ROME – With his lengthy and debated Synod of Bishops on Synodality set to wrap later this year, Pope Francis took several steps this weekend to bolster the process in the lead up to a meeting that will bring four years of global consultation to a close.

On Saturday, he announced the dates of this year’s October synod session, he named several new consultors to the Vatican’s synod office and ordered that study groups be formed within the Roman curia to explore key issues that came out of last year’s discussion.

Pope Francis first announced his decision to hold a Synod of Bishops on Synodality on Feb. 16, 2020, and that process has unfolded over the past four years – a full presidential term – in various stages, beginning with a local, diocesan consultation with laypeople in the pews.

The results of that consultation were discussed at the continental level in seven different regional assemblies, and conclusions from those meetings were then addressed at a universal level last October, when bishops, clergy, religious, and laypeople from around the world gathered in Rome for the entire month to discuss how to implement synodality in every facet of church life.

Titled, “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission,” the synod is focused on how to transform Church life and structures to make Catholicism a more dialogic, collaborative, and welcoming home for all believers. It will formally close with this year’s fall discussion.

On Saturday, four years to the day since synodality was unveiled as the synod’s theme, the Vatican announced that this year’s gathering will take place from Wednesday, Oct. 2 to Sunday, Oct. 27.

Similar to last year, participants have been asked to arrive by Sept. 29 in order to attend a two-day retreat from Sept. 30 to Oct. 1, prior to the synod itself.

Pope Francis also named several new consultors to the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, including Monsignor Alphonse Borras, episcopal vicar of the Diocese of Liège in Belgium; Mr. Gilles Routhier, a professor of theology at the University of Laval in Canada; and Mr. Ormond Rush, associate professor of theology at the Australian Catholic University.

He also named several women as consultors, including Sister Birgit Weiler, a professor of theology at the Pontifical Catholic University in Peru; Ms. Tricia Bruce, president of the Association for the Sociology of Religion; and Ms. Maria Clara Lucchetti Bingemer, professor of theology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro.

In addition, the pope Saturday also issued a chirograph establishing different study groups that will collaborate with various departments of the Roman Curia, called dicasteries, in delving into some of the themes that emerged during last year’s October synod discussion.

The Synod of Bishops, he said, is subject to the pope but is also different from the rest of the curial departments in that they have a unique relationship with local bishops conferences.

In this spirit, he announced that the various dicasteries of the Roman Curia will collaborate with the synod secretariat by “establishing study groups that initiate, with a synodal method, the in-depth analysis of some of the themes that emerged” during last year’s first Rome-based discussion.

Though a variety of issues were explored during last year’s session, such as poverty, climate change, and the need for peace amid the many ongoing wars and violent conflicts throughout the world, the most passionate and divisive issues addressed were the role of women and outreach to the LGBTQ+ community.

Issues that drew the most varied and emotional input were women’s priestly ordination, the female diaconate, and whether or not to allow blessings for same-sex couples.

Pope Francis from the start took two of these issues – women’s priestly ordination and blessings for same-sex couples – off of the table in his responses to a set of dubia, or doubts, put to him by five conservative cardinals shortly before the synod began.

In his responses, which the Vatican made public, Francis offered a cautious opening to the blessing of same-sex unions and a seemingly firm “no” to women’s ordination.

He further cemented this openness to same-sex blessings in December, when the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, led by papal friend and confidant Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, a fellow Argentine, issued the controversial declaration Fiducia Supplicans on the pastoral nature of blessings.

In that document, the DDF with Pope Francis’s approval outlined the circumstances in which blessings could be given to couples in irregular situations, including divorced and remarried couples with no annulment and same-sex couples, provided the latter were not done in formal liturgical settings and did not cause confusion with the Catholic sacrament of marriage.

Fiducia Supplicans generated a wave of controversy and backlash reflective of the fiery debate that happened in the synod hall during last year’s discussion, though on a much larger scale.

By publishing the text in the interim before the second Rome-based synod session begins this year, Francis has taken another step to ensure that discussion this fall will not get bogged down by irreconcilable differences on one specific issue.

Similarly, Francis this year has seemed to take a direct and personal interest in the issue of women, choosing to dedicate the two most recent meetings of his Council of Cardinals to the role of women in the church.

Called the “C9,” the Council of Cardinals is a select group of cardinals from around the world who advise Pope Francis on matters of church governance and reform. In both their December and February sessions, the group was addressed by a panel of women on how to better facilitate the presence of women in the church, especially in positions of decision-making and leadership.

One of the women who participated, Spanish nun Linda Pocher, has said that while the topic of women’s priestly ordination is not being discussed, Pope Francis supports the women’s diaconate and is studying methods for its implementation.

In a recent interview with Europa Press, Pocher said the pope “is very much in favor of the female diaconate,” and that she and the two other women invited to speak during the February C9 meeting, including an Anglican bishop, specifically addressed this topic.

By delving into this topic so intentionally with his closest group of advisors, it is possible that Pope Francis is planning to act unilaterally on it in much the same way as he did same-sex blessings, taking a divisive issue off of the table before the synod begins so participants don’t get hung up on differences of opinion about an issue that in all likelihood, no one will agree on.

What happens on that issue come October, or even beforehand, remains to be seen, but there are plenty of other topics that the new dicasterial working groups will explore, including other aspects of women’s involvement in the church.

By establishing these working groups, Pope Francis has taken one concrete step in ensuring that the spirit of synodality will remain an active force within the Vatican even after the Synod on Synodality itself concludes.

Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen