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Christoph SchönbornNovember 10, 2023
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna speaks during a briefing about the assembly of the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican Oct. 23, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Author’s note: The 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s motu proprio “Apostolica Sollicitudo,” which re-established the Synod of Bishops, was celebrated on Oct. 17, 2015, during the 14th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, which was focused on the theme of the family. On this occasion, Pope Francis invited me to give the keynote lecture at the ceremony in the Aula Paolo VI. I am honored that America is taking up these thoughts again in connection with the 2023-24 Synod of Bishops, which has the motto “A Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission.”

In my reflections at the time, I emphasized the relation between methodos and synodos in reference to the first Council of the Apostles in Jerusalem, which can be seen as the prototype of the synodal methodology. At the center of this first synod of the apostles, as we know, were important decisions for the universal mission of the church. The apostles came to their conclusion (“The Holy Spirit and we have decided...”) on the basis of what they had experienced as God’s work, through mutual listening, silence and prayer. The fruit of this choice was the worldwide spread of the good news throughout the world.

I would like to thank the editorial team of America for their interest and the translation of this essay.

— Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, O.P., archbishop of Vienna, Nov. 4, 2023

Holy Father! Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord!

By now, two-thirds of this year’s session of the synod is over. It is good that we are able to pause to thank God for the creation of the Synod of Bishops by Blessed Pope Paul VI 50 years ago, at the beginning of the last term of the Second Vatican Council, with the apostolic exhortation “Apostolica Sollicitudo,” published motu proprio on Sept. 15, 1965, about the establishment of the Synod of Bishops for the whole church.

The great worldwide interest that the Synod on the Family has provoked not only shows how intensely the topic of marriage and the family moves many people, far beyond the borders of the Catholic Church’s. It also shows how alive the institution of the Synod of Bishops is, even after 50 years, of which St. John Paul II could say that it “sprouted from the fertile ground of the Second Vatican Council.1

The Synod of Bishops and the council are inextricably linked. Fifty years after the end of the council, what Pope John Paul II first pointed out in 1983 can still be said even more confidently: “The Synod of Bishops has contributed the integration of doctrine and its orientation to the truths of faith and the pastoral guidelines of the Second Vatican Council in the life of the whole universal church in a remarkable way.” This update is still going on, as is usually the case after a council.

Actually, after every large council in the long history of the church, there were the phases of reception, of interpretation and of the implementation of doctrine, and of the determinations of the council. Just think about how long it took until the first ecumenical council, that of Nicaea (325), was fully implemented in the church’s way of thinking, teachings and practice.

In a sense, one could say that this process lasted until the Second Council of Nicaea, that is, until 787, until the conclusion of the cycle of the seven first great ecumenical councils.2 Because only by the Second Council of Nicaea (about holy images and their legitimacy) was the mystery of Christ in its essential dimensions illuminated. For this a good 450 years were required!

Or we can think about the Council of Trent, the great reform council during the crisis of the Reformation. In some places it took up to 200 years until the reforms from Trent were really implemented. In the Archdiocese of Vienna, it was only 200 years after the end of the council that the reform of priestly education was implemented and a seminary was founded. Vienna, after all, had no St. Charles Borromeo to immediately implement the desired reforms from the council!

Over the past 50 years, the Synod of Bishops was certainly one of the privileged instruments for the implementation of Vatican II. In 1983 Pope John Paul II could say: “The synodal key for the reading of the council’s texts became, so to say, a place for the interpretation, application and further development of Vatican II. The long list of topics that were handled in various synods itself shows the significance of the sessions for the church and for the implementation of the reforms that the council wanted” (ibid.).

The Synod of Bishops as a Privileged Place of Conciliar Interpretation

Certainly, the Synod of Bishops is only one of the places of interpretation and implementation of the reforms the council wanted. The whole rich variety of signs by which the church’s vitality is expressed contributes to the council’s sought-after renewal. The Synod of Bishops is a privileged place of conciliar interpretation.

In the 50 years of its existence there has also never been a lack of criticism concerning the Synod of Bishops and its efficiency. I do not need to name the diverse points of criticism that are brought forth again and again. This was and is a topic that is commonly discussed: the question of the authority of the Synod of Bishops—whether it is an advisory body that supports the Petrine office, or whether it also has full decision-making power. Is the Synod of Bishops a form of co-governance of the universal church? Or does it serve above all to cultivate collegiality, effective and affective collegiality under the bishops cum et sub Petro? Much was also debated about the methods of the Synod of Bishops. Aspects of the working methods were criticized repeatedly, and some were studied and made better through experience over the course of time. Thankfully we also see the renewal of the methods under Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

What is the Synod of Bishops supposed to do? What is its significance? Its goal? What are its theological foundations? Many important and valid things have been written about canon law and, above all, the ecclesiological foundations of the Synod of Bishops. I think especially about the lectio magistralis of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, about “Goals and Methods of the Synod of Bishops."3 With his usual clarity, he spoke about the legal and theological classification of the Synod of Bishops in the church as a whole. His remarks have lost none of their validity. (I will return later to two important consequences of his statements.)

Even then, when the institution of the Synod of Bishops was not yet 20 years old, two questions especially provoked reactions that are still relevant today, which Cardinal Ratzinger formulated in his talk as follows: “It is open to discussion whether the current juridical shape of the synod is perfectly suited for its goal, which is depicted in the context of a certain theological reality, found in the Second Vatican Council: … namely, within the relationship of the mission of the successor of St. Peter and the common responsibility of the whole College of Bishops, to whom—with and under Peter—the care for the universal church is entrusted.” The first question, then, is: Does the Synod of Bishops adequately serve the episcopal collegiality cum Petro et sub Petro in responsibility for the church?

Cardinal Ratzinger formulated the second question as follows: “We must also examine whether the methods used up until now are truly suitable for the objective of the Synod."4

The question of method guided the way of the Synod of Bishops from the beginning. St. Pope John Paul II said at the end of the Sixth General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on Oct. 29, 1983: “This instrument can still potentially be made better and the collegial pastoral responsibility in a synod can be even more perfectly expressed.”

And Pope Francis: “Almost 50 years have passed since the Synod of Bishops was established, and I too having deeply examined the signs of the times and with the awareness that in the exercise of my Petrine Ministry it is necessary more than ever to further revitalize the close relationship between all the Pastors of the Church, I wish to value this precious heritage of the Council."5

Synodos means “a common path.” Synodality means “being together on the same path.” Those who are together on the road need a clear goal. Method comes from methodos: “A path toward something.” If the syn-odos is to succeed, the meth-odos will be very crucial. The debates over the method of the synod are no trivial questions of organization. They very formatively co-determine whether the syn-odos will lead to its goal.

This inseparable togetherness and interconnectedness of synodos and methodos has been clear from the beginning of the institution of the Synod of Bishops, in the words with which St. Pope Paul VI started the Synod of Bishops: “The apostolic care in which We, attentively searching the signs of the times, seek to adapt the ways and methods of the spiritual apostolate to the growing needs of our day as well as to the changed conditions of society, urges Us to strengthen with even closer bonds Our union with the bishops ‘whom the Holy Spirit has destined…to guide the Church of God’ (Acts 20:28).”6

The Apostolic Council—Model for the Synodal Method

To consider this interconnectedness of synodos and methodos, I suggest we look at the “Proto-Synod,” the original model of the synod, at the so-called Apostolic Council of Jerusalem. It seems to me that the methods that were applied at that time could show the way for the Synod of Bishops now. And we can clearly see that in hindsight: This first synod was so successful that we still live from its fruits today.

It all began with a dramatic conflict: “Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). That was not some harmless thing. It was about salvation or damnation. It was about the entirety of the Christian path. Not only about the doctrine, but about life. No wonder this question caused great strife: “And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders” (Acts 15:2). It is therefore not surprising that there was then also “much debate” (Acts 15:7). Because when they all were together, “some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses’” (Acts 15:5).

The conflict about the path for non-Jewish Christians shows us something very important: It was expressed. It was openly named and openly dealt with. This parrhesia reminds me of two sayings of Pope Francis, who said to the participants at the beginning and end of the special session of the synod last October: “A basic condition for this is to speak openly. No one should say: ‘One can’t say that, or else someone could think poorly of me....’ Everything that you feel urged to say to someone is allowed to be said with parrhesia [candor]. After the last consistory (February 2014), in which the family was discussed, a cardinal wrote to me: ‘It’s a shame that some cardinals didn’t have the courage to say certain things out of respect for the pope, because they thought that the pope might perhaps think something different.’ That is not right; that is not synodality, because you should say everything that you feel urged to say in your heart: Without human deference, without fear! And likewise, one should listen in humility and adopt an open heart to what the brothers say. With these two attitudes we are practicing synodality.”

With these two attitudes it is also possible to get into “vigorous disagreements.” That is how it was at the Council of Jerusalem, the Apostolic Council. That is also how it was at the synod [in October 2015] last October. In his closing address on Oct. 18, 2014, Pope Francis also explicitly treated these discussions, which were certainly fraught with tension:

Personally I would be very worried and saddened if it were not for these temptations [the pope had mentioned five such temptations] and these animated discussions; this movement of the spirits, as St. Ignatius called it (Spiritual Exercises, 6), if all were in a state of agreement, or silent in a false and quietist peace. Instead, I have seen and I have heard—with joy and appreciation—speeches and interventions full of faith, of pastoral and doctrinal zeal, of wisdom, of frankness and of courage: and of parrhesia. And I have felt that what was set before our eyes was the good of the Church, of families, and the ‘supreme law,’ the ‘good of souls’” (cf. Can. 1752).

Pope Francis encourages us not to fear the controversies, to live them as this “movimento degli spiriti,” as the propelling force that lets the discernment of spirits ripen and prepares hearts to recognize what the Lord himself says to us, indeed what he has already decided (cf. Acts 15:7), which we still need to recognize through prayer and through the hard work of our controversy.

With that I turn again to the proto-synod, the “Council of Jerusalem.” I see the most important doctrines about the “synodal path” of the early church in methodos, in the way in which the young church solved this dramatic conflict. They did not write theological opinions, against which counter-opinions could be composed and presented. The theological debate is important and indispensable. It is part of the synodos that Pope Francis began when he chose the theme “Marriage and the Family,” that triggered an intense theological debate throughout the Church. In that I see a true gain for the “organic development” of the doctrine of the church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reads:

Thanks to the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the understanding of both the realities and the words of the heritage of faith is able to grow in the life of the Church:
- “through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts’; (DV 8) it is in particular “theological research [which] deepens knowledge of revealed truth.” (GS 62.7)
- “from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which [believers] experience,” (DV 8) The sacred Scriptures “grow with the one who reads them.” (St. Gregory the Great, Hom. in Ezek. 1, 7, 8)
- “from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth” (DV 8) (CCC 94).

Thus the theological debate of the past months is an important contribution to the path of the synod, just as the work of Vatican II would not have been possible without the great work of theologians in the decades before and during the council. The fact that these theological debates have sometimes been held, and continue to be held today, with some acrimony, even bitterness, and not always in the spirit of listening to one other and of attempting to understand the concerns of others, is one of the classic temptations about which Pope Francis spoke at the end of the extraordinary session of the synod.

The early church also used a different method, however, to come to a decision, to resolve the conflict. This method is surely also important for the theological debate. It is still more important for the success of the synodal path. We hear the account from the Acts of the Apostles:

The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us, and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Acts 15:6-11).

In brief: Peter reports what God himself had done and thus decided: The method that Peter uses is to tell the story of the deeds of God. We can also say: He reports what he has experienced as the work of God. From this he draws the conclusions. They are not the result of theological reflections, but rather of attentive looking at and listening to God’s works.

How does the “synod,” the assembly, react to Peter’s speech? “The whole assembly kept silence” (Acts 15:12). They do exactly what Pope Francis had asked us to do in the synod over the past few years: Peter spoke with parrhesia. And the assembly listened “in humility.” Peter’s testimony was not immediately plucked apart and criticized in a great debate. His word was accepted with silence and then be “pondered in the heart” (cf. Lk 2:19). How important is this silence and listening with the heart! With this approach, they are also ready to receive the testimony of Paul and Barnabas: “The whole assembly kept silence and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the gentiles” (Acts 15:12).

They told stories! They did not give some kind of theological treatise. They did not theorize abstractly about the salvation of the gentiles, but rather they described what they had “seen and heard” (cf. Acts 4:20). What Peter and John said before the High Council applies even more to the assembly of the church in Jerusalem: “We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20).

First off, the assembly leaves the testimony from Paul and Barnabas unchallenged. It is not immediately debated, but rather listened to and taken into their hearts. “After they finished speaking, James spoke up and said: “My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name” (Acts 15:13-14). James confirms what Peter has just said: God himself has intervened and decided the matter.

As authority, James cites words from the prophets that confirm in advance what the Lord does in these days, “to take from among them a people for his name” (Acts 15:14). Thus Scripture and experience coincide. In listening to both the writing and the experience, the assembly recognizes the way and the will of God. Then they come to a joint decision from “the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church” (Acts 15:22). In the written text, then we read: “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:28-29).

The Acts of the Apostles then reports the reception of the decisions of Jerusalem: “When they read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation (paraklêsei)” (Acts 15:31). It is a fine thing when the result of a synod heartens the believers! It was not always the case that what came out of a synod at the end was received with such joy.

The Conclusions: Mission, Witness, Discernment

I ask your indulgence for having stayed longer with the proto-synod of Jerusalem. To finish, I want to attempt to formulate three thoughts about the path of the Synod of Bishops. The orientation to the Holy Scriptures is, after all, essential to our “synodos,” our shared path. I will summarize this in three keywords: mission, witness, discernment.

1. The innermost goal of the synod as an instrument of the implementation of Vatican II can only be the mission. The proto-synod of Jerusalem made the missionary dynamic of the early church possible, promoted it, and even caused it to flourish tremendously. The fundamental understanding that we all, Jews and gentiles, “will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 15:11), has opened the door of the church to gentiles.

The success of the institution of the Synod of Bishops will be measured above all by whether it fosters “the Church’s life and her missionary outreach” (EG, No. 32). The Synod of Bishops can make a fruitful impact on the upcoming transition from a “pastoral ministry of mere conservation” to a “decidedly missionary pastoral ministry” at all levels of the church (EG, No. 15). Certainly, the Synod of Bishops is not a council. It should support the pope in his service of the church and, together with him, promote “missionary enthusiasm,” emphasized by both St. John Paul II (“Redemptoris Missio,” No. 45) and Pope Francis (EG, No. 265).

2.But how can the Synod of Bishops support the pope in their shared missionary dynamic? Here too a look at the proto-synod of Jerusalem can help us. For 50 years, the question of whether the synod should have not only a “voto consultativo” (consultative vote), but also a “voto deliberativo” (deciding vote) has been asked repeatedly. Pope Francis has frequently emphasized that the synod is not a parliament. It is of another nature.

Blessed Pope Paul VI introduced the Synod of Bishops as a new consultative organ at the level of the whole universal church. Certainly the bishops, as members of the synod, represent their local churches, their lives, joys and cares. In the shepherds, the entire people of God is always present. But the bishops are not representatives like the delegates in Parliament. This representation has an essentially different meaning in the church structure and is determined according to the principle of community and faith. Now faith cannot be represented but only witnessed to.

Exactly that happened back then in Jerusalem. The apostles gave witness to what they had seen and heard. If I may express a wish for the future path of the Synod of Bishops: Please, let us take the Apostolic Council as our norm! Let us talk less abstractly and distantly. Let us witness to one another what the Lord shows us and how we experience his activity.

I was allowed to take part in the synod on new evangelization. There were many interesting contributions. But hardly anyone gave testimony as to how we ourselves experience mission and evangelization. In Jerusalem, Peter, Paul and Barnabas spoke of their testimonies and experiences. All too often we remain in the theoretical, in “one should” and “one ought to”; we hardly ever speak personally about our missionary experiences. But this is what our believers are waiting for!

3. And exactly that is the determining factor: In Jerusalem it wasn’t about consultation or decision, but rather about the discernment of the will and way of God. Of course, heated discussions, even disputes and intense struggling are part of the synodal path. That is how it was already in Jerusalem, too. But the goal of debates, the goal of testimonies, is the mutual discernment of the will of God. And even there, where voting happens (like at the end of every synod), it is not about power struggles, party formation (about which the media loves to report), but rather about the joint process of forming a decision, as we have seen in Jerusalem. At the end, or so we hope, the result will not be a political compromise, based on a low common denominator, but rather this “added value” that the Holy Spirit gives, so that at the end it can be said, “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).

In conclusion, Pope Francis said from the very beginning, “The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can be understood only in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself. As John Paul II once said to the bishops of Oceania: ‘All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion.’”7 The Synod of Bishops is there for this reason, in order to continue along this path of maturation in the service of the successors of Peter, and it is an extremely precious gift for which we must thank the Holy Spirit, to whom Blessed Pope Paul VI alluded. Now it has been 50 years since then.


[1] John Paul II, Discorso Consiglio della Segretaria Generale del Sinodo dei Vescovi, April 30, 1983.

[2] Cf. Christoph Schönborn, God’s Human Face: The Christ Icon, Vienna, 1998.

[3] Card. Joseph Ratzinger, Scopi e metodi del Sinodo dei Vescovi. In: Josef Tomko (ed.), Il Sinodo dei Vescovi. Natura – metodo – prospettive, Città del Vaticano 1985, 45-58; shortened German edition: Fragen zu Struktur und Aufgaben der Bischofssynode. [Questions on the structure and purpose of the synod of bishops.] In: Gesammelte Schriften 8/1, Freiburg/Br. 2010, 556-572.

[4] Loc. cit., p. 45.

[5] Pope Francis, Lettera al Card. Baldisseri, Apr. 1, 2014.

[6] Pope Paul VI, Lettera Apostolica sollicitudo, Sept. 15, 1965.

[7] Pope John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation “Ecclesia in Oceania” (Nov., 22 2001), 19: AAS 94 (2002), 390; Pope Francis “Evangelii Gaudium,” no. 27

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