnesses of the faith of the whole Church,” showing itself from Assembly to Assembly to be an eloquent expression of synodality as “[a] constitutive dimension of the Church.”
In “Episcopalis communio,” Pope Francis states that the People of God must listen to the bishops when they teach in communion with the pope and that the faithful must be in agreement with the judgment of the bishops. The bishop, acting as head and shepherd, must faithfully lead his flock and also listen to the voice of Christ speaking through the People of God. Thus, the Synod of Bishops calls the bishops and the Pope to listen carefully and to consult broadly in the preparatory process for a synod to the voice of the faithful. This is done to assure even more collegiality between the pope, the bishops, and the faithful.
Perhaps the greatest change to Synods is in the doctrinal weight of the final document of a Synod. Article 18 § 2 reads, “If expressly approved by the Roman Pontiff, the final document participates in the ordinary Magisterium of the Successor to Peter.”
Concretely, what does this mean? To put it simply, things just got a lot more consultative and collegial in Vatican’s synods. What will this look like in the Church? Let’s wait to see in next month’s Synod on Youth.