By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC
Pope Francis has begun a consultation process around synodality to culminate with the General Ordinary Roman Synod scheduled for the Fall of 2023. A bold and much welcome initiative.
The re-introduction of the synod as part of the ecclesiastical apparatus of governance occurred under Pope Paul VI in 1969 and was not without controversy. Many hoped that it would have a legislative function but that was not to be the case. Its role was consultative only.
But the synods—exclusively episcopal in their composition—although hampered by limits on their authority proved to be of great value to the church. And although the voting members were bishops only, various auditors were allowed to attend, press conferences were held daily, and the debates and publications associated with the synod proceedings were as open as the Vatican felt comfortable with: meaning, strongly edited.
The importance of the synod was underscored by the themes addressed (Lineamenta), the time allotted for preparation, the surveys, preparatory research, discussions, the working document circulated well in advance (Instrumentum Laboris) prior to convocation of synod, the delegate reports (interventiones), language groups (circuli minores), final submission (propositiones) and then the post-synod reflection by the Bishop of Rome.
The initial structure was commendable; the process generally comprehensible, but the results were often less than laudable, however, and there are reasons for that.
The synods under Paul VI were few—he died less than a decade after instituting them—and one, in particular, proved to be impressively prescient.
But as organs of authority and as vehicles of credibility synods during the pontificate of John Paul II had a checkered history.
I was a credentialled journalist to the Press Office of the Holy See for many of the Ordinary and Extraordinary Synods during the Karol Wojtyla papacy and they were times of elation and despondency.
For the month of June I am going to reflect on how the synods evolved, the high and low points from my vantage point, the characters and politics of the process.