MILWAUKEE — Although many Catholics are familiar with synods convened in Rome, some are unfamiliar with those held at the diocesan level.

While select bishops from around the world are finishing up the Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family at the Vatican, several U.S. bishops are convening their own synods at home.

They’re following the direction of Pope Francis, who told them, on June 29, “Synodality should be lived at various levels.” Synods offer a way the Church can renew herself, encouraging ongoing institutional and personal renewal. Through them, we learn that “we must walk together: the people, the bishops and the pope.”

But what happens at a synod? The Second Vatican Council’s Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church suggests an answer. There, the Council expressed an “earnest desire” to reinvigorate structures at the service of ecclesial communion and mission (36). Pope Paul VI instituted the permanent structure of the World Synod of Bishops on Sept. 15, 1965, as a privileged sign of the participation of bishops in the office and ministry of the pope.

Since 1965, 10 special assemblies, 13 ordinary general assemblies and two extraordinary general assemblies have taken place.

Vatican synods are expressions of ecclesial communion at the service of the Church’s universal mission, bringing together select bishops from particular parts of the world on a quasi-biannual schedule. But, since the earliest times, another structure — the diocesan synod — has occasioned local ecclesial co-responsibility. The 1983 Code of Canon Law sets down diocesan synodal legislation in Canons 460-468.

The code defines synods as “an assembly of selected priests and other members of Christ’s faithful” of a local Church, such as a diocese or archdiocese, that “assists the … bishop” in ministering to the “whole diocesan community.” As such, the bishop is the one who is tasked with calling and presiding over a synod, which he can do only after he consults his priest council.

The synod “consists properly of the synodal sessions,” spread “over a period of time, so as to permit sufficient time to study the questions raised during the sessions, as well as to make interventions during the discussions.”


Prayerful Experiences

In accordance with the Caeremoniale Episcoporum, the official book containing the liturgies Latin-rite bishops celebrate, opening and closing liturgies ensure synods are deeply prayerful experiences. While the liturgies are public, only official delegates attend the synodal sessions, which “should be held in the cathedral, the location of the bishop’s ‘cathedra’ and visible image of Christ’s Church.”

The bishop — who is the “sole legislator” or lawgiver in the diocese — signs and publishes the declarations that come out of the synod, and he communicates them to the metropolitan bishop, who oversees his province, and the national bishops’ conference. A 1997 instruction of the Vatican’s Congregations for Bishops and the Evangelization of Peoples additionally requires their submission to Rome. But since bishops are Christ’s representatives in their own dioceses, synodal declarations do not require official approval from Rome; they become effective when the bishop signs them.

Although bishops have always presided over synods, lay and non-Catholic participation is a newer reality. In fact, the 1917 Code of Canon Law did not require the involvement of laypeople, but permitted bishops to “call others to the synod.”

Now, the 1983 code specifically requires the invitation of “lay members of the Christian faithful.” Whereas the 1917 code envisioned synods as exclusively in-house Church events, the 1983 code explicitly permits the bishop to invite “other ministers or members of churches or ecclesial communities which are not in full communion with the Catholic Church” (Canon 463). Thus, today’s synods encourage lay involvement and ecumenism.

Pre-conciliar law required diocesan synods once every decade. The 1983 code permitted bishops to determine the frequency of synods. Nevertheless, diocesan synods were rare events. In the New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, Barbara Anne Cusack notes, “In many dioceses, prior to the 1983 code, there were few who could recall a previous synod having occurred.” But in at least three dioceses in the United States — Washington, Milwaukee and Bridgeport, Conn. — there is a current renaissance.


Archdiocese of Washington

In October of 2011, Cardinal Donald Wuerl discussed the possibility of a diocesan synod with his administrative board, which welcomed the idea. According to Mark Zimmermann, editor of the archdiocesan newspaper, the Catholic Standard, Cardinal Wuerl conceived of the synod as “the centerpiece of the Archdiocese of Washington’s 75th anniversary commemoration.”

During Lent of 2012, the delegates to the synod were selected. And between September 2012 and May 2014, they deliberated over some 15,000 suggestions for diocesan improvements in the areas of worship, education, community, service, stewardship and administration, which ordained and lay members of the archdiocese submitted to the synod’s central organizers.

On June 8, the Solemnity of Pentecost, Cardinal Wuerl convoked the archdiocese’s first synod. During Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, he approved the synod’s statues and recommendations and presented them in a post-synodal declaration entitled “Manifesting the Kingdom.”

His pastoral letter, addressed to the clergy, religious and laity of the archdiocesan community, represented the fruit of two years of synodal preparations. But the synod was not an end; it was a beginning.

As Cardinal Wuerl told readers of his June 3 “Teaching of Christ” column, “The conclusion of our synod is not so much an ending as it is a new beginning. This renewal of faith and fervor in our spiritual family was not meant to be a onetime event for the history books, but instead had the purpose of forming, informing and directing the mission and life in the Spirit of our local Church into the future, as we continue to manifest the kingdom of God in our community.”


Archdiocese of Milwaukee

On the feast of the Baptism of the Lord in 2013, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki promulgated a pastoral letter entitled “Who Do You Say That I Am?” indicating interest in a possible synod. On Pentecost Sunday, he officially announced the synod, declaring it would occasion “the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Church, fashioning us as the people of God and directing us toward lives of holiness through the challenges of the Gospel.”

Previous decades of scandal left the archdiocese bankrupt, but Archbishop Listecki believed a synod would be “a New Pentecost” for local renewal.

He opened the synod the following Pentecost weekend. From June 6-8, synod delegates finalized a year of parish- and district-level study and discussion, which generated eight major themes: liturgy, cultural diversity, evangelization, formation, Catholic social teaching, marriage and family, stewardship and leadership.

During the synod, delegates proposed key initiatives for the archbishop’s consideration and assisted at opening and closing liturgies and daily prayer at the archdiocesan cathedral and pastoral center, entrusting their work to Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II.

The synod’s plenary sessions collected advisory votes on key initiatives. Overall, votes reflected a need for better catechetical instruction for the archdiocesan community and more rigorous formation for lay ecclesial leaders. Thirty-four percent of the delegates voted for better liturgical catechesis, 22% voted for episcopal leadership in social justice, 23% asked for stronger education in the work of evangelization, and 27% expressed a desire for universal, quality faith formation. Thirty-one percent called for multigenerational Catholic social-teaching formation, 30% backed campaigns to build stronger Catholic families, 27% welcomed training for parish action groups, and 26% desired better formation for lay leaders.

On Sept. 14, Archbishop Listecki promulgated his post-synodal declaration, outlining his pastoral priorities for the next decade.  


Diocese of Bridgeport

After his installation as the fifth bishop of Bridgeport on Sept. 19, 2013, Bishop Frank Caggiano began a listening tour of the diocese’s parishes and schools. Last July, he told America magazine, “Soon after I began to visit the different parishes and schools, I realized there was a need to engage the laity in a very significant way,” discerning that the “best vehicle” for that engagement would be a diocesan synod.

In a pastoral letter dated Feb. 22, he announced his diocese’s fourth synod, indicating that it would be “a great undertaking” of divine inspiration, like those held in 1961, 1971 and 1981. More than 400 ordained and lay delegates will participate in the synod across five general sessions between September 2014 and September 2015.

Pre-synodal preparations May 5-June 21 consisted of listening sessions and delegate formation. Every parish and school held its own listening session with key archdiocesan leaders. Delegates attended online theological lectures at Fordham University.

Bishop Caggiano then presided over seven consultation sessions in five vicariates. Afterwards, he celebrated vespers for the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul at the diocesan Cathedral of St. Augustine. There, he announced the synod’s particular topics: building a bridge to the future together by empowering the young Church; building up communities of faith; fostering evangelical outreach; and promoting works of charity and justice.

After September 2015, Bishop Caggiano will appoint study committees to develop post-synodal pastoral plans for the next half decade.

These synodal experiences have helped dioceses celebrate their past accomplishments, chart a course out of crisis and facilitate communion between a new bishop and his people. Additionally, they have helped local Churches recommit to the work of mission and evangelization as they proclaim the "joy of the Gospel" before the world.

Register correspondent John Paul Shimek writes from Manitowoc, Wisconsin.