US Dioceses Prep for the Upcoming Synod on Synodality

The USCCB’s guidelines state the long-term goal of the Synod on Synodality is transforming how the Church approaches decision-making together ‘through communion, participation and mission.’

Pope Francis leads the opening procession of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region from St. Peter's Basilica to the Synod Hall with an opening prayer on Oct. 7, 2019.
Pope Francis leads the opening procession of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region from St. Peter's Basilica to the Synod Hall with an opening prayer on Oct. 7, 2019. (photo: Daniel Ibanez / CNA/EWTN)

WASHINGTON — Dioceses and archdioceses across the United States are studying the Vatican’s guidelines and U.S. bishops’ recommendations for beginning the diocesan phase of the Synod on Synodality that could transform how laity and clergy contribute to the decision-making processes of the Catholic Church.

The Synod on Synodality officially opens its initial phase on Oct. 9-10 in Rome, with the theme “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission.” Each particular local Church, or diocese, will officially begin its preparation Oct. 17. 

“It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium,” Pope Francis was quoted as saying by the Vatican’s “Vademecum for the Synod on Synodality” released in September.

The diocesan phase is the first part of a multistep process of consultations at the local, national and regional levels until it will culminate in the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2023. However, the goal of this synod will not simply conclude in another papal document — the synod’s final phase will be its implementation by the diocese. 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) prepared a 10-page guide with recommendations for how dioceses could implement the vademecum, or handbook. 

“What the conference is hoping to do is to be a source of support and assistance to the dioceses, who are the ones that are really being called upon in the first instance to engage in this synodal dialogue,” Richard Coll, the USCCB’s liaison for the synod, told the Register. 


The USCCB’s guidelines recommended that dioceses set up a diocesan synodal team, convene the synod in October, and then spend November preparing the people of God intentionally through prayer, preaching and catechetical opportunities. At its November assembly, the USCCB will hold additional presentations on the Synod on Synodality, and by the start of Advent, Nov. 28, the diocesan consultations should begin.

By March 2022, the USCCB recommendations outlined in local reports should be given to the diocesan team, which would synthesize feedback and draft the diocesan report in advance of the Diocesan Pre-Synod Meeting. The USCCB would receive and synthesize the diocesan reports in April and forward it to the Synod of Bishops in Rome. 

The USCCB recommended that dioceses make the Jan. 18-25 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity an opportunity to invite other Christians into dialogue. It also mentioned the Vatican has emphasized young people, families, migrants, refugees and the poor be included in the synodal process. The USCCB encouraged the use of Catholic universities, health-care systems, Catholic Charities and parish and diocesan groups to achieve widespread consultation.

Many Catholic dioceses and archdioceses are already sketching out the diocesan phase of the Synod on Synodality as an opportunity to engage and invigorate the local Church. 

“We are excited for the opportunity to collectively listen to the Holy Spirit on how God is calling our archdiocese to mission,” Mark Haas, director of public relations at the Archdiocese of Denver, told the Register. 

“Our initial plans for how this process will unfold here locally will be presented to our presbyterate in the coming weeks and then communicated to all the faithful once the plans are finalized.”

Adrian Alarcon, director of media relations for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the Register the planning stages are underway on how to implement the process for the diocesan phase of the synod. “So far, the plan is to tap pastoral councils at the archdiocesan level, regional levels (there are five pastoral regions in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles) and parish levels to engage faithful in the implementation of the process and execute listening sessions during the first phase of the synodal journey,” she said. 

Alarcon said the official opening of the Synod on Synodality at the archdiocese will take place on Oct. 31, when Archbishop José Gomez will celebrate the opening Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

In the Diocese of Orange, California, Tracey Kincaid, the diocese’s head of communications, told the Register that Bishop Kevin Vann and his advisers have been studying the vademecum for the Synod on Synodality and are “praying for the Holy Spirit’s presence as we roll out the first phase of the process.”

Kincaid said the diocese’s opening of the synodal phase on Oct. 17 will have a special emphasis on the Eucharist.

“A Eucharistic procession on the cathedral campus is planned to take place immediately after the [opening] Mass,” she said. 


The Long Game

The USCCB recommendations explained the hope for the diocesan phase is to have the local Church adopt in the long term an “inherent synodal attitude in decision-making processes through communion, participation and mission.” The diocesan phase is not going to create “dramatic revolutions,” but will introduce a “conceptual shift” about how the Church makes decisions that will take a long time to come to fruition, explained Adam DeVille, chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

“Synodality is the governing of Church life according to synods,” DeVille, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic assisting the local Latin Rite diocese in its synodal preparations, told the Register. 

He said synodality is already very familiar to Eastern Churches, such as the Armenian Apostolic Church in the U.S., where synods are responsible for electing bishops, setting pastoral priorities, exercising financial oversight, and holding the bishop accountable to the Church’s mission. 

“They’ve thought about this for a quite a while,” he said. 

DeVille said dioceses will have a wide variety of methods to engage people in consultation, such as making use of pastoral councils, digital technology such as Zoom, or even setting up parish delegations to the presynod gathering. But he said dioceses have to be “clear and specific about that,” both the synod’s real possibilities and limitations, so people do not have unrealistic expectations. They are not the place to debate questions of doctrine. 

“Those belong to an ecumenical council or the ordinary magisterium,” he said. 

DeVille said synods are a means for the Church to come together, hash things out openly and find consensus — but they are not supposed to be divisive parliamentary debates to “vote up or down on your hobby horse,” a point underscored in the Vatican’s vademecum

“Synodality is not going to solve anybody’s problems directly,” DeVille said. 

“But it’s going to give you an outlet for your frustration. And it’s going to give you an opportunity to put some work in towards that kind of long-term change of whatever the Church’s problems are today.”

What Is Synodality?

According to Catholic Answers contributor Father Charles Grondin, “Synodality refers to groupings of bishops. An example would be the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. According to canon law, national episcopal conferences can set certain laws and practices for their regions above and beyond what an individual bishop can do. However, because these groupings of bishops have no authority outside of each individual bishop’s authority, the group needs to have its authority specifically declared by Church law. Otherwise it carries no weight other than encouragement.”

He added that it is related to collegiality, which “refers to the individual authority of each bishop as a successor of the apostles. Each bishop is essentially autonomous and equal (with the exception of the Bishop of Rome). On matters of local governance, one bishop cannot tell another bishop how to run his diocese.”

 — Peter Jesserer Smith