A message from Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M.

The Catholic Church in recent years, particularly during the pontificate of Pope Francis, has become accustomed to hearing the expression “synodality” used to describe the nature of the Church in our day. The word itself is derived from two Greek words meaning “common road or path.”  Synodality “is the specific modus vivendi et operandi (way of living and operating) of the Church, the People of God, which reveals and gives substance to her being as communion when all her members journey together, gather in assembly and take an active part in her evangelizing mission (International Theological Commission, “Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church,” March 2, 2018, para. 6).”

While “synods” are not new to the Church, Pope St. Paul VI (1897-1978) formally established the “Synod of Bishops,” following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), as a “permanent institution” in the Church “whereby bishops chosen from various parts of the world are to offer more effective assistance to the Supreme Shepherd … providing information and offering advice (Paul VI, apostolic letter motu proprio “Apostolica sollicitudo (Apostolic concern),” September 15, 1965).” These synods are convened by the pope as “ordinary (held at fixed intervals)” or “extraordinary (held to treat a matter of urgent or specific concern)” gatherings of designated bishops of the world with the pope.  Even when they are not in session, synods have a permanent secretariat or office in Rome.

Throughout his papacy, Pope Francis has expressed a desire to strengthen the unity and collegiality of Church governance on matters of faith and morals and ecclesial life.  To that end, drawing from his November 24, 2013 apostolic exhortation “Evangelium Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel),” Pope Francis issued an apostolic constitution “Episcopalis communio (Episcopal communion)" on September 15, 2018, “to profoundly reshape all the ecclesial structures to become more missionary … (and) to become more and more an adequate channel for the evangelization of the present world more than for self- preservation … a privileged instrument for listening to the People of God.”

During his pontificate, Pope Francis has convened the following synods:

1. On “The Family and the Beatification of the Servant of God Paul VI (October 5-19, 2014)”

2. On “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World (Ordinary Synod, October 4-25, 2015)”

3. On “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment (Ordinary Synod, October 3-28, 2018)”

4. On the Pan-American Region of the Church (Extraordinary Synod, October 6-27, 2019)

On April 24 of this current year, Pope Francis announced the convocation of the Sixteenth Ordinary Synod --- originally scheduled for 2022 but postponed due to the pandemic until 2023 --- with the theme “For A Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission.”  It will follow a newly revised programmatic structure:

This path toward the celebration of the Synod comprises of three phases, between October 2021 and October 2023, a diocesan phase and a continental phase that will give life to two different Instrumentum Laboris (Working Documents), and finally a conclusive phase at the level of the Universal Church … The Synod of Bishops is the dynamic point of convergence that calls for mutual listening to the Holy Spirit at every level of the Church's life (General Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops, “Note on the XVI Ordinary Synod,” May 21, 2021).

The Sixteenth Ordinary Synod of Bishops will open on Sunday, October 10, 2021 with a Mass celebrated in St. Peter’s Basilica by Pope Francis.  Every diocese throughout the world will initiate the diocesan phase of the Synod with a Mass celebrated by the diocesan bishop on October 17, 2021.  In the Diocese of Trenton, that Mass will be celebrated in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral in Trenton at 3 p.m.  The Diocese will also use that occasion to commemorate its 140th Anniversary Year.

The program or “path” of the diocesan phase of the Synod is described in the General Secretariat’s “Note,” referenced above:

Each bishop will appoint a diocesan contact person (and eventually a team) for the synodal consultation; they shall be a point of reference and link with the Episcopal Conference. They will accompany all the stages of the consultation process in the local church (before October 2021).

Consultation in the particular Churches will include those groups of participation as envisioned in Episcopalis Communio, without excluding other modalities deemed appropriate for the consultation to be real and effective (cf. Episcopalis Communio, 6).

Consultation with the People of God in each particular Church will conclude with a pre-synodal meeting, which will be the culmination of diocesan discernment.

After the conclusion of the diocesan phase, each particular Church will submit their contributions to their Episcopal Conference on a date determined by the Episcopal Conference itself. The Eastern Churches will submit their contributions to their corresponding bodies.

Preparations for these elements of the diocesan phase of the Synod for the Diocese of Trenton are being made and will be announced soon.

Since there are two other phases to this Synod --- the “continental phase” at the level of the Episcopal Conference (that is, for us, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) and the “universal phase” in Rome --- the Sixteenth Ordinary Synod of Bishops will not be completed until October 2023.

At the conclusion of each Synod of Bishops, the Pope usually issues a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, summarizing the major emphases and conclusions of the synod.  Along with the College of Bishops, these documents are considered part of the Pope’s ordinary magisterium or teaching authority, to be believed by all the faithful.

I ask the clergy, religious and lay faithful of the Diocese of Trenton to pray for the Church as it prepares for this important spiritual endeavor.  It is my hope, as Bishop of the Diocese, that we will all fruitfully participate in and benefit from the Synod at the diocesan level, listening to one another as we share our “stories,” experiences and hopes for the Church at this exciting time in its history.  I will continue to keep the Diocese informed as plans develop.