Pope Francis’ first Synod of the Bishops will be, quite literally, an “extraordinary” one. Today the Vatican announced that Pope Francis will host an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to discuss the topic, “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” The meeting will take place in Rome, October 5-14, 2014, and the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics will almost certainly be on the table.
There have only been two previous such Extraordinary Synods since Pope Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops in 1965. The Synod of Bishops is a general assembly gathering that was created as part of the Vatican II reforms, and regular (ie, non-extraordinary) synods meet every couple years. The synod’s role, Pope Paul VI said, is to examine “the signs of the times” and “to provide a deeper interpretation of divine designs and the constitution of the Catholic Church” in order to “foster the unity and cooperation of bishops around the world with the Holy See.”
For Francis, issues of family and marriage are the ones that require deeper interpretation given the signs of the times, and dedicating a synod to the topic suggests he wants to unify church teaching about them. When local church offices around the world make their own decisions about marriage and family—especially about serving communion to divorced and remarried Catholics—the global church as whole becomes divided. “It is very important that an extraordinary Synod has been convoked on the theme of the pastoral of the family,” Vatican spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi said. “This is the way in which the Pope intends to promote reflection and to guide the path of the community of the Church, with the responsible participation of the episcopate from different parts of the world.”
Calling an Extraordinary Synod versus a regular Synod means that the issues are even more urgent. The participants are more select, and the heads of the Eastern Churches attend, as well as presidents of bishops conferences and heads of curia offices. The First Extraordinary Synod was held in 1969 and titled, “Cooperation between the Holy See and the Episcopal Conferences.” Pope John Paul II called the Second Extraordinary Synod of 1985 around the theme, “The Twentieth Anniversary of the Conclusion of the Second Vatican Council.” This Third Extraordinary Synod is a result of Pope Francis’ meeting with the “G8” Council of Cardinals, who met in the Vatican last week.