On Collegiality and Synodality

Author: Cardinal Donald Wuerl

On Collegiality and Synodality

Cardinal Donald Wuerl

Cardinal Wuerl speaks at the annual convention of the Canon Law Society of America

On Monday, 10 October [2016], at the Annual Convention of the Canon Law Society of America held in Houston, Texas, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, D.C., offered the keynote address entitled "Pope Francis: Fresh Perspectives on Synodality". The accompanying text is the first of a series of excerpts to be published in L'Osservatore Romano's weekly edition in English.


To start, it might be helpful to make some very brief observations on the ecclesial reality that we call the College of Bishops. Just as the 12 Apostles constituted a unique and identifiable group with its own nature and function, so, too, today do their successors. One manifestation of the College of Bishops is in their coming together as a council. The fullest expression of the word “council” is found in a general or ecumenical coming together of the College of Bishops. This manifestation of the College of Bishops, successors to the college of Apostles, enjoys and exercises effective or proper collegiality.

Episcopal conferences, for example, meet so that “by sharing their wisdom and experience and exchanging views, they may jointly formulate a program for the common good of the Church” (Motu Proprio citing the Second Vatican Council Degree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church, Christus Dominus, 37 and the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, 23).

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is not an intermediary ecclesial structure that directs or orders the dioceses in the United States. Rather, the bishops come together to find ways to identify and agree on a common exercise of their own proper pastoral ministry.

My observations however will be primarily about another ecclesial structure identified as the Synod of Bishops. It is not a council of all of the bishops. Rather, it is a gathering of a number of bishops who are intended to be reflective of the episcopate around the world. The assembled bishops of the synod do not exercise an authority as if they were the College of Bishops. However, they do reflect an effort at pastoral solidarity usually directed at specific pastoral issues or aspects of the Church structure, mission and ministry. The synod does not govern but it does offer counsel and advice.

The scope of my reflections today will be restricted to a look at synodality thorough the lens of Pope Francis’ teaching. Since the beginning of his pontificate, in fact, Pope Francis has focused on the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, particularly in Lumen Gentium, on the role of the bishops in communion with Peter in the overall responsibility for the life and mission of the Church. Our Holy Father engages the Synod as it has been structured since the days of Pope Paul VI as the instrument to bring to fuller maturation the level of collegiality called synodality. Having as reference points the experience of the last two Synods and the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, therefore, this presentation intends to reflect on the value and achievements of the emphasis on synodality.

Even though our purpose is to investigate synodality as a means of expression of the collegial nature of the episcopate, our starting point must include a brief consideration on the theological nature of collegiality, as this is significant in the understanding of synodality. We must begin, therefore, by considering several facts — several realities — those sacred offices in the Church, which are themselves structures. The Church Universal is made up of many and varied local Churches. Granted, the one Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church is more than just a federation of individual Churches. It is, nonetheless, made up of local Churches throughout the world; these local Churches arc essentially the same today as they were in the days of Saint Paul — the communities of believers centered in a specific area around one bishop, their bond and symbol of unity in faith and charity.1

Each local Church is the Universal Church in miniature. Every local Bishop, with his priests, preaches the same Gospel, dispenses the same healing grace through the sacraments, and applies to all the believers the saving mysteries of redemption. When the local bishop preaches, his church hears the words of the Church. When the local Church prays, it prays as the Body of Christ. The local Church has all those elements that the Universal Church enjoys. It is, therefore, not just a part of the Church. It participates and manifests fully the Universal Church in its own specific locale. It is the Church — localized.

The Universal Church, on the other hand, is more than the federation of local Churches. It too is a reality extending over all the face of the world, giving that super-local dimension to the notion of the Universal Church. Peter presides over the Universal Church. The local Bishop, successor of the Apostles, presides over the local Church. Both are communities — one on a local level centered in the Bishop, the other on a translocal level centered in Peter uniting all the local Churches in one Church. The members of the local Church by that title are members of the Church Universal.

Bishops are not agents of the Pope or servants of the Curia; the Curia is at the service of the Pope as head of the College of Bishops. And while the Pope is the head of the College, he does not govern apart from the bishops but with them. In the classic formula, the Church is governed by the bishops cum et sub Petro — “with and under Peter.” The governance of the universal Catholic Church includes both the authority of the College of Bishops and the special authority of the Pope.

Consequently, there are two loci of supreme authority in the Catholic Church. First, there is the supreme authority of the Pope. The College of Bishops, however, is also the ‘bearer of full and supreme power over the universal Church.’ As Lumen Gentium explains, this is only true when the College acts with the Pope as its head; and indeed cannot act in any way without the Pope. The Pope also acts in communion with the College of Bishops, of which — as the Bishop of Rome — he is also a member. This is expressed in canon 330: “Just as by the Lord’s decision Saint Peter and the other Apostles constitute one college, so in a like manner the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the Apostles, are united among themselves.”

In the Acts of the Apostles, we find an example of apostolic leadership gathering to resolve a serious issue. Clearly the coming together or walking together — the root meaning of the word synod — was a somewhat regular experience of Christian leaders — bishops — in the early centuries.


However, the ecclesiastical structure that we now call the Synod of Bishops has its own identifiable origin and a specific purpose.

The Pope calls such a meeting, and national conferences of bishops around the world elect those bishops who will attend from their respective countries. A number of additional bishops, experts and observers are also appointed by the Pope.

The idea of having a synod grew out of the experience of Pope Paul VI and the bishops at the time of the Second Vatican Council. Then over 2,500 bishops from all over the world, from October 1962 to December 1965, came to Rome to reflect on how well the Church was carrying out her mission to be the continuing presence of Christ and his Gospel in the world. As the Council drew to a conclusion in 1965, there was the hope that some mechanism might be found to keep alive the collaborative experience of the Council. Thus was born, at the directive of the Pope, what we now call the Synod of Bishops.

Pope Paul VI’s Motu Proprio Apostolica Sollicitudo, re-established the Synod of Bishops as an ecclesial institution and gave it what was, in effect, its constitution. The document notes that the aims of the Synod are: to promote a closer union and greater cooperation between the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops of the whole world; 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; to facilitate agreement, at least on essential matters of doctrine and on the course of action to be taken in the life of the Church.

Its special and immediate purposes are: to provide mutually useful information; to discuss the specific business for which the Synod is called into session on any given occasion.”

With the establishment of the structure in 1965 of the Synod of Bishops, Pope, now Blessed, Paul VI created an ecclesial institution to permit an aspect of the collegiality experienced during the Second Vatican Council to continue in a new and limited format. Hence, we now speak of synodality as an expression of episcopal collaboration that does not rise to the level of an ecumenical council.

Collegiality refers to the Successor of Peter governing the Church in collaboration with, and with the participation of, the bishops of the local Churches, respecting their joint responsibility for the Universal Church. Synodality is one particular expression of that rightful participation of the local churches in governance, through consultation.

Three kinds of synods exist: “ordinary” assemblies that consider matters of importance to the Universal Church, “extra-ordinary” assemblies that focus on topics requiring timely decisions, and “special” assemblies that focus on particular geographical areas. There have been 27 such synods in all since they were re-established by Paul VI in 1965.

What Pope Francis is renewing is what the Second Vatican Council began and this includes emphasis on the pastoral mission of the Church, one that is less focused on the exercise of power and the concentration of it in the hands of a few and more directed to the evangelizing discipleship reflected in personal witness. Here the words of Blessed Paul VI ring true: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”2

Pope Francis, elected as the 266th Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, and Head of the Church Universal, now stands on all of the foundation work of his predecessors and begins to pick up, once again, the threads of the energizing focus of the Second Vatican Council.

The Synod of Bishops “has been one of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council,” Pope Francis has said. “Thanks to God that, in these almost fifty years, we have been able to feel the benefits of this institution that, in a permanent way, is at the service of the Church’s mission and communion as an expression of collegiality.”3

1 Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 832-835.

2 Pope Paul VI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), 41.

3 Pope Francis, Address to the 2014 Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod 011 the Family (June 2013).

L'Osservatore Romano
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18 November 2016, page 10

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