This morning, Cardinal Mario Grech, Secretary General of the General Secretariat of the Synod, and Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich SJ, Archbishop of Luxembourg and General Rapporteur of the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, informed the press about the Holy Father's decision to extend participation in the Synodal Assembly to "non-bishops" (priests, deacons, consecrated men and women, laity). This choice is in continuity with the progressive appropriation of the constitutive synodal dimension of the Church and the consequent understanding of the institutions through which it is exercised.
The Synod of Bishops was instituted by Paul VI with the motu proprio Apostolica sollicitudo (15 September 1965) as “a permanent Council of bishops for the universal Church, to be directly and immediately subject to Our power”, with the task of advising the Successor of Peter, thus participating in the solicitude for the whole Church. However, from the outset Paul VI made it clear that "This Synod … like every human institution, can be further perfected with the passage of time". The need for this refinement has emerged with the progressive reception of the Second Vatican Council, in particular from the relations between the People of God, the College of Bishops and the Bishop of Rome.
The apostolic constitution Episcopalis communio (15 September 2018), which transforms the Synod of Bishops from an event into a process, articulated in three successive phases (preparatory, celebratory, implementative), is part of this framework. The Assembly that we are preparing to celebrate in Rome in October belongs to the celebratory phase, in continuity with the first phase, which took place with the consultation of the People of God in the particular Churches and the subsequent stages of ecclesial discernment in the Bishops' Conferences and Continental Assemblies. The Instrumentum Laboris that will form the basis of the work for the October Assembly is the fruit of this process of listening at all levels of the life of the Church.
This synodal process, initiated by the Holy Father, the " visible principle and foundation of unity” of the whole Church (cf. LG 23), was possible because each Bishop opened, accompanied and concluded the phase of consultation of the People of God. In this way the synodal process was at the same time an act of the entire People of God and of its Pastors, as “the visible principle and foundation of unity in their particular churches, fashioned after the model of the universal Church, in and from which churches comes into being the one and only Catholic Church” (LG 23).
It is in this perspective that one must understand the Holy Father's decision to maintain the specifically episcopal nature of the Assembly convened in Rome, while at the same time not limiting its composition to bishops alone by admitting a certain number of non-bishops as full Members.
This decision reinforces the solidity of the process as a whole, by incorporating into the Assembly the living memory of the preparatory phase, through the presence of some of those who were its protagonists, thus restoring the image of a Church-People of God, founded on the constitutive relationship between common priesthood and ministerial priesthood, and giving visibility to the circular relationship between the prophetic function of the People of God and the discernment function of the Pastors. Thanks to a better integration with the preparatory phase, the Assembly makes concrete the hope that it may “an expression of episcopal collegiality within an entirely synodal Church" (Francis, Address on the 50th anniversary of the Synod).
It is therefore in the role/function of memory that the presence of non-bishops is included, and not in that of representation. In this way, the specifically episcopal nature of the Synodal Assembly is not affected, but rather is confirmed. This is shown first of all by the numerical ratio between bishops and non-bishops, the latter being less than 25% of the total number of Assembly members. But above all this is shown by the way in which the non-bishops are appointed: in fact, they are not elected by some demos or coetus, whose representation they would take on, but are appointed by the Holy Father on the proposal of the bodies through which episcopal collegiality is realised at the level of continental areas, rooting their presence in the exercise of pastoral discernment.
The Assembly will have the opportunity to reflect on its own concrete experience with a view to formulating proposals on how to proceed in the future.
The result is that, while continuing to refer to the Apostolic Constitution Episcopalis Communio, the current legislation now presents some changes and novelties regarding the composition of the Assembly and the type of participants. To learn more, download the FAQ available in English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish.