Looking Back: Synods Held During Benedict XVI's Reign

Summarizing Facets of a Pontificate

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Pope Benedict XVI left an important legacy to the Church, having convoked five Assemblies of the Synod of Bishops, some «general» and others «special.»

A synod results in a papal document called a postsynodal apostolic exhortation, in which the Pope takes into account the main ideas approved in the Assemblies by the participants.

Benedict XVI’s Convocations

The first synod held during Benedict XVI’s pontificate was the 11th Ordinary General Assembly, held from October 2-23, 2005, which was attended by 258 Synodal Fathers to reflect on the topic: «The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church.»

In a certain sense, this was an Assembly «inherited» by Benedict XVI, given that, taking into consideration the opinion of the members of the 10th Ordinary Council of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops (which is installed between one Assembly and another), and based at the same time on the consultation of Episcopal Conferences worldwide and of other interested organizations, Pope John Paul II decided to convoke the 11th Ordinary General Assembly to address the topic of the Eucharist. 

After his election on April 19, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI confirmed the dates of the Synodal Assembly and, at the same time, approved the following innovations to the Synod’s activities: the reduction of the duration of the Synodal Assembly to three weeks; an hour of free discussion; the duration of the interventions after the conclusion of the afternoon’s plenary sessions; the members’ electronic vote – in addition to the usual written vote — on the Synod’s Proposals or Recommendations and the publication pro hoc vice of the Italian translation of the Proposals. 

The official documentation produced by the Synodal Assembly included the Message to the People of God (Nuntius), elaborated during the Assembly and approved by the Synod Fathers, as well as the Holy Father’s postsynodal apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis of February 22, 2007. 

For its part, the 12th Ordinary General Assembly, held from October 5-26, 2008, was attended by 253 Synodal Fathers, who reflected on the topic: «The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.»

As early as October 6, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI had announced his decision to convoke a 12th Ordinary General Assembly, to address the theme of the Word of God, and intended to continue the preceding Synod of the year 2005 on the Eucharist and, in this way, highlight the intrinsic relation between the Eucharist and the Word of God for the life and mission of the Church.

A distinctive feature of this Synodal Assembly was its unfolding with the celebration of the Pauline Year, which began on June 29, 2008. To commemorate this occasion, the liturgy for the opening of the Synod was celebrated in the Papal Basilica of Saint Paul Outside-the-Walls. At the same time, given the theme being discussed, for the first time a Rabbi was invited to talk with the Synodal Fathers and the participants. Likewise, attending the Synodal Assembly for the first time was His Eminence Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, who addressed the Synod’s participants during the celebration of Vespers in the Sistine Chapel. 

Moreover, for the first time the 55 Propositions elaborated collegially by the Synodal Fathers were announced to the public pro hoc vice in an Italian translation. During the Synod’s closing session, the members also announced the Message to the People of God (Nuntius). 

Subsequently the Holy Father wrote the postsynodal apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini, promulgated on September 30, 2010.

A year later, the 2nd Special Assembly for Africa was held, from October 4-25, 2009, which was attended by 244 Synodal Fathers who analyzed the topic: «The Church in Africa at the Service of Reconciliation, Justice and Peace.»

During the Symposium of the Bishops of Africa and Europe, held in Rome on November 13, 2004, Pope John Paul II, «accepted the desire of the Special Council for Africa» and, responding to «the hope of African pastors,» announced the convocation of the 2nd Special Assembly for Africa. In the weekly Audience of June 22, 2005, the Holy Father Benedict XVI confirmed this decision. 

In the course of the 2nd Special Assembly, the Synodal Fathers focused their attention on the realities in the Church in the African continent, especially on reconciliation, justice and peace, so that the Church could respond to her mission to be «salt of the earth and light of the world» in the social, cultural and religious realms.

The Synodal Assembly approved the Final Message, which was both an appeal and a source of encouragement for the Church’s mission in Africa, and 57 Propositions or Proposals to be presented to the Holy Father, in which the Synodal Fathers decided to treat in a pastoral manner the different issues discussed during the Assembly. 

As a result of this, the Holy Father signed the postsynodal apostolic exhortation Africae munus, which was given to the African people and to the world during his apostolic journey to Benin from November 18-20, 2011. 

The next convocation was characterized for being the first Special Assembly on the Middle East, for which the Pope convoked 185 Synodal Fathers from October 10-24, 2010, who addressed the pending topic: «The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness.»

The Holy Father Benedict XVI announced personally the convocation of the Synodal Assembly of September 19, 2009, in Castel Gandolfo, during a meeting with the heads of the Oriental Catholic Churches sui iuris.

At the same time, the Pope also established the Pre-Synodal Council for the Middle East, whose members included the seven Patriarchs, specifically, six from the Oriental Catholic Churches sui iuris and the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, and the presidents of the Episcopal Conferences of Turkey and Iran. 

In addition to Jerusalem and the Palestinian Territories, the Synodal Assembly’s preparatory documents designated the following sixteen countries as the «Middle East»: Saudi Arabia, Bahrein, Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. 

In addition to the Synodal Fathers, a significant number of experts, auditors, fraternal delegates and guests – all connected in some way to the Church in the Middle East — took part in the Synodal Assembly, including a rabbi and two Muslim representatives, who addressed the Assembly. 

Forty-four Propositions resulted from the Special Assembly on the Middle East. They were given to the public pro hoc vice in an Italian translation. At the end of the Synod, the members also published a Message for the People of God (Nuntius). 

Almost a year later, and after having reflected on and analyzed the proposals received, the Holy Father issued the postsynodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, which was signed and presented to the Church in the Middle East during his recent apostolic visit to Lebanon, from September 14-16, 2012. 

Towards the New Evangelization

The 13th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, held from October 7-28, 2012, was attended by 262 Synodal Fathers, the highest number in the history of Synods. 

Taking part in the works were fraternal delegates, representatives of fifteen Churches and Ecclesial Communities which are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church. In this connection, it is important to point out that His Grace Doctor Rowan Douglas Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of All England and of the Anglican Communion, intervened during the Synodal Assembly. Moreover, His Holiness Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch, attended the solemn Eucharist of October 11, and delivered a message. 

Three special guests took part in the Synod: Brother Alois, Prior of Taize (France); The Reverend Lamar Vest, president of the American Bible Soci
ety (USA), and Mr. Werner Arber, professor of Microbiology at the Biozentrum of the University of Basle (Switzerland) and president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. 

During the General Assembly, the Holy Father presided over four liturgical celebrations. One of them was the solemn Eucharistic concelebration of October 7, which marked the beginning of the works. During this Eucharist, the Pope declared two Saints Doctors of the Church: Saint John of Avila and Saint Hildegard of Bingen. The Synodal works ended on Sunday, October 28, with a Eucharistic concelebration in which the Pope was accompanied by all the Synodal Fathers. 

On Sunday, October 21, missionary month, the Supreme Pontiff presided over the Mass of canonization of seven Blesseds: Santiago Berthieu, Pedro Calungsod, Giovanni Battista Piamarta, Maria del Monte Carmelo Salles I Barangueras, Marianna Cope, Caterina Tekawitha and Anna Schaffer. 

Especially significant was the Eucharist of October 11, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican Council II and the 20th anniversary of the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. On this occasion, the Holy Father Benedict XVI proclaimed the Year of Faith, which will end on the solemnity of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, November 24, 2013.

The content of the subsequent Apostolic Exhortation, as well as the date and place of its publication, will be subject to the decision of the next Supreme Pontiff.

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José Antonio Varela Vidal

Lima, Perú Periodista colegiado con ejercicio de la profesión desde 1993. Titulado en periodismo por la Universidad Jaime Bausate y Meza, de Lima. Estudios complementarios en filosofía, teología, periodismo religioso, new media y en comunicación pastoral e intercultural-misionera; así como en cooperación para el desarrollo y gerencia política. Con preparación adicional en pastoral urbana, doctrina social de la Iglesia, responsabilidad social empresarial, metodología activo-participativa, además de comunicación institucional y estratégica, desarrollados indistintamente en Lima, Quito, Bogotá, Roma, Miami, y Washington DC. Ha ejercido tareas como ejecutivo en oficinas de comunicación institucional en el sector público, privado y eclesial. Asimismo, gerente de Televisión de un canal y director de dos revistas impresas. Experiencia en la docencia universitaria, y en la dirección, producción y conducción de programas de radio, televisión y espacios online. Colabora con artículos, entrevistas y traducciones en ZENIT desde diciembre 2011.

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