What is a Synod?

Our Church is about to embark on something ancient.  However, it will feel “new” to many of us. It begins on 10/9-10, 2021 in Rome and on 10/17/2021 for the universal Church.  What is it?  Read on for a simple beginning explanation.

What is it that’s ever ancient and yet new?  It’s a synod to talk about synodality.  And if that’s not enough to make you just want to stop reading and turn on Netflix, I don’t know what is.  But stay with me for just a few paragraphs, because this is really an exciting time to be a Catholic lay person!

The word synod comes from the Greek and it means “assembly.”  So, our Church is convening an assembly to talk about assembling?  Is that what you are saying?  Well, yes…and more.  Pope Francis has called for our Church to enter into a three year process of assembling the various constituencies who make up the Church in order to develop our understanding of this way of assembling, listening, and discerning the voice of the Spirit.  Why?  The Pope is convinced “It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church in the third millennium.”[i]

What’s new about this?  The inclusion of all people who make up the Church rather than just the clergy, or the clergy of a certain rank or responsibility.  It is the Holy Father’s intention that the first phase of “assembling” include the lay faithful; the lay who are on the peripheries, without place or voice to be heard; the lay who have disengaged from a life of faith; and, the lay who do not belong to the Catholic fold but would like to say something to the Church, for the good of the Church.  And this friends, hearkens to the early days of the Church, to the Council of Jerusalem in about 49AD where an assembly gathered to determine if Gentiles who wished to follow Jesus had to become Jews in body, mind and spirit.  The Holy Spirit spoke within this assembly, and that Wisdom was carried to Jerusalem where it was discerned to be in accordance with Jesus’ way, truth and life.  This decision reached by the process of synodality then influenced the course of Christianity by enacting a new set of rules about how Gentiles live as faithful followers of Jesus.  It is this process of praying, speaking-listening, discerning and then finding the way forward in teaching, sanctifying and governing that the Holy Father believes is the way for the Church to respond to the needs of this millennium.  It is not the work or responsibility solely of Bishops, Cardinals, the Roman Curia or the Pope.  This is the work of the entire People of God who agree to assemble for this work, as a sign of fidelity to the Holy Spirit’s living presence, as an act of faith in the unseen but powerful Wisdom of the Spirit and as an act of trust in the sensus fidelium. 

What’s the subject for this synod?  To learn to practice the process of synodality, to discover its ability to help the Church listen to the Holy Spirit; to find the ways to carry it out in the midst of a global pandemic, in an increasingly interdependent world, across the many divisions within the Church; and to discover how this Spirit driven process and its Spirit-inspired messages inform the way the Church responds to the hopes, dreams, joys and sorrows of the people of this age.  The Preparatory Document for the Synod[ii] says the basic question is this:  “How does this ‘journeying together,’ which takes place today on different levels (from the local level to the universal one) allow the Church to proclaim the Gospel in accordance with the mission entrusted to Her; and what steps does the Spirit invite us to take in order to grow as a synodal Church?”[iii]  The document refers to this as a “synodal conversion”[iv] and states that these outcomes are “of great importance for the quality of ecclesial life and for accomplishing the mission of evangelization.”[v]

So in about a month our Church will embark on the first year of this process.  Look for opportunities to gather with others to pray, listen-speak, discern and then share the content of your conversation.  Don’t find an opportunity near you?  Don’t get invited to participate?  Stay tuned.  We’ll find a way to participate in this together!

And between now and then, why not begin to pray the official prayer for the Synod?

We stand before You, Holy Spirit,
as we gather in Your name.

With You alone to guide us,
make Yourself at home in our hearts;
Teach us the way we must go
and how we are to pursue it.

We are weak and sinful;
do not let us promote disorder.
Do not let ignorance lead us down the wrong path
nor partiality influence our actions.

Let us find in You our unity
so that we may journey together to eternal life
and not stray from the way of truth
and what is right.

All this we ask of You,
who are at work in every place and time,
in the communion of the Father, and the Son,
forever and ever. 



[i] FRANCIS, Address for the ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops (17 October 2015)  in English Version of the Preparatory Document.   p. 2  http://www.synod.va/en/documents/english-version-of-the-preparatory-document.html  Accessed 9-13-21
[ii] http://www.synod.va/en/documents/english-version-of-the-preparatory-document.html  Accessed 9-13-21
[iii] Ibid. p. 2
[iv] Ibid. p. 3
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Vandecum. p. 3  http://www.synod.va/en/documents/vademecum.html


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As I write this, it’s just under a month until the first phase of the Church’s Synod on the process of synodality is to begin.