"Everyone who belongs to the Truth hears my voice…" (John 18:37)

A Layperson’s Guide to the Synod on the Family

Last October, the Vatican announced that an extraordinary session of the Synod of Bishops would be held this year from October 5th to 19th. Its theme is entitled, “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” It’s a topic that immediately generated a lot of interest among Catholics as well as non-Catholics. The family is facing many challenges in today’s world, and the hope is that the Synod will become an important source of guidance and wisdom for the future.

Some voiced the hope that the Synod would signal a change in the Church’s approach to a number of controversial issues, including those surrounding divorce and homosexual marriage. However, Cardinal Luis Antonio G. Tagle of the Philippines emphasized that this assembly is only the “first part of a two phase process and its purpose is to offer a place for discussion and reflection rather than decision making.”1 Its primary focus will be to gather information about the situation of the family in different parts of the world.

Cardinal Luis Antonio G. Tagle  - President Delegate from the Philippines

Cardinal Luis Antonio G. Tagle – President Delegate from the Philippines

What’s unique about this Synod?

The two-phase process is something that makes this Extraordinary General Assembly unique. Not only is it linked to the Ordinary Synod that will take place next year, but both will focus on the same theme: the family. The October 2015 Synod will build on themes and issues identified in this year’s Extraordinary Synod, and will include an even wider group of bishops and representatives of the worldwide Church.2 The conclusions of a Synod are normally presented in the form of an apostolic exhortation issued by the Pope. The document for this year’s Synod won’t be published until the entire process is complete.

Something else that is unique about these two gatherings is that they represent a new working methodology for the Synod of Bishops. In the past, bishops were given the opportunity to give their input; this time, the process will be much more dynamic and participatory. The upcoming Synod will include speeches and testimonials, and representatives from other Catholic rites and Christian denominations have been invited to attend. Even you and I were given the opportunity to have a voice in what would be discussed!3

Catholics across the world were invited to respond to a general questionnaire whose purpose was “to gather information on real-life situations and concrete suggestions consistent with Catholic doctrine.”4

Catholics across the world were invited to respond to a general questionnaire whose purpose was “to gather information on real-life situations and concrete suggestions consistent with Catholic doctrine.”4

As Calgary’s Bishop Frederick Henry explained, the consultation was “not a matter of debating doctrinal questions. The purpose of the preparatory document [was] for all the church to listen to the problems and expectations of many families today, manifesting her closeness and credibly proposing God’s mercy and the beauty of responding to His call.”5

History of the Synod

The word synod comes from a Greek word that means ‘meeting’, and the ‘Synod of Bishops’ is a papal advisory group that is drawn from all parts of the world. Paul VI reinstituted synods in 1965, inviting bishops to meet from time to time to advise him on specific issues. In his apostolic letter, Apostolica Sollicitudo (Apostolic Concern), he described the general purpose of the Synod as follows:

  1. to promote a closer union and greater cooperation between the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops of the whole world;
  2. to see to it that accurate and direct information is supplied on matters and situations that bear upon the internal life of the Church and upon the kind of action that should be carrying on in today’s world;
  3. to facilitate agreement, at least on essential matters of doctrine and on the course of action to be taken in the life of the ”6

In 2006, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI updated the rules governing synods in order to bring them into line with current canon law. According to the ordo (the regulation under which the Synod of Bishops acts), the main goal of the Synod of Bishops is one of collegiality: to assist the Pope in his capacity as universal shepherd of the Church.7

Types of Synods

There are several different types of synods. General assemblies are called to consider matters directly concerning the universal Church, while special assemblies focus on problems associated with a specific geographical area. General assemblies can be ordinary – which means they are held at fixed regular intervals – or extraordinary – in the case of urgent matters that require a speedy solution.

This synod is particularly significant because it is only the third time in modern Church history that an Extraordinary General Synod has been held. The first extraordinary session (called by Paul VI in 1969) focused on improving cooperation between the Holy See and the bishops. The 1985 extraordinary session (called by John Paul II) was dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the finish of the Second Vatican Council. (Its recommendations resulted in the 1992 publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.) As already mentioned, the October 2014 Synod (called by Pope Francis) will focus on the family.8

Synod of Bishops

Synod of Bishops

Who will be attending?

253 delegates from 5 continents will be attending the upcoming Synod, including 114 presidents of Episcopal (Bishops’) Conferences, 13 heads of the ‘sui iuris’9 Eastern Catholic Churches, and members of the Roman Curia. Other participants include Papal delegates, auditors, 13 married couples and 16 experts. Pope Francis will also welcome the Metropolitan of Belgium as well as representatives from the Patriarchate of Moscow, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, and the Baptist World Alliance. Delegates from Canada will include Archbishop Paul-André Durocher (President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops) and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, P.S.S., the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops.10

What will be discussed?

One of the items on the table for discussion is whether those who have been divorced and are now civilly remarried (while their spouse is still alive) should be allowed to receive Communion. The challenge is to find a pastoral solution that still preserves Catholic teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.

But this is only one of a range of topics that will be addressed. In an interview this past May, the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops – Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri – emphasized that “the synod will deal with the family in its various aspects, not with a single issue. “The issue of cohabitation, unmarried couples, same-sex marriages emerge,” he added. “There are also topics dealing with the knowledge, and the reception, of the teaching of the Church on the family; with natural law … with difficult family situations, dealing with separated couples, the divorced, and the divorced and remarried; and above all dealing with the children who are subjected to these situations, and their Christian education.”11

Can we expect that the Synod will bring about a change in the doctrine of the Church?

The short answer is “no.” In response to this question, Cardinal Baldisseri referred to the First Vatican Council document, Dei Filius (Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith). It affirms that once the Church has declared a sacred dogma, we must retain our understanding of it. We can’t just set aside its meaning because we feel there is some superficially pressing reason to do so – or because we think we’ve come to some kind of ‘new and deeper understanding’. In his inaugural speech of the Second Vatican Council, John XXIII said, “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.”12 In other words, although the deposit of faith never changes, we always need to find new and fresh ways to make it better understood, more relevant, and accessible to the modern world.

Instrumentum-laboris-et-loi-naturelleWant the inside scoop?

The Vatican recently released its formal working document for the Extraordinary Synod. It’s called an Instrumentum Laboris, and it includes a summary of the responses received from the general questionnaire circulated last fall.13 It also includes a summary of the issues to be discussed. Here’s a brief outline of the topics:


Part I – Communicating the Gospel of the Family in Today’s World

1. God’s plan for Marriage and the Family

2. The Knowledge and Acceptance of the Teachings on Marriage and the Family from Sacred Scripture and Church Documents

3. The Gospel of the Family and the Natural Law

4. The Family and Vocation of the Person in Christ

Part II – The Pastoral Program for the Family in Light of New Challenge

1. The Pastoral Program for the Family: Various Proposals Underway

2. The Pastoral Challenges of the Family

  • The Crisis of Faith and Family Life
  • Critical Situations within the Family (including difficulties in relationships and communication, the break-up and breakdown of families, violence and abuse, and dependence, the media and the social network)
  • External Pressures on the Family (including work, migration, poverty, consumerism and individualism, and counter-witness in the Church)
  • Special Situations (societal expectations, war, disparity of cult etc.)

3. Difficult Pastoral Situations

  • Situations in families (including cohabitation, de facto unions, mixed marriages, persons who are separated, divorced, and divorced and remarried, children and those who are alone, teen mothers, concerning the reception of the sacraments etc.)
  • Concerning unions of persons of the same sex (including civil recognition and the transmission of the faith to children in same sex unions)

Part III – An Openness to Life and Parental Responsibility in Upbringing

1. The Pastoral Challenges concerning an Openness to Life

2. The Church and the Family in the Challenge of Upbringing

  • The Challenge of Upbringing in General
  • Christian Education in Difficult Family Situations

What can we do?

PRAY!!!! In his letter to families on February 25, 2014, Pope Francis asked us to pray for the Synod. He said, “I ask you, therefore, to pray intensely to the Holy Spirit, so that the Spirit may illumine the Synodal Fathers and guide them in their important task. … Your prayer for the Synod of Bishops will be a precious treasure which enriches the Church.”14

Furthermore, Pope Francis has asked the entire Church to set aside September 28th as a special day of prayer for the upcoming Synod, and he has entrusted its work to the Holy Family of Nazareth. Please join Pope Francis and the entire Church as we ask for their intercession.


 Prayer to the Holy Family

Jesus, Mary and Joseph,

in you we contemplate
 the splendour of true love,

to you we turn with trust.

Holy Family of Nazareth,

grant that our families too
 may be places of communion and prayer,

authentic schools of the Gospel
 and small domestic Churches.

Holy Family of Nazareth,

may families never again 
experience violence, rejection and division:

may all who have been hurt or scandalized
 find ready comfort and healing.

Holy Family of Nazareth,

may the approaching Synod of Bishops
 make us once more mindful

of the sacredness and inviolability of the family,

and its beauty in God’s plan.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph,

graciously hear our prayer!



– Sharon van der Sloot

1 Cardinal Luis Antonio G. Tagle, interviewed by Emer McCarthy in “Synod: The Church assembles for the family,” Vatican Radio, September 10, 2014; available from http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2014/09/10/synod_the_church_assembles_for_the_family/1106222; Internet; accessed 15 September 2014. Italics added. Cardinal Tagle is the Archbishop of Manila and one of the three delegate presidents of the Extraordinary General Assembly.

2 Cf. Kathy Schiffer, “Synod in the Modern Church: History and Hope,” Patheos (July 2, 2014); available from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kathyschiffer/2014/07/synod-in-the-modern-church-history-and-hope/; Internet; accessed 31 August 2014.

3 All Catholics were invited to respond to a general questionnaire that was made available online. To access the questions, see https://www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx?sm=eGMflQ0vEOc0XMeCUDGYEDP7aF56mWRlInx0pUGuXzI=.

4 Bishop F.B. Henry, “Participate in the ‘Extraordinary Synod of Bishop’ in October 2014,” Catholic Diocese of Calgary (Nov. 19, 2013); available from http://www.calgarydiocese.ca/messages-from-the-bishop/1084-participate-in-the-qextraordinary-synod-of-bishopsq-in-october-2014.html; Internet; accessed 31 August 2014.

5 Ibid.

6 Pope Paul VI, Apostolica Sollicitudo (Sept. 15, 1965); available from http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/motu_proprio/documents/hf_p-vi_motu-proprio_19650915_apostolica-sollicitudo_en.html; Internet; accessed 16 September 2014.

7 Cf. Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, in an interview with Andrea Gagliarducci and Carl Bunderson, “Bishops’ synod head: October meeting not solely about divorce,” Catholic News Agency (CNA), May 21, 2014; available from http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/bishops-synod-head-october-meeting-not-solely-about-divorce/; Internet; accessed 31 August 2014. Cardinal Baldisseri is the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops.

8 For more information on past Synods, see Holy See Press Office “Synod of Bishops” at http://www.vatican.va/news_services/press/documentazione/documents/sinodo_indice_en.html.

9 The term ‘siu iuris’ refers to autonomous Eastern Churches that are in communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

10 McCarthy, “Synod: The Church assembles for the family.”

11 Gagliarducci and Bunderson, “Bishops’ synod head: October meeting not solely about divorce.”

12 Ibid.

13 Synod of Bishops Instrumentum Laboris, “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization,” available from http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/synod/documents/rc_synod_doc_20140626_instrumentum-laboris-familia_en.html; Internet; accessed 31 August 2014. The Instrumentum Laboris is an official document of the Vatican. It summarizes responses to the lineamenta, which is an introduction and outline of the subject for discussion at an upcoming General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instrumentum_laboris). To access the Instrumentum Laboris for the upcoming Synod, go to http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/synod/documents/rc_synod_doc_20140626_instrumentum-laboris-familia_en.html. In preparation for the Synod, the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family has also compiled a very interesting list of papal and curial documents that will help provide background and information on some of the issues to be discussed. See https://www.johnpaulii.edu/resources/october-2014-synod/.

14 Pope Francis, “Letter of Pope Francis to Families,” available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/letters/2014/documents/papa-francesco_20140202_lettera-alle-famiglie.html?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter; Internet; accessed 16 September 2014. In his letter, Pope Francis notes that not only will the Extraordinary Synod be followed up with the Ordinary Synod in October, 2015, but the World Meeting of Families will also take place in this context in Philadelphia in September 2015.

15 Pope Francis, “Prayer to the Holy Family,” available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/angelus/2013/documents/papa-francesco_angelus_20131229.html; Internet; accessed 16 September 2014. For more information on observing the special Day of Prayer on September 28th, see


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