Notes on the Synodal Process
So as to fulfill its mission, the Synod of Bishops works according to a methodology based on collegiality, a concept which characterizes every stage of the synod process from the first steps of preparation to the conclusions reached in each synodal assembly. Briefly stated, the method of work alternates between analysis and synthesis, in consulting interested parties and decisions being made by competent authorities, according to a dynamic of feed-back which permits the continual verification of results and the making of new proposals. Each part of this process takes place within the climate of collegial communion.
Already in the preparatory stage, the topic of the synodal assembly is the result of collegiality. The first official step in the process is to consult the Eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris, Episcopal Conferences, department heads of the Roman Curia and the Union of Superiors General for suggestions on possible topics for a synod. As a rule, in ordinary general assemblies this consultation is anticipated by an informal solicitation of the synod fathers in the closing days of the synodal assembly for their preference in the matter. However, in each case the bishops are asked to keep in mind the following criteria:
a) that the topic have a universal character, that is, a reference and application to the whole Church;
b) that the topic have a contemporary character and urgency, in a positive sense, that is, having the capability of exciting new energies and movement in the Church towards growth;
c) that the topic have a pastoral focus and application as well as a firm doctrinal basis;
d) that the topic have a feasibility; in other words, that it have the potential actually to be accomplished.
The suggestions on a topic - which must be include reasons for the choice - are classified, analyzed and studied during a meeting of the Council of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops. Afterwards, the Council submits the meeting's results, together with pertinent recommendations, to the Holy Father who makes the final decision on the topic for treatment in the synodal assembly.
At the next meeting, the Council prepares an outline for developing and presenting the synod topic in the document called the Lineamenta. The drafting of this document represents the combined work of the Council members, theologians who have a certain expertise in the material to be treated in the synodal assembly, and the staff of the General Secretariat who coordinate the various efforts. After studying the text and making the necessary revisions, the Council drafts a final version which is submitted to the Holy Father for his approval. The document is then translated into the world's major languages and sent to the Church's episcopate for the purpose of generating at the local level study, discussion and prayer concerning the synod topic.
The Lineamenta from the Latin word meaning "outline" is by its nature very broad in scope and is meant to elicit a broad range of observations and reactions. Though the first and authoritative recipients of the Lineamenta are obviously the bishops and the bishops' conferences, they have full liberty to broaden their basis of consultation. After gathering and summarizing suggestions, reactions and responses to the various aspects of the Lineamenta topic, the bishops prepare a report or official response to the questions proposed in the document, which is then sent to the General Secretariat by a certain date.
After having received the above material, the Council of the General Secretariat - always with the help of specialists on the subject - proceeds to draft another document called the Instrumentum laboris, which will serve as the basis and reference-point during synodal discussion. This "working document", though rendered public, is only a provisional text which will be the object of discussion during the synod. The document is not a draft of the final conclusions but only a text which aims at helping to focus discussion on the synod topic. After subsequent submission and approval by the Holy Father the document is translated into the major languages and sent to the bishops and those members who will participate in the General Assembly. Since 1983 the Instrumentum laboris of a given synodal assembly has been made public so as to receive a wide circulation. The bishop-delegates and members read the document to familiarize themselves with the contents which will then be discussed at the synodal assembly.
As a result of preparation work in the local Churches, based on the above-mentioned documents, i.e., Lineamenta and Instrumentum laboris, the bishops are thereby able to present to the synodal assembly the experiences and aspirations of each community as well as the fruit of the preliminary discussions of the episcopal conferences.
Three phases characterize the Synod's working sessions:
a. during the first phase, each member makes a presentation of the situation in his particular Church. This encourages an exchange of faith and cultural experiences on the synod topic and contributes an initial picture of the Church situation, which, nevertheless, needs greater development and refinement.
b. In light of these presentations, the Rapporteur of the Synod formulates a series of points for discussion during the second phase, when all the synod members divide into small groups circuli minores - according to the various languages spoken. The reports of each one of these groups are read in the plenary session. At this time, the synod fathers are given the opportunity to pose questions to clarify the subjects expressed and are able to make comments.
c. In the third phase, work proceeds in the small groups towards formulating suggestions and observations in a more precise and definite form, so that in the final days of the assembly a vote can be taken on concrete propositions. The synod fathers’ initial work in the small groups is to compose various propositions on the basis of the discussion in the synod hall and the reports of the small groups. In the small groups, the synod fathers can vote on a proposition with a "placet" (yes) or "non placet" (no). The propositions of the small groups are then taken by the General Rapporteur and Special Secretary and combined into an Integrated List of Propositions which is presented by the General Rapporteur in plenary session. Afterwards, the small groups again meet to discuss the propositions. At this time, the synod fathers can submit individual amendments for consideration by the group, which will be used in composing the collectively voted upon amendments to the propositions which are expected from each group. The General Rapporteur and the Special Secretary give consideration to these collective amendments and may or may not incorporate them in the final list of propositions, depending on their decision, which, in case of refusal, have to give the basis for their decision in a document called the Expensio modorum. The final list of propositions is then presented in plenary session, after which the booklet becomes the ballot where each synod father can vote for or against the proposition.
At the end of a synodal assembly, the General Secretary oversees the work of archiving the material and drafting the report on the work of the synod for submission to the Holy Father. No established norm exists concerning the final document from the synodal assembly. At the conclusion of the first three synodal Assemblies (1967 and 1971 Ordinary General Assemblies and the 1969 Extraordinary General Assembly) the conclusions were submitted to the attention of the Pope with recommendations in response to problems expressed. Instead, after the 1974 Third Ordinary General Assembly the Holy Father himself, taking into account the synodal propositions and final reports, drafted the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi. A similar process was followed in the remaining Ordinary General Synodal Assemblies (1977, 1980, 1983, 1987, 1990, 1994, 2001, 2005), from which the following Apostolic Exhortations are associated respectively, Catechesi tradendæ, Familiaris consortio, Reconciliatio et pænitentia, Christifideles laici, Pastores dabo vobis, Vita consecrata, Pastores gregis and Sacramentum caritatis.
At the conclusion of the Special Assembly for Africa (1994), the Holy Father promulgated the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Africa which bore many positive results in pastoral initiatives on this continent. Subsequent to publishing a document on the impact and implementation of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the level of the local Church, attention was given to the feasability of a II Special Assembly. On 13 November 2004, Pope John Paul II announced the convocation of a II Special Assembly for Africa, which was later reconfirmed by the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in the Weekly General Audience of 22 June 2005.
In May, 1997, the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation for the Special Assembly for Lebanon (1995) was published during a papal trip to Lebanon as part of the celebration phase of the Special Assembly. On 23 January 1999 the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation for the Special Assembly for America was promulgated by the Holy Father in Mexico at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. On 6 November 1999 the Post-Synodal Exhortation for Asia was signed by the Holy Father in Delhi, India.
Since the 1987 Synod, the various Councils of the General Secretariat and the General Secretary have been collegially involved in the process leading to the publication of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, the papal document coming from the synod. It is interesting to note the history and development of these Councils.Between the second and third synodal Assemblies, an advisory Council for the General Secretariat was formed, made up of 12 elected bishops and 3 papal appointees. Such a Council first met from 12-15 May 1970 and was intended to facilitate communication with episcopal conferences and the formulation of the agenda for the subsequent assembly. After this meeting, a general consultation of the bishops worldwide was begun for suggested topics for future Assemblies (such consultation now begins in the final days of an Ordinary General Assembly).
Since that time the Ordinary Councils of the General Secretariat, elected from each synod in light of preparation for the following one, have become a permanent feature of the General Secretariat:
- Second Ordinary Council (6.11.1971 - 27.09.1974)
- Third Ordinary Council (26.10.1974 - 30.09.1977)
- Fourth Ordinary Council (29.10.1977 - 26.09.1980)
- Fifth Ordinary Council (25.10.1980 - 29.09.1983)
- Sixth Ordinary Council (29.10.1983 - 1.10.1987)
- Seventh Ordinary Council (30.10.1987 - 30.09.1990)
- Eighth Ordinary Council (28.10.1990 - 2.10.1994)
- Ninth Ordinary Council (29.10.1994 - 30.09.2001)
- Tenth Ordinary Council (26.10.2001 - 2.10.2005)
- Eleventh Ordinary Council (15.10.2005 - 5.10.2008)
With the advent of continental or regional synodal assemblies, the Holy Father chose to form during the special assemblies post-synodal councils through election and papal appointment. As a result, in addition to the Ordinary Council, the General Secretariat has in existence the following Post-Synodal Councils from their date of institution. With the revision of the Ordo Synodi Episcoporum (2006), these councils are now called “Special Councils”:
- Special Council for the Netherlands (31.01.1980)
- Special Council for Africa (8.05.1994)
- Special Council for Lebanon (14.12.1995)
- Special Council for America (12.12.1997)
- Special Council for Asia (14.05.May 1998)
- Special Council for Oceania (11.12.1998)
- Special Council for Europe (22.10.1999)
Similarly, in the preparation of a Special Assembly, the Holy Father appointed a group of bishops, primarily from the continent and region under consideration, to form pre-synodal Councils. These Councils endured from the date of appointment until the first day of the synodal assembly. Therefore, the following is a listing of past pre-synodal councils along with their dates of existence:
- Pre-Synodal Council for Africa (6.01.1989 - 10.04.1994)
- Pre-Synodal Council for Lebanon (24.01.1992 - 26.11.1995)
- Pre-Synodal Council for America (12.06.1995 - 16.11.1997)
- Pre-Synodal Council for Asia (10.09.1995 - 19.04.1998)
- Pre-Synodal Council for Oceania (7.06.1996 - 22.11.1998)
- Pre-Synodal Council for Europe (9.02.1997 - 1.10.1999)
As can be observed, the collegial methodology is operative from the very beginning (through the choice of topic), during the preparation (through the development of the topic in the Lineamenta) and the actual celebration of the Synod Assembly, to the publication of the document, which is the fruit and crowning-point of the synod itself. In this way, it can be said that the synod works as a collegial body through which, in the first stage, the faith and life experiences of the Christian communities are taken into account; later, in plenary sessions, these elements are recapitulated and enlightened by faith and then, in a spirit of communion, propositions are formulated which, from the Holy Father, who is the principle of unity in the Church, return to the particular Churches as the oxygenated blood returns to arteries to vivify the human body.
So that this collegiality can fully realize its potential, it is necessary that a selfless spirit of collaboration exist among all those called upon to participate in the preparation of a synodal Assembly, particularly the Eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris and the Episcopal Conferences which gather the Pastors of the local Churches where the faith of the People of God is lived and experienced in all its vigor and richness. The principle way in which the collegial participation of the episcopal bodies receives concrete form is in their responses to the Lineamenta. The greater the number of episcopal bodies which respond, the more rich and varied will be the elements which, faithfully reflecting the life of the local Churches, constitute true reference points for both the drafting of the Instrumentum laboris, and the discussion in the synod hall during a synodal Assembly.
[Original text in English by the General Secretariate of the Synod of Bishops]