VATICAN CITY (CNS) – When Pope Francis was introduced to the world from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, he spoke to the crowd about taking up a journey, "bishop and people," a "journey of fraternity, of love, of trust among us."
He did not mention the Synod of Bishops in that greeting on March 13, 2013, nor did he issue one of his now-frequent appeals to ensure a more "synodal church."
But the inspiration behind the assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which opens Oct. 4, can be seen in his very first words as pope and in his course-setting exhortation, "Evangelii Gaudium" ("The Joy of the Gospel"), which emphasized the responsibility of all the baptized for the life of the church and, especially, its evangelizing mission.
Unlike earlier meetings of the Synod of Bishops, which focused on a specific issue or a specific region of the world, the "synod on synodality" is focused on the church itself: Who belongs? How are leadership and authority exercised? How does the church discern God's call? How can it fulfill its mandate to share the Gospel with a changing world?
Members of the synod assembly are being asked to reflect on the characteristics they believe are essential for building a "synodal church" by starting from what they heard from people who participated in the local, diocesan, national and continental listening sessions.
It's not a synod on whether and how Catholic parishes can be more welcoming of LGBT Catholics, how it can recognize and encourage the leadership of women or how it can foster the involvement of young people – but those questions are part of the discussion about how to increase a sense of unity or communion, promote participation and strengthen the missionary outreach of the church.
The questions, and dozens more, have come up repeatedly in the synod process, which began in October 2021 with parish and other local listening sessions and is scheduled to go through October 2024 with a second assembly at the Vatican.
Almost every time someone mentions the synod within earshot of the pope, Pope Francis insists "it's not a parliament."
And the pope, the synod secretariat and the synod preparatory commission have spent months working on ways to ensure the 378 full members of the synod, the eight special guests and 75 experts, facilitators and staff have an experience of "spiritual conversation," which the synod office describes as intense, prayerful listening that pays attention at the same time to spiritual movements in oneself and in the other person.
Creating and protecting an environment where such conversations can take place – and where people truly are open to changing their minds – has been a matter of strategizing, planning and intense debate as advisers to the pope and the synod office also try to help the entire Catholic Church understand how the process is working and whether the hopes and concerns they shared early in the synod process were heard.
A regular rhythm of shared prayer – both publicly and among synod members only – is planned throughout the Oct. 4-Oct. 29 synod assembly.
After an ecumenical prayer vigil in St. Peter's Square Sept. 30, all the members of the synod – which include lay women and men for the first time – will spend three days together on retreat outside Rome. They will return to the Vatican for the opening Mass of the synod Oct. 4 and will celebrate Mass together before beginning work on each main synod theme: synodality, communion, mission and participation.
Pope Francis told reporters in early September the synod would be "very open" with regular updates from the synod's communication commission, but " it is necessary to safeguard the religiosity and safeguard the freedom of those who speak," so apparently, synod members will be asked not to share with reporters the contents of their own or other members' remarks to the synod.
The notoriously stuffy atmosphere characterized by hours of speeches in the Vatican Synod Hall will disappear. The synod assembly will be held in the much larger Vatican audience hall with its rows of seats removed to make way for round tables to promote constant interactions.
More of the work will be conducted in small groups, organized by language and by the themes of interest to participants. The plenary sessions are designed for a general introduction of the various themes and for reporting the results of the small group discussions. Members will not stay in the same small groups throughout the assembly but change when the themes they are working on change.
According to the working document, "the last segment of the work of the assembly will be dedicated to gathering the fruits of the process, that is, discerning the paths we will continue to walk together. The assembly will consider ways to continue reading the experience of the people of God, including through promoting the necessary in-depth theological and canonical studies in preparation for the second session of the synodal assembly in October 2024."