Catholics for Renewal



Diocesan Synods: Getting the Preparations Underway

A diocesan synod is a gathering of all the faithful of a local church working together on its mission and sharing in its life. This is why it is a liturgical event: opening and closing with the Eucharist and beginning each day with prayer.

The first diocesan synod in Australia was convened by Bishop James Quinn of Brisbane in 1863[1]. A further 132, with clerics only attending, were held up to 1983 when canon law allowed the participation of lay men and women. Since 1983 just 7 diocesan synods have been convened.

During the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the 5 Metropolitan archbishops showed scant knowledge of previous diocesan synods but committed to take seriously any recommendation giving the laity, including men and women, a forum to discuss matters that contributed to the incidence and response to child sexual abuse. 

When the Royal Commission recommended a national review of church governance (Rec 16.7), the Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia commissioned one.

The Light from the Southern Cross

In 2020, the review report, The Light from the Southern Cross, made two recommendations on diocesan synods:

  1. That within five years following the closing session of the Plenary Council 2020-21 each diocese [should] conduct a diocesan synod and every ten years thereafter (Rec. 56); and
  2. That the membership of each diocesan synod [should] reflect the profile of the relevant diocese (Rec. 57).

In their Response the Australian bishops endorsed Rec. 56 provided it was consistent with the Plenary Council decrees and universal church law, and that each local Church could determine for itself the appropriate means to apply the Council’s decrees in the local context.

They also endorsed Rec. 57, agreeing that it accorded with sound ecclesiology, principles of synodality and co-responsibility, and canon law.

5th Plenary Council Decree

In Decree 7  the Plenary Council affirmed that governance in the Catholic Church should be exercised in a synodal manner with the appropriate participation of all the baptised. For dioceses this would mainly involve the permanent advisory bodies - Diocesan Pastoral Council (though fewer than half the dioceses have one), Council of Priests, College of Consultors, Diocesan Finance Council, and the Diocesan Curia - other boards and governance bodies, and at times, a Diocesan Synod (5,a).

The Decree also recognised and affirmed the earlier ‘within 5 years’ commitment of the Bishops Conference and encouraged the dioceses to begin their planning when the Council concluded (5.b). Additionally, it called on all dioceses to establish a Diocesan Pastoral Council with guidelines and resources for their flourishing (5.c).

Diocesan Synod – ‘highest of all diocesan structures of participation’

The Directory on the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops calls the diocesan Synod ’the instrument par excellence for assisting the bishop – the sole legislator - in establishing the canonical ordering of the diocesan Church’. It is the ‘highest of all diocesan structures of participation’ for it provides a grace-filled opportunity for the People of God in the local church to walk together in ‘synodality’ - ‘the very essence of the Church and her constitutive reality’, the ‘ecclesial way of being’, and ‘the path which God expects of the Church in the third millennium’.  Under the bishop’s leadership the synod discerns the pastoral challenges in the diocese, seeks ways to go in mission, renews and deepens awareness of co-responsibility and, listening to the Spirit, co-operates actively in making appropriate decisions.

Hearing all the voices

In preparing a diocesan synod the bishop must set up an effective preparatory process to ensure that ‘all the voices’ are heard and listened to. While the bishop will inform the diocesan faithful of what he wants placed on the agenda, he must give his priests and lay men and women the opportunity to freely express their own needs, desires, and opinions and cooperate with him for the good of the whole ecclesial community. The permanent diocesan structures are also to be involved in this process.

The 1997 Instruction on Diocesan Synods calls for the bishop to establish a preparatory commission composed of competent clergy and laity, a secretariat, and a press office, and insists that the faithful of the diocese be fully informed of the nature and purpose of the synod.

With the bishop, the preparatory commission prepares the synod Directory, containing membership composition. and rules for electing members, synodal structures, personnel, and procedures.

Those who participate in the synod, whether ex officio, elected, or appointed, must provide a meaningful and balanced image of the entire local church, reflecting its diverse ministries, charisms, competencies, vocations, and demographic and social character, across its entire territory.  Synod members will receive all working documents prior to the synod opening.

Initiatives in the Australian dioceses

Since the close of the Plenary Council in July 2022 three dioceses have announced plans to convene a diocesan synod: Parramatta in October 2023, Brisbane in late 2023, and Geraldton in 2024.

Three other dioceses have already held diocesan assemblies to prepare for their synod: Sandhurst, Port Pirie and Brisbane. Parramatta is currently having Consultations from May-July and Perth is holding an Assembly in June.

Diocesan synods are very important and Catholics for Renewal is pleased to see these initiatives emerging. We would encourage all the diocesan bishops in Australia to begin planning assemblies and consultations in their dioceses to prepare for the great graced event of a diocesan synod.

[1]   An earlier synod in Perth in 1850 is contested.

Images:Synod 2018.vat