In the Roman Catholic Church, the Synod of Bishops is an advisory body for the Pope. It is described in the Code of Canon Law (CIC) as "a group of bishops who have been chosen from different regions of the world and meet together at fixed times to foster closer unity between the Roman Pontiff and bishops, to assist the Roman Pontiff with their counsel in the preservation and growth of faith and morals and in the observance and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline, and to consider questions pertaining to the activity of the Church in the world".
Of its nature, the Synod of Bishops is permanent, even when not in session. Periodically, it holds assemblies, which are either general, if called to consider matters directly concerning the universal Church, or special, if called for problems of a particular geographical area. The general assemblies are either ordinary (held at fixed intervals) or extraordinary (held to treat of some urgent matter).
As well as holding these periodic assemblies, the Synod of Bishops has a permanent secretariat which is headquartered in Rome but is not part of the Roman Curia. The Code of Canon Law's chapter on the Synod of Bishops comes after that on the Pope and the College of Bishops, and before that on the cardinals. In the Annuario Pontificio, information on it is given before that on episcopal conferences.
The idea of establishing a group of bishops to assist the Pope in governing the church emerged in 1959, when Cardinal Silvio Oddi proposed a permanent consultative body of bishops drawn from many parts of the world to discuss major concerns of the Church. The same year Cardinal Alfrink proposed a permanent council of specialized bishops to legislate for the Church in union with the Pope and the cardinals. In 1963, during the third session of the Second Vatican Council, Patriarch Maximos IV proposed that the church should be governed by the successors of Peter (the Pope) and of the apostles (the bishops), not by the Pope and the "Roman clergy" (the cardinals). Maximos proposed that the Council establish a rotating body of bishops in continuous residence in Rome to assist the Pope.
On 15 September 1965, as the Council was drawing to a close, Pope Paul VI took matters into his own hands and set up the Synod of Bishops, noting that "the Ecumenical Council … gave Us the idea of permanently establishing a special Council of bishops, with the aim of providing for a continuance after the Council of the great abundance of benefits that We have been so happy to see flow to the Christian people during the time of the Council as a result of Our close collaboration with the bishops.". The Pope sought "to make ever greater use of the bishops' assistance in providing for the good of the universal Church" and to enjoy "the consolation of their presence, the help of their wisdom and experience, the support of their counsel, and the voice of their authority". The Pope's establishment of the Synod was not without controversy; by preempting Council action and making the Synod "immediately and directly" subject to the power of the pope, Pope Paul had insured it would be strictly an advisory body.
The Synod of the Bishops is a form not of collegial governance of the Church, but of collaborating with the primatial function of the Pope: it discusses topics proposed to it and makes recommendations, but does not settle questions or issue decrees, unless the Pope grants it deliberative power in certain cases.
The Synod of the Bishops has its own permanent general secretariat, composed of the General Secretary and a fifteen-member council, twelve of whom are elected by the general assembly and three are appointed by the Pope. The secretariat assists in preparing the apostolic exhortation which the Pope publishes on the basis of the recommendations of the general assembly, and it prepares the next assembly. Their function ceases with the start of a new general assembly. A similar function is performed by specific special councils elected by the special assemblies.Wladyslaw Rubin (27 February 1967 – 12 July 1979)
Jozef Tomko (12 July 1979 – 24 April 1985)
Jan Pieter Schotte, C.I.C.M. (24 April 1985 – 11 February 2004)
Nikola Eterović (11 February 2004 – 21 September 2013)
Lorenzo Baldisseri (21 September 2013 –)
It is for the Pope toconvoke the Synod of the Bishops
ratify the election of participants in the assembly
determine the topic of discussion, if possible at least six months before the assembly
distribute the material for discussion to those who should participate
to set the agenda
to preside either personally or through delegates over the assembly.
In addition, the Pope may appoint further participants in any assembly of the Synod of Bishops, in number up to 15% of those who participate either ex officio (the heads of Eastern Catholic Churches and the cardinals at the helm of departments of the Roman Curia) or because elected by episcopal conferences or the Union of Superiors General.
The procedures followed at assemblies of the Synod of the Bishops are indicated in the Order of the Synod of Bishops, originally issued in 1969, the latest revision of which was published on 29 September 2006.
In preparation for each ordinary general assembly, episcopal conferences are asked to suggest up to three themes for discussion. After the secretariat has studied those proposals, the Pope, generally on the basis of the secretariat's recommendation, establishes the topic and agenda of the assembly. Criteria for the choice of the topic are: 1) that it be of universal, not merely regional, interest; 2) that it be pastoral in character with a firm doctrinal base; 3) that it be contemporary and urgent enough to stir up "new energies and movements in the church towards growth"; 4) that it can be addressed within the allotted time.
Most participants in the assembly, called Synodal fathers, are elected by the bishops' conferences: one in the case of a conference with no more than 25 members, two if a conference has up to 50 members, three from a conference with up to 100 members, and four from a larger conference. Other representative participants include heads of Eastern Catholic Churches, ten members of religious institutes elected by the Union of Superiors General, and the cardinals who head the Roman Congregations and some other departments of the Roman Curia. Dozens more participate by virtue of synodal functions assigned by the Holy See or as papal appointees, mostly cardinals and other curiate or diocesan prelates.
Fraternal delegates from several Orthodox and Protestant churches (7 each in 2015) have observer status.
The secretariat, which includes various other clerical and lay experts, prepares a preliminary outline document (Lineamenta), which is distributed to all concerned for comment. Based on this feedback, a working document (instrumentum laboris) is prepared and distributed to all churches. This document is the basis for discussions at the synod. The assembly examines proposals (propositiones) put forward by its members and passes to the Pope those that receive the assembly's approval. The Pope uses these as the basis for a papal post-synodal apostolic exhortation.
The first general assemblies attempted to draw up their own concluding documents, but found that the time available was insufficient for doing so properly.
In view of the greater urgency that justify their convocation, the preparation of extraordinary general assemblies of the Synod of the Bishops is shorter. The participants also are fewer, consisting of the heads of Eastern Catholic Churches, the presidents (only) of episcopal conferences, three members (not ten) of religious institutes and the cardinals who head dicasteries of the Roman Curia.
As of October 2014, there have been three such assemblies, in 1969, 1985 and 2014.
Special assemblies of the Synod of the Bishops are limited to a certain geographical area. Its participants, chosen in line with the rules for extraordinary general assemblies, are limited to those directly involved in that area.
Special assemblies have been held for the continents of Africa (twice), America, Asia, Europe (twice), and Oceania, for the Middle East, for Lebanon and for the Netherlands.
The Synod of the Bishops has held the following assemblies: