Statement on Newly Established Synod of Bishops

This is a translation of the statement read by Paolo Cardinal Marella, president of the ecumenical council’s Commission on the Pastoral Duties of Bishops, at a press conference Sept. 25 on the newly announced Synod of Bishops.

The Synod of Bishops:

On Sept. 14, 1965, at the solemn opening of the fourth session of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI had intimated that before the end of the council a Synod of Bishops would be instituted for the entire Church. On the following day, at the first general meeting of the session, in the presence of His Holiness, the motu proprio Apostolica Sollicitudo was solemnly promulgated, implementing the promise of the preceding day.

Historical Notes:

The institution of a permanent central organ which would enable the pope to associate the bishops of the entire world more intimately with the concerns and government of the universal Church had been proposed by various bishops throughout the world from the very beginning of the antepreparatory period of the council when, at the invitation of John XXIII, the Holy See had asked the bishops of the Church for their observations, advice, suggestions and recommendations as to problems eventually to be discussed in the council.

When the preparatory commissions were set up on June 5, 1960, the commission then called the Commission on Bishops and the Government of Dioceses, in view of the recommendation made by many bishops, submitted a formula which provided for the designation of bishops from various nations, especially residential bishops, by the different national episcopal conferences, to act as consultors to the Roman congregations. These consultors would have been convoked at periods to be later determined. The Central Preparatory Commission reacted favorably to the proposal in principle, although some of its members expressed their preference for the erection of a consultative body of bishops which would, under the presidency of the sovereign pontiff, treat problems touching on the common good of the entire Church.

The Commission on Bishops and the Government of Dioceses adopted the proposal of the preparatory commission. Nevertheless, there were growing and more insistent recommendations for the institution of a permanent organism, for which various titles were proposed.

On Sept. 21, 1963, in his discourse to the Roman curia, Paul VI expressed the desire that “certain representatives of the episcopate, especially residential bishops” should be associated in some manner and for certain questions with the supreme head of the Church in matters pertaining to ecclesiastical government. A few days later, on Sept. 29, as he opened the second session of the council, the Holy Father formulated the hope that, in line with the council’s teaching on the episcopate, the council Fathers should indicate certain doctrinal and practical suggestions which would make it possible for the pope to be better assisted and strengthened, in a manner to be later determined, by the effective and responsible collaboration of the bishops.

In the discussion of the outline of the schema on the pastoral duties of bishops, the urgings and proposal of the bishops became increasingly numerous, to the point that the competent commission inserted into the text a proposal that certain bishops of different regions of the world should collaborate with the supreme shepherd of the Church in whatever form and manner would be subsequently determined by him. This proposal was approved with near unanimity by the council Fathers on Nov. 4, 1964.

The Motu Proprio Apostolica Sollicitudo:

This document of His Holiness expresses and gives concrete shape and form to the close union and collaboration which is provided for by the desires of the council Fathers in the relationships between the pope and the members of the episcopal college.

In the introduction, the Holy Father stresses the “primacy of service” in which, practically speaking, the “primacy of authority” is resolved. He makes known his concern for the welfare of the entire Church, as expressed in the search for means and methods adequate for the new needs of the apostolate. He intends, he says, to give in this motu proprio a significant proof of his esteem for his collaborators, or brothers, in the episcopate. The Synod of Bishops is a concrete and effective sign of the participation of the episcopate in the Pope’s “concern for all the Churches.”

The motu proprio is divided into 12 articles: 1) the nature of the synod; 2) its nature, function and scope; 3) the authority on which it depends; 4) the various types of meetings; 5-7) the members who will take part in the different meetings; 8) the procedure to be followed in the choice of the bishops representing the various national episcopal conferences; 9) qualifications required of them; 10) members to be eventually chosen by the pope; 11) cessation of membership and of the functions of the representatives; 12) the permanent secretary or the special secretary to be designated by the pope.

It is expected that the total membership of the Synod of Bishops will be in the neighborhood of 150 to 160 members.

The Importance of the Document:

This motu proprio is a document of profound doctrinal, pastoral and historical significance. The government of the Church has been provided with a new instrument which is both effective and adequate for the times. Even in the past, through the medium of the apostolic nuncios throughout the world, the Holy Father was able to consult the bishops. This new organism will provide the possibility of direct consultation and will also offer the means of maintaining rapport between the pope and the bishops in view of more fruitful collaboration. The erection of the synod exalts and, in the eyes of the faithful, gives new value to the figure and the mission of the bishop.

The Episcopal Conferences:

The national or international episcopal conferences will thus have a new function and will acquire the importance and the authority of an organ for the government of the Universal Church. These conferences, whose specific purpose is to promote apostolic activities in the light of the needs of the individual nations, came into being about a century ago, and were the result of the exigencies of the social and religious situations prevailing in different areas. Encouraged and blessed by succeeding popes, they have been growing in number and in importance. Their statutes have been approved by the Holy See, and they now number approximately 51. From the council and later from the new Code of Canon Law they will be given juridical personality and particular powers, as indicated in the decree on the pastoral duties of bishops in the Church, which will be shortly definitively approved by the council.


The Apostolica Sollicitudo which in a certain sense coordinates and links up the work of the episcopal conferences is the result of mature and responsible consideration and paternal solicitude on the part of the Pope. Before deciding on the promulgation of this motu proprio he studied it carefully, meditated and prayed and asked the opinions of many competent experts, especially among the bishops. He acquainted himself with even the slightest details of the proposals and suggestions coming from the council Fathers. Hence, this papal document can be considered as something genuinely substantial which has come to maturity in the atmosphere created by the council.

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