ROME – After just two days of the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, it’s too early to expect clarity on any of the big-picture issues, such as a married priesthood, a ministry for women, how far the Church should go in embracing the secular ecological agenda, new solutions for indigenous communities, and so on.

According to official Vatican briefings, those issues are being discussed but that’s about it. Paolo Ruffini, the director of the Vatican’s communications department, said at a briefing on Tuesday that while there have been different emphases it’s too early to speak of any real “disagreement,” in part because they’re in a phase now in which everyone gives prepared statements and there’s no back-and-forth.

In the meantime, here’s a random thought motivated by the first couple days: Is it time to change the preposition in the name of a synod, from a synod “of” bishops to a synod “with” bishops?

Historically, a “synod” meant a meeting of bishops convened to settle some point of doctrine, worship or governance. That’s still basically how the term is used in Eastern Christianity, though their synods may also include other clergy.

When Pope Paul VI instituted the modern Catholic Synod of Bishops in 1965, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the idea was to give bishops from around the world a greater say in the governance of the universal Church. From the beginning there were others who took part, such as religious superiors, but bishops were the protagonists and stars of the show.

The event was conceived primarily as a chance for the pope and his Vatican team to hear from local bishops on important issues, with other participants seen as, more or less, consulters and observers.

That’s been less and less true for a while, and the unspoken transition has been in clear evidence during the Oct. 6-27 Amazon summit.

To take just one small example, the first synod news conference on Tuesday featured five speakers plus a moderator, and only one was a bishop: Cardinal Pedro Barreto Jimeno of Huancayo, Peru, a Jesuit who’s serving as one of three co-presidents for the assembly.

For that matter, only two of the speakers were clergy (there was also Father Giacomo Costa, an Italian Jesuit who’s helping the synod’s communication commission), and one wasn’t even Catholic: Victoria Tauli Corpuz, a Filipina who serves as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, and who’s taking part in the synod as an invited observer. She’s a member of an indigenous group in the Philippines and an Anglican (her father was an Anglican priest.)

Since I couldn’t recall another time a UN official had an official capacity at a Synod of Bishops, I asked Ruffini if this is a first. He couldn’t say for sure and neither could anyone else in that moment, which, in itself, is revealing of how natural such things have become. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni later issued a communique to the effect that two UN officials, including the director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization at the time, took part in the 2009 Synod of Bishops for Africa.

Still, the representation is more ample this time, including former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon as well as Brazilian scientist Carlos Nobre, who led the IPCC report on climate change that won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

After the briefing, I asked Tauli Corpuz to compare this synod with other international conferences she’s attended on indigenous issues – aside from the obvious point, of course, that the synod begins with morning prayer.

At the level of content, she said, there isn’t much difference, but added: “It’s nice to see cardinals and bishops really making an effort to listen. So often we think of the Church as colonizing and imposing, but here they really seem to want to hear what the indigenous and the experts have to say.”

Overall, there are about 280 people taking part in this synod as members, observers, fraternal delegates, experts, and special guests, only 158 of whom are actually bishops. That’s a bit more than half, but would you call a PB&J sandwich in which the ingredients were roughly evenly mixed a sandwich “of” peanut butter alone?

Aside from press briefings, one could probably say that so far, the real stars of the synod have been the 17 indigenous persons on hand.

It was an indigenous man wearing a feathered headdress who brought up the gifts at Sunday’s opening Mass, for instance, who set tongues wagging on social media and who induced the most memorable zinger of the synod so far: Pope Francis mockingly asking, “What’s the difference between that and the biretta worn by some cardinals of our dicasteries?”

To sum up, a Synod of Bishops was conceived a half-century ago as a chance for the home office, i.e., the Vatican, to hear from its middle mangers around the world, i.e., the bishops. For some time, however, it’s been evolving into a chance for the middle-mangers in tandem with the home office to hear from two other constituencies:

  • The Church’s base, meaning rank-and-file clergy and laity alike.
  • The outside world, including potential partners in other Christian churches, other religious faiths, and secular entities sharing common goals.

There’s nothing wrong with calling such an assembly a “synod,” of course, since the term has been fairly elastic already across the span of Christian history.  However, it’s not really a synod “of” bishops, in the sense that they’re the main actors.

The only thing that sort-of distinguishes bishops anymore is the right to vote (I say sort-of because a handful of non-bishops, including one non-ordained male, has that right too), but even that’s fairly hollow. A Synod of Bishops has no decision-making authority, so all those votes accomplish is to decide what to pass on to the pope. Since he sits there every day, he’s probably got a fairly good sense of what went on anyway.

Perhaps it’s time to say out loud what a synod has actually become: A gathering “with” bishops, certainly, but not “of” them. The emphasis anymore isn’t on bishops speaking, so much as listening – not to Rome, in this case, but to pretty much everybody else.

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr

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