Toward the Second Session of the 2021-2024 Synod

By Fr Giacomo Costa SJ, 27 May 2024
A view of participants during the Synod of Bishops on Synodality assembly in Rome in October 2023. Image: Vatican Media


The process of Synod 2021-2024, “For a Synodal Church. Communion, Participation, Mission” is flowing swiftly. We have already passed the halfway point between the First Session of the XVI General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (October 4-29, 2023) and the Second Session, which will take place in Rome, October 2-27, 2024. Understandably, there is much “work in progress,” and the pace of the different components is often subject to abrupt acceleration. As a result, matters may seem to be disconnected. To prevent this from happening, a concise presentation of the various paths being followed may be useful, in order to place them within an overall view that offers a frame of reference and clear articulation. The following pages are devoted to this purpose.

The starting point is clearly the aim of the entire synod process, which is to make Church members more capable of “walking together” to fulfill the mission of proclaiming the Gospel in a meaningful and convincing way to the men and women of our time. At the heart of the Synod is the dynamism of mission, without which it would be reduced to an exercise in which the Church looks in the mirror and arranges procedures for the better functioning of its apparatus. It is not. All ongoing activities are inspired by this missionary impulse, without consideration of which they would not be fully comprehensible. At the same time, the specific nature of the synodical institute, with its distinctive elements and its reference norms, must be taken into account.

The Nature of the Synod

The obligatory reference in this regard is the apostolic constitution Episcopalis Communio (EC) on the Synod of Bishops, promulgated by Pope Francis on September 15, 2018, replacing the motu proprio Apostolica Sollicitudo, by which, on September 15, 1965, Paul VI had established the Synod of Bishops. As Episcopalis Communio points out, “Although structurally it is essentially configured as an episcopal body, this does not mean that the Synod exists separately from the rest of the faithful. On the contrary, it is a suitable instrument to give voice to the entire People of God, specifically via the Bishops” (EC 6). In other words, the new Apostolic Constitution emphasizes the character of an ecclesial process of the synodal institution, which cannot be reduced to an individual event, that is, an Assembly of bishops gathered in Rome to deal with a specific topic. The Assembly, which remains largely composed of bishops, thus maintaining its episcopal character, plays a crucial role within the synodal process, but it does not represent its ultimate purpose or point of arrival.

Specifically, EC identifies three stages of a synodal process, and Synod 2021-24[1] is also structured on this basis. The first phase is that of consultation and listening to the people of God, with the entire Church engaged from the opening of the Synod (October 2021) until the closing of the continental stage (March 2023). In a dynamic of dialogue at different levels (local, national, continental, and universal), the Churches reflected on their own experience to better understand what it means to “walk together” as believers in Christ sent to proclaim his Gospel to the world.

The second phase is that of discernment, in which, starting from the awareness and questions that emerged in the previous phase, an attempt is made to identify what steps the Church feels called to take in order to grow in its synodal dimension. The Synodal Assembly is the principal agent of this phase, in the two Sessions into which it is divided. The first worked on the insights that the Instrumentum Laboris gathered from the previous phase, identifying a series of convergences and divergences regarding issues to be deepened and steps to be taken, which the Synthesis Report (SR) re-launched to the whole Church. The Second Session will complete the discernment and offer its findings to the Holy Father.

Finally, the third phase is that of implementation. Following the work of the Synodal Assembly, it will be up to the pope to indicate in what direction to move, entrusting the local Churches with the task of “incarnating” these indications in the distinctive and often different local contexts, or envisaging paths of further deepening of the issues that require it.

One point on which Apostolica Sollicitudo and EC agree with great clarity and which it is important not to lose sight of is evident in the consultative nature of the synodal institution, which is conceived from its origin as an instrument of collaboration in the exercise of the pope’s ministry. EC affirms in this regard that “the Synod – new as an institution but ancient in its inspiration – has provided an effective support to the Roman Pontiff, through channels that he himself established, in matters of greater importance; that is to say, those requiring special knowledge and judgment for the good of the whole Church. In this way the Synod of Bishops, ‘representing the entire Catholic episcopate, demonstrates the fact that all the Bishops are in hierarchical communion in solicitude for the universal Church’” (EC 1). The relevance of the assembly moment in the synodal process suggests a comparison with parliamentary assemblies. This, however, is misleading. In democratic systems, in fact, parliaments enjoy an original and sovereign function – the legislative – and, in respect of checks and balances, enters a relationship with the bodies that carry out executive and judicial functions. This is not the case with the Synodal Assembly, nor can the role of the pope be conceived as analogous with that of an Executive. We realize this immediately when we recall that the pope is by statute president of the Synod, convenes it, sets its themes and receives its results. The institutional structure of the Church is not parallel to that of democratic systems.

Synthesis Report, Hub of Listening and Discernment

It is within this framework that the lines along which the synodal process continues to advance must be placed and understood. All of them find an indispensable reference in the SR. It is not a final document, but a reasoned collection of the themes that emerged during the assembly debate, of the points of convergence and divergence recorded, of the issues that the Assembly deems necessary to continue to discuss, and of the steps to be taken.

In a letter sent to Cardinal Mario Grech, Secretary General of the Synod, on February 22, 2024, Pope Francis, the first recipient of the SR, indicates to the universal Church a series of ways to follow up on its contents, in a manner appropriate to their variety, following the document Towards October 2024, which he approved and published on December 11, 2023. This is how he carries out his task as president of the Synod, listening to the results of the First Session (October 2023), collected in the SR, as well as the outcomes of the consultation and listening phase on which the Assembly worked.

The first objective, as the letter states, is to enable “the Assembly, in its Second Session, to focus more easily on the general theme that I assigned to it at the time, and which can now be summarized in the question: ‘How to be a synodal Church in mission?’” At the same time, the February 22 letter emphasizes that the SR contains broader stimuli, including “many important theological issues, all of which are, to varying degrees, related to the synodal renewal of the Church and not without juridical and pastoral repercussions [which…], by their very nature, require in-depth study.”

In order to address them, an ad hoc path is planned, to which we will return, while the General Secretariat of the Synod is entrusted with the fundamental task of ensuring that the work proceeds in a coordinated manner and after listening to the results as they are achieved, offering appropriate updates to the October 2024 Assembly Session.

Focusing the Second Session on the Theme of Synodality

The first directive is therefore to serve to aid the preparation of the Second Session. Its guiding question – “How to be a synodal Church in mission?” – was launched to local Churches around the world in keeping with the style of Synod 2021-24. As the document Towards October 2024 explains, the goal of this further consultation is “to identify the paths we can follow and the tools we might adopt in our different contexts and circumstances in order to enhance the unique contribution of each baptized person and of each Church in the one mission of proclaiming the Risen Lord and his Gospel to the world today. This is not, therefore, a request that limits you to a plan of technical or procedural improvements to make the Church’s structures more efficient, but rather an invitation for reflection on the forms of the missionary commitment to which we are called, that express the dynamism between unity and diversity proper to a synodal Church.”

It is in this specific approach to mission that many stimuli of the SR are found as it devotes a chapter to the new frontier of the Church’s presence in digital culture, or how to foster the participation of the poor in the life of the Church, so that they can evangelize it, as called for by the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. Inspired by the opening words of the dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium, the Assembly reflects on the Church’s mission in this way: “In a world of violence and fragmentation, a witness is ever more urgent to the unity of humanity, its common origin and common destiny, in a coordinated and reciprocal solidarity toward social justice, peace, reconciliation and care for our common home. The Church is aware that the Spirit can speak through women and men of every religion, belief and culture” (SR 5 f).

The reflections of the local Churches in response to the guiding question will form the basis for the drafting of the Instrumentum Laboris of the Second Session, which in this way will be focused on the lived experience of the people of God around the world. These contributions will be joined by others, starting with the results of the International Meeting “Parish Priests for the Synod” (Sacrofano [Rome], April 28-May 2, 2024), with the aim of listening to priests engaged in pastoral ministry and involving them better in the synodal process. This is a need that has emerged on several occasions and was also taken up by the First Session.

Finally, the results of five working groups set up by the General Secretariat of the Synod, which will include experts from different localities, genders and ecclesial status, called to work with a synodal method, will figure in the drafting of the Instrumentum Laboris. The establishment of these five working groups responds to the need, repeatedly expressed by the SR, to promote a theological and canonical deepening of the notion of synodality and its implications for the life of the Church. Outlining the work plan of these groups is the document How to be a Synodal Church in Mission? Five Perspectives for Theological Exploration in view of the Second Session of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, released by the General Secretariat of the Synod on March 14, 2023, to which we may refer for more detailed information.[2]

The topics under consideration allow us to grasp the relevance of the questions that will be addressed during the Second Session, and also the different perspectives from which the work will be carried out. In particular, it will be necessary to apply the guiding question on the different levels of the Church’s life, aiming to reveal the missionary/synodal face of the local Church, groupings of Churches and the universal Church.

On the first level, we will address, for example, the function and forms of the ministry of the diocesan bishop, the way to provide for regular forms of verification of those in ministry (ordained or non-ordained), and the way participation bodies function. On the level of groupings of Churches, work will be done, for example, on the status and functions of bishops’ conferences and how to live out ecclesial communion and episcopal collegiality on a continental scale. Finally, on the level of the Universal Church, we will reflect, on the one hand, on the identity of the synodal institution, in particular on the distinction between the role of the bishops and the participation of the people of God in all stages of the process, and, on the other hand, on the relationships between ecclesial synodality, episcopal collegiality and the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, the ways of exercising the last-mentioned, and the role of the Roman Curia.

In addressing these three levels, it will also be important to keep in mind two fundamental perspectives that cut across and orient them. The first concerns the synodal method and is related to the request made by several Churches that the dynamic of “conversation in the Spirit” should permeate all levels of the Church’s life and guide the functioning of participatory bodies and the way decision-making processes are carried out. This also meets the desire to make more and more evident the spiritual and liturgical foundations of the way forward of a missionary synodal Church. The second perspective calls for considering the relationship between the local character of each Christian community, called to embody the faith in a cultural and social context with specific concerns, and the global, ever-growing breath of catholicity. At a time when the conception of space and the relationship with place are rapidly changing, on the one hand, the experience of the variety of cultures is growing, as a result of the different forms of human mobility involving mass migration; and, on the other hand, the pervasiveness of the digital reconfigures spaces and territories and calls for reviewing the connections at the different levels.

Adopt Some Assembly Proposals Now

As we have already seen, according to Pope Francis, the SR contains a wealth of insights that go beyond the thematic focus of the Second Session, which we have just outlined. Because of their relevance, the pope accepted from the outset the Assembly’s indication of the need to deepen them, without waiting for the conclusion of the Second Session, with the risk of them being dropped. Through an international consultation, he identifies 10 issues emerging from the SR, which the letter of February 22 lists and for each of which he orders the establishment of a Study Group, to work on the basis of an outline prepared by the General Secretariat of the Synod and contained in the document Study Groups for questions raised in the First Session of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to be explored in collaboration with the Dicasteries of the Roman Curia, Work Outline, also circulated on March 14, 2024.[3] These outlines take up the reflections and questions that emerged in the assembly debate and relaunch them to the Study Groups, which should complete the in-depth study, possibly by June 2025, but will provide a progress report to the Second Session.

Thus the implementation of some of the Assembly’s requests and proposals begins right away, in the form indicated by EC: “Together with the competent dicastery of the Roman Curia, as well as other dicasteries interested in various ways according to the theme and the circumstances, the General Secretariat of the Synod for its part promotes the implementation of the synodal recommendations approved by the Roman Pontiff” (EC art. 20, §1). In other words, the First Session has already fulfilled its consultative and collaborative task, allowing Pope Francis to identify some strands to be followed up without the need for further assembly work.

While the Work Outline allows for a better focus on the objectives of the in-depth study, the simple list of the 10 themes, however sketchy, highlights their relevance to the life of the Church:

  1. Some aspects of relations between Eastern Catholic Churches and the Latin Church (SR 6).
  2. Listening to the cry of the poor (SR 4 and 16).
  3. Mission in the digital environment (SR 17).
  4. The revision of the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis in a missionary/synodal perspective (SR 11).
  5. The participation of all the baptized in the mission of the Church and the different forms of ecclesial ministry: some theological and canonical issues (SR 8 and 9).
  6. The revision, in a synodal and missionary perspective, of documents governing relations between bishops, consecrated life and ecclesial associations (SR 10).
  7. Some aspects of the person and ministry of the bishop (in particular: criteria for selection of candidates for the episcopate; judicial function of the bishop; nature and conduct of ad limina visits) from a missionary/synod perspective (SR 12 and 13).
  8. The role of papal representatives in missionary/synod perspectives (SR 13).
  9. Theological criteria and synodal methodologies for shared discernment of controversial doctrinal, pastoral and ethical issues (SR 15).
  10. The reception of the fruits of the ecumenical journey of the people of God (SR 7).

In addition to the 10 themes in the SR, also highlighted in the list, it is important to emphasize how the work of these groups fits fully into the synod. First of all, they will be shaped by pastors and experts from all continents and, as the letter of February 22 specifies, will take into consideration “not only existing studies, but also the most relevant experiences taking place among the People of God gathered in the local Churches.” Second, they will work “according to an authentically synodal method,” which the General Secretariat of the Synod is responsible for ensuring. In this way, they will constitute laboratories of synodality, thanks to which they will grow in the ability to “walk together,” listening to the Holy Spirit, not only during the conduct of the Assembly, but also in the implementation of its orientations.

In this line, it is equally significant that the coordination of the study groups is entrusted to those Dicasteries of the Roman Curia relevant to the different themes, in agreement with the General Secretariat of the Synod, in the spirit of the Chirograph signed by Pope Francis on February 16, 2024, and the apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium, which states in Article 33: “The curial institutions cooperate, according to their respective specific competencies, in the work of the General Secretariat of the Synod, paying attention to what is established in the specific legislation of the Synod itself, which collaborates with the Roman Pontiff, in accordance with the methods established or to be established by him, in matters of major importance for the good of the whole Church.” The synodal renewal of the Church also challenges the Roman Curia and is also realized through experimentation with new ways of working.

Expanding Synodal Dynamism

We cannot end without mentioning the commitment indicated in the third direction of Towards October 2024: the importance for each local Church to keep synodal dynamism alive in its ordinary life, offering more people the opportunity to experience it directly, with particular attention to the poor and those who remain on the margins of community life. Synodality challenges every Christian community to listen to the Spirit to renew the way of carrying out the one mission that the Lord has entrusted to all his disciples.

The SR constitutes the privileged reference for this direction as well. First of all, on a practical level, its contents provide an opportunity to offer the People of God new experiences of synodality. Each local Church, in fact, has been invited to identify the aspects of the SR that are most significant in its context and to promote appropriate initiatives for their deepening (formative activities, theological studies, synod-style celebrations, grassroots consultations, listening to minority groups and people living in poverty and those on the margins of society, spaces in which to address controversial issues), again making use of the methods already successfully tested during the first phase, in particular the conversations in the Spirit. Information on these paths that local Churches would like to share, in the forms indicated in the document Towards October 2024, will be made available at the Second Session.

At another level, this follows up on a desire of the Synodal Assembly that the SR clearly expresses, “Here in Rome, we were not many, but the purpose of the Synod path called by the Holy Father is to involve all the baptized. We ardently desire this to happen and want to commit ourselves to making it possible.” There is, then, a basic awareness that synodality is anything but an organizational expedient: it is a journey through which God’s people encounter their Lord, who fills them with his gifts and invites them to continue their mission. “The Assembly frequently spoke of hope, healing, reconciliation, and restoration of trust among the many gifts the Spirit has poured out on the Church during this synodal process” (SR 1 e). The grace, which admits the baptized to participation in Trinitarian communion, precedes and accompanies their sending out on mission and nourishes the Church committed to bearing witness to the risen Lord, walking together with women and men of every time and place.


Giacomo Costa SJ is the former director of “Aggiornamenti Sociali”, he is a consultant to the General Secretariat of the Synod.

Reproduced with permission from La Civiltà Cattolica.


[1].     More information on the different phases of Synod 2021-24, as well as related official documents and aids, can be found at




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