The Synod of Bishops was instituted by St Pope Paul VI on 15 September 1965. The document instituting it is the motu proprio Apostolica sollicitudo. In the Code of Canon Law, the Synod of Bishops is treated under Book II, Chapter II. There are seven canons under this chapter, i.e., canons 342-348.

Canon 342 gives the definition of what the Synod of Bishops is. It states:

The synod of Bishops is a group of Bishops selected from different parts of the world, who meet together at specified times to promote the close relationship between the Roman Pontiff and the Bishops. These Bishops, by their counsel, assist the Roman Pontiff in the defence and development of faith and morals and in the preservation and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline. They also consider questions concerning the mission of the Church in the world.

First and foremost, it is a gathering of bishops selected from different parts of the world. In other words, not every single bishop is a member of this group. That notwithstanding, every part of the world is represented through one or the other bishop in the group. This, then, brings out the universality of the Synod of Bishops.

It should be noted that the Synod of Bishops depends directly and immediately on the Roman Pontiff, i.e., the Pope. He is the one who convenes it.

From the above stated canon, we are able to deduce the purposes for which the synod exists. They are: (a) to promote communion between the Pope and his brother bishops; (b) helping the Pope to carry out his responsibilities, and (c) helping the Pope respond to contemporary questions affecting the church and the world.

Canon 343 states the function of the Synod of Bishops. It says:

The function of the synod of Bishops is to discuss the matters proposed to it and set forth recommendations. It is not its function to settle matters or to draw up decrees, unless the Roman Pontiff has given it deliberative power in certain cases; in this event, it rests with the Roman Pontiff to ratify the decisions of the synod.

It is clear from this canon that, the main function of the Synod of Bishops is to discuss matters proposed to it and make recommendations. In other words, it is by nature a consultative body, i.e., a body that is consulted to give advice. The Pope receives a wealth of information and suggestions from the Synod of Bishops, and he is free to do whatever he likes with them.

The Synod of Bishops is not a legislative body meant to resolve matters and/or to draw up decrees. That is to say, the Synod of Bishops does not make laws.

It must be noted, however, that the Pope is free to endow the synod with deliberative power in certain cases. In this case, the synod moves from consultative body (giving of advice and making recommendations) to deliberative body (making decisions). With this power, the synod would be able to make decisions that would be binding. In this scenario, the synod would be exercising delegated papal power.

It was stated above that, “the Synod of Bishops depends directly and immediately on the Roman Pontiff. He is the one who convenes it.” This point and others are expressed in canon 344. It states:

The synod of Bishops is directly under the authority of the Roman Pontiff, whose prerogative it is:

1° to convene the synod, as often as this seems opportune to him, and to designate the place where the meetings are to be held

2° to ratify the election of those who, in accordance with the special law of the synod, are to be elected, and to designate and appoint other members;

3° at a suitable time before the celebration of the synod, to prescribe the outlines of the questions to be discussed, in accordance with the special law;

4° to determine the agenda;

5° to preside over the synod personally or through others;

6° to conclude, transfer, suspend or dissolve the synod.

It is clearly evident that it is the Pope who convenes the synod. And he does that as often as it seems opportune or necessary to him. He is the same person who designates the place where the meetings are to be held. Based on this, we are looking forward to the next XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to be held in Rome in October 2023.

Again, based on 2°, when members have been elected to be part of the synod, it rests with the Pope to ratify their election. To ratify means to sign or give formal consent to make it officially valid. Apart those who are elected, the Pope has the right to designate and appoint other members.

It has been established above that, the Synod of Bishops help “the Pope [to] respond to contemporary questions affecting the church and the world.” Number 3 of canon 344 states that it is the responsibility of the Pope to determine the contents of the questions to be treated.

As we look forward to the Synod of Bishops in 2023, the General Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops will send a Preparatory Document, accompanied by a Questionnaire and a Vademecum with proposals for consultation in each local church, that is, in each Arch/Diocese. This, then, gives each member of the Catholic Church the opportunity to contribute to the discussion of important issues in the Church.

Similar to 3°, number 4 of canon 344 states that it is the Pope who determines or defines the agenda of the meeting.

When the synod is convened, according to 5°, the Pope has the option of presiding over it personally or through others. He alone has the power to make this determination.

Finally, 6° of canon 344 asserts that it pertains to the Roman Pontiff to conclude, transfer, suspend, and dissolve the synod. As if to say, the one who has the sole power to convene the body equally has the sole power to end it.

In this article, we discussed three canon concerning the Synod of Bishops. They give us a fair idea of what the Synod of Bishops is, what is their purpose and function, and their relationship with the Pope. With this understanding, we should all look forward to 2023 Synod of Bishops with excitement.

Even before 2023, the Pope has come up with a synodal journey leading to the ultimate. This synodal journey begins in October 2021 at the Vatican, and at the local church level. It has three phases. They are: the local church phase, the continental phase, and the universal church phase.

Long live the Pope! Long live the Catholic Church!

Source: (Rev Fr John Patrick Tindana -The Accra Archdiocesan Coordinator for Synod 2023) // Agnus-Dei Media