ROME – As Americans know well, the Super Bowl is no longer just a football game. It’s an entire fortnight of pre-game festivities, collectively creating one of the most frenzied periods on the country’s annual calendar.

In a similar vein, if the Synod of Bishops on Synodality is this fall’s Catholic equivalent of the Super Bowl, the next few days are similarly chock-full of what might be described as pre-game activities, creating a extremely busy period in and around Rome.

Things kick off Saturday morning at 10:00 a.m. Rome time, when Pope Francis will preside over a consistory ceremony to create 21 new cardinals, including 18 under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to participate in the next papal election.

It’s a keenly anticipated moment, because there are several figures in the lineup for this consistory, the ninth of Francis’s papacy, who are considered not only as highly influential figures right now, but who are also seen as possible candidates to become pope themselves at some future point.

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The crop includes one American, Cardinal-designate Robert Prevost, head of the Vatican’s powerful Dicastery for Bishops. One might say, however, that the American total is more like one and a half, since there’s also French Cardinal-designate Christoph Pierre, the papal ambassador in the United States.

Saturday evening, the Vatican is staging an ecumenical vigil in St. Peter’s Square at 6:00 p.m. local time to pray for the success of the Synod of Bishops. The roster of other Christian leaders expected to be on hand includes Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the traditional “first among equals” in the Orthodox world, as well as Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Actually, for ordinary folks who won’t be present at the consistory in the morning, it’s possible to make a whole day out of the ecumenical send-off for the synod. According to flyers distributed in local parishes in Rome encouraging people to come, the schedule includes:

  • 9-11 a.m.: Ecumenical laboratories in the center of Rome
  • 11:30-12:30: Sack lunches at the Basilica of St. John Lateran
  • 1-2:30 p.m.: Prayers of praise in the basilica
  • 2:30-4 p.m.: Procession from St. John Lateran to St. Peter’s Square
  • 3-5 p.m.: Songs and music from every continent in St. Peter’s Square
  • 5-7 p.m.: The ecumenical prayer vigil itself

Helpfully, the flyer also promises that given the schedule, everyone should be home by 9:00 p.m. local, which is the traditional dinner hour in Rome on a Saturday night.

As for the synod participants themselves, they don’t have to worry about making dinner plans. They’ll move from the square into the nearby Paul VI Audience Hall, where a dinner will be offered by the Italian bishops’ conference, CEI.

Afterwards, the roughly 400 participants will board a fleet of buses which will transport them from Rome to Sacrofano, a small town roughly an hour to the north, where they will be lodged at the Fraterna Domus retreat center for a set of spiritual exercises prior to the opening of the synod.

(Some participants, however, may choose to make their way to Sacrofano on their own, depending on what else is on their calendar. The American cardinals, for instance, have been invited to a Mass of thanksgiving with Pierre at Rome’s Basilica of St. Peter in Chains Sunday morning, so they may get to the retreat center just slightly late.)

The retreat will be led by British Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe, a former master general of the order, and Benedictine Mother Maria Ignazia Angelini, former abbess of the storied Benedictine convent of Viboldone in Milan and among Italy’s leading experts on monastic life.

Plans call for Radcliffe and Angelini to deliver meditations to the whole group in the mornings, with the afternoons devoted to meetings in small groups. Every evening, the group will attend Mass together prior to dinner.

The evening of Oct. 3, participants will be bused back to Rome in order to be in place the next morning, Oct. 4, which is (not coincidentally) the Feast of St. Francis, for the Mass to open the Synod of Bishops. The liturgy will be concelebrated by all the new cardinals.

As it happens, Oct. 4 is also the scheduled release date of a new apostolic exhortation on the environment from Pope Francis, designed as a follow-up to his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’. Francis himself announced the publication date at the end of his weekly General Audience on Aug. 31.

Although the Vatican has not yet provided details as to precisely how the document will be presented, it will certainly add yet more drama to an already eventful period.

Finally, on the afternoon of Oct. 4 the actual work of the Synod of Bishops will begin with an opening plenary assembly. Meetings of the synod, alternating between sessions of the entire body and small working groups organized by language, will proceed until Oct. 29.