We Are Church Intl.

The Synod of Bishops

This overview has been compiled from information in the Code of Canon Law, documents of and post Vatican II, and "Inside the Vatican" by Thomas Reese SJ. In this book the chapter on "The Synod of Bishops" is recommended.


Assemblies of the Synod of Bishops
Topics to be discussed at Assemblies of the Synod of Bishops. 
Administration of the Synod of Bishops 
Council of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops 
Key Figures in the Assembly of the Synod of Bishops
Timetable of an Assembly of the Synod of Bishops 
Subjects of Assemblies of the Synod of Bishops 
Some Reflections on the Whole Process


The Bishops at Vatican II were keen on setting up a structure so that they had a very real voice in the government of the Church their hopes were considerably watered down in the document by Paul VI that created the Synod of Bishops.(1)

Although there may have been disappointment the Bishops continued to hope that by frequent assemblies the Synod would play a vital role in the post-Vatican II Church. At first it was planned to hold assemblies every two years but this was found to be far too short a period. Four years seemed a better time span.


Each Conference of Bishops, usually defined by national or major regional boundaries, elects delegates to the Synod of Bishops.

If an ecumenical council is not held the Synod of Bishops is the voice of the Episcopal College and theoretically an opportunity for international discussion and advice to be given to the Pope. Unless given permission by the Pope the Synod of Bishops cannot make decisions.

Assemblies of the Synod of Bishops


Take place in the Vatican, normally in the month of October.

Delegates come from or through:

  • Bishops' conferences - one to four delegates. These must be acceptable to the Pope.
  • Union of Superiors General - elects ten ordained Religious

New delegates are elected every time.

  • Eastern Catholic Churches - 14 patriarchs and metropolitans are ex-officio members
  • Roman Curia - some 30 Cardinal heads of offices are ex-officio members.
  • Papal discretion - the Pope appoints extra voting bishops or clergy amounting to 15% of the assembly.

Thomas Reese says (2) "(The) issues discussed at ordinary synods, although important, are of such a general nature that the discussions are often more theoretical than practical."


These address issues relating to a particular region or nation and do not need necessarily to take place in Rome. However this is location where they are normally convened.

Delegates are drawn from Patriarchs, Bishops and (male) Religious of that region or nation.

Heads of Curial Offices with responsibilities in the subject of the assembly also attend, ex-officio.


These offer a 'rapid response' in order to find a solution to matters that require immediate and quick attention.

No elections are needed.

In attendance are Curial Officials, Patriarchs and Metropolitans from the Eastern Churches, 3 representatives from the Union of Superior Generals. This total in increased by 15% by papal appointees. Also present are Presidents of Episcopal Conferences (It is deemed that the democratic nature of the assembly is maintained because episcopal conferences elect their presidents.)

Topics to be discussed at Assemblies of the Synod of Bishops.

The Pope decides on the topic for discussion, although he may seek suggestions from the Bishops. It is customary for an Ordinary Assembly to conclude by suggesting possibiities for the next assembly.

Consultation also takes place after the Ordinary Assembly with various groupings of delegates being asked to send in three topics, ranked in order of preference. Even then the Pope may decide to override all the suggestions and choose something completely different.

Administration of the Synod of Bishops

Council of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops

Three members are elected by those who attend an Ordinary Assembly from each of the continents: Africa, Asia, Europe, America.

The Pope appoints three more members "to get more balance on the council" (3) A regular and usual appointment is that of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Holy Office /Holy Inquisition).

The Pope appoints particular pre-assembly councils for 'Special' assemblies. It has happened that the papal choice has been of elected leaders of episcopal conferences. This meant that the council kept altering as new elections took place.

It meets three or four times a year and is the decision making, subject to papal approval, body supported by the General Sectratatiat.

It often works in language groups, reporting back to the plenary session.

The General Secretariat

Function: preparation and smooth running of the Assembly together post-Assembly work. Reese adds that it is "the institutional memory of the synod."


The General Secretary, currently Jan Cardinal Schotte who has been in post since 1985, has direct access to the Pope and often "interprets the mind of the pope to the counrcil and synod delegates."

There is also a small permanent staff of ordained and non-ordained that is increased on an ad hot basis when required.

Preparation of an Assembly of the Synod of Bishops

After consultation with experts the Council draws up a document outlining topics to be addressed at the Assembly. It is called a 'Lineamenta'. Its purpose is to stimulate discussion and response. This process takes from six months to a year. Responses, which are supposed to be secret, are reviewed according to whether they are 'official' (from groups who will be attending the particular Assembly) or 'unofficial' (from individual Bishops or others.)

From this material the Council and the General Secretariat staff draw up a working paper for the Assembly. This is the 'instrumentum Laboris', a public document designed both for the delegates to the Assembly and to encourage further discussion throughout the Church.

The Council's work is finished as an Ordinary Assembly begins. It's members may take part but all await the election of a new Council before the return home.

Key figures in the Assembly of the Synod of Bishops


A Bishops appointed by the Pope to facilitate discussion and foster consensus on conclusions. He is assisted by a SPECIAL SECRETARY who is an expert on the topic of the Assembly. About 30 days before the Assembly he prepares and sends out a report to delegates.


Appointed by the Pope to chair the meetings.

Timetable of an Assembly of the Synod of Bishops

  1. Celebration of the Eucharist in St Peter's. [Only the ceremonial occasions are open to the public.]
  2. Report by the General Secretary on work of General Secretariat and the Council since the last Assembly.
    Summary and explanation of his report by the Relator.
  3. A series of 8 minute speeches in which each delegate has an opportunity to express his views on the topic of the Assembly. Some episcopal conferences coordinate their presentations, but others leave it to the individual Bishop who often writes his speech before arriving in Rome. In the latter case this part of the assembly can appear like a verbal patchwork quilt.
  4. Observers, approved by the Pope, are given an opportunity to speak and often have more time than 8 minutes.
  5. After two weeks of these presentations, which are summed up by the Relator, the Assembly breaks up into discussion groups based on languages. These groups may be quite large, 23 or 24 people. A group Moderator is appointed together with a Group Relator who presents the group's views to the Assembly. 
    Individuals have an opportunity to make a 5 minute response and then, if recommendations are going to be made to the Pope, the language groups reconvene to formulate a list of "propositions" or recommendations.
  6. In the last week of the Assembly a drafting commission [President, Assembly Relator, Secretary, Group Relators plus assistants appointed by the President.] Meanwhile the rest of the Assembly deals with other business or hears reports from Vatican officials. These reports may be made public but the questions asked about them by the Bishops and the responses given are not. After the drafting commission has presented its text, officially in Latin although translations may be available, there are discussions and plenary debate. Bishops vote 'yes', 'no' or 'yes, with reservations'. In the last situtation the Bishop must submit his amendment or reservations in wrting in Latin. The drafting commission has the discretion to accept or reject amendments. (Thomas Reese gives more detail in his book.) Documents are usually agreed overwhelmingly but consensus often means that controversial recommendations are dropped.
  7. After the Assembly the newly elected Council of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops help the Pope draft his post-synodal document.

Subjects of Assemblies of the Synod of Bishops

Ordinary Assemblies

1967: Challenges to faith; revisions of the Code of Code of Canon Law; seminaries; mixed marriages; liturgy.

1971: Ministerial priesthood and justice in the world

1974: Evangelisation in the modern world

1977: Catechesis in our time

1980: The Christian family

1983: Penance and reconciliation in the mission of the Church

1987: The vocation and mission of the lay faithful in the Church and in the world.

1990: The formation of priests in circumstances of the present day

1994: The consecrated life and its role in the Church and in the world.

Extraordinary Assemblies

1969: The collegiality of the bishops with the pope; the role of episcopal conferences.

1985: The twentieth anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council.

Special Assemblies

1991 & 1999: Europe

1996: Africa

1997: Asia

1997: Oceania

1998: America

Some Reflections on the Whole Process

Thomas Reese considers that the most important function of the synod is to bring bishops together from all over the the world. They can share ideas and experiences in the assembly and informally outside it.

Secrecy enables delegates to express their views freely and protects the Pope's freedom to reject the suggestions. However episcopal conferences do not know how well they were represented at the Assembly. The majority of Christ's Faithful are also denied any sharing in the experience.

The spokesperson for the Assembly is the Director of the Vatican Press Office but the General Secretary, Relator and various delegates may also give press conferences. It must be noted that nothing is done officially by either the Press Office or the Assembly Secretariat to aid contact between bishops and the media. Summaries of interventions are made available but more controversial comments are often deleted.

The system inherent in the current Synod of Bishops is weak because:

  • The secretariat is not independent of the executive
  • There are no standing committees
  • Bishops may only be elected for one Assembly, whereas Curial officials are often permanent members.
  • Ecclesiastical mores and deference, even to the extent of quoting the Pope to himself, inhibit free, creative and critical intervention

"(F)or the church to be truly Catholic, the college of bishops must have an important role in the governance of the church."(4)


(1) Motu proprio Apostolica Sollicitudo - 15 Sept 1965

(2) Thomas Reese, 'Inside the Vatican', p 48

(3) ibid, p 47

(4) ibid, p 65