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The Synod of Bishops, an Instrument of Collegiality

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 02, 2012

With the appointment today of the presidents for the 2012 Synod of Bishops—in this case cardinals from Hong Kong, Mexico and the Congo—it might be useful to review exactly what the Synod of Bishops is. In a nutshell, the Synod is an instrument of episcopal collegiality which grew out of the renewed emphasis on the dignity of the episcopate at the Second Vatican Council.

The keystone of Vatican II was the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). In that document, the most important and fully developed section emphasized the dignity and role of the bishops. The understanding of the Church in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had become in some ways too monarchical, with the bishops sometimes viewed as mere administrative functionaries of the Pope (on whom, of course, they do depend for their office and jurisdiction). There was perhaps insufficient awareness that the bishops have a special dignity as successors of the apostles in their own right. The Council wished to remind the Church that bishops, always and necessarily acting in union with their head, are both vicars of Christ in their own dioceses and members of a special “college” which, under the leadership of the successor of Peter, has a unique and grace-filled role in the governance of the whole Church.

The implications are enormous. To grasp them, it is necessary only to point out how easily individual bishops go astray when they fail to realize their deep connections with each other in union with their head, the Bishop of Rome; and also how difficult it is for the Church to experience a deep and genuine renewal when the individual bishops do not take responsibility, as members of a unique and apostolic college headed by the Pope, to actively foster the life of the universal Church in their own dioceses. Insofar as they are merely papal administrators, or insofar as they permit themselves to go their own way without a deep and abiding connection to the episcopal college and its head, bishops essentially fail.

Indeed, it is not too much to say that the renewal called for by Vatican II, and the whole program of renewal fostered throughout the long pontificate of Pope John Paul II, has depended upon the effort to get the world’s bishops to fully realize their special dignity and role, and to act accordingly. In recent memory, this has been a long hard road, but it is unquestionably true that authentic renewal has taken root most vigorously where the local bishop has fully understood his identity as a successor of the apostles, inculcating within his own special jurisdiction the Faith and life of the whole Church. In exactly the same way, authentic renewal has been consistently stymied where this has not been the case.

Now, this desired collegiality is not at all intended to be some sort of political concept, by which bishops strive to assert themselves over and against their collegial head. On the contrary, the whole point is that there should be a deeply unified sense of apostolic responsibility for the universal Church within particular dioceses. To foster this value, and to reap its benefits, Pope Paul VI decreed in 1965 in the motu proprio Apostolica sollicitudo the establishment of a permanent Synod of Bishops which could be called into session by the Holy Father periodically to assist him in assessing the problems and needs facing the Church. The Synod of Bishops, therefore, is designed to provide precisely the mutual benefit which it logically implies: It enables the Pope to benefit more easily from the insight and collaboration of his brothers in the episcopate, and it fosters in the individual bishops a deeper awareness of their responsibility within and for the universal Church.

In establishing the Synod, Pope Paul enumerated its purposes as follows. The general purposes, as quoted from Apostolica sollicitudo, are:

  1. to promote a closer union and greater cooperation between the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops of the whole world;
  2. to see to it that accurate and direct information is supplied on matters and situations that bear upon the internal life of the Church and upon the kind of action that should be carrying on in today's world;
  3. to facilitate agreement, at least on essential matters of doctrine and on the course of action to be taken in the life of the Church.

In addition, of course, the Synod has the “special and immediate” purpose of discussing “the specific business for which the Synod is called into session on any given occasion.”

The Synod is under the direct and immediate authority of the Pope in every respect, and it can be called into session in three different forms: General Session, Extraordinary Session, and Special Session. In its General mode, it is simply a periodic meeting with representative bishops from the various conferences around the world, along with representative heads of clerical religious institutes. In its Extraordinary mode, the Synod is convened outside the periodic schedule to discuss some specific problem, and its membership is somewhat smaller and more specific, including not mere representatives but the actual heads of the various conferences; and in its Special mode, the Synod deals with problems of a particular region, with representatives only from that region.

The Extraordinary mode has been used only twice, once in 1969 and again in 1985 when Pope John Paul II used the gathering as a major component in his long campaign to reclaim the meaning and implementation of the Second Vatican Council from the Modernist distortions which had plagued the Church during the preceding twenty years.

A brief explanation of the Synod of Bishops along with a list of all of its sessions to date is provided by the Vatican Press Office. The ongoing business of the Synod of Bishops is managed by a permanent office of the Synod of Bishops in Rome.

The topic for the thirteenth Ordinary General Assembly, which will convene this year on October 7th, is the “New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith”. As with other sessions of the Synod of Bishops, the topic was broached along with a series of questions (see the lineamenta, issued in March), to which those who will participate in the sessions have responded. From the responses, the Vatican issued the usual instrumentum laboris in June, the working document which will be the basis for discussion when the Synod is called into session in October.

Typically, a final document on the topic is issued by the Pope in the year following the Synod session. The whole process is an exercise of collegiality—a means of unifying the successors of the apostles under the successor of Peter to more effectively teach, rule and sanctify in the Church of Christ.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jul. 10, 2012 2:42 PM ET USA

    The national conferences of bishops accomplish very little, in my opinion; and they keep bishops from doing pastoral work at home. In my opinion, bishops conferences should be only in Synod with the Holy Father present at least most of the time.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jul. 03, 2012 5:15 PM ET USA

    It is fine to meditate on the grandeur of the physical event but we must acknowledge the fact that these bishops can commune with each other today with the touch of a button or the click of a mouse. In my humble opinion my intuitive sense tells me that they (the bishops) are simply choosing not to do this.

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