8 Vatican Buzzphrases to Understand a Synod

By A.M. Brier

With the 14th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops currently underway, it can be challenging to decipher Vatican reports from the press, and even more confusing to follow what’s going on in the Synod Hall. No need to break out encyclicals or dust off your Latin dictionaries (although we hope you do both anyway!). Without further ado, here are eight key Vatican phrases to better understand the Synod.

  1. “Instrumentum Laboris”

A Latin phrase for “working instrument” (in this case a “working document”); a detailed outline composed by a group of bishops selected by the Pope, which the Synod Fathers follow in discussion and dialogue. In preparation, the title of last year’s Instrumentum Laboris for the Extraordinary Synod was “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization,” which focused on topics including communicating the “Gospel of the Family,” pastoral programs in light of new challenges, and openness to life and parenthood. In this Ordinary Synod, the theme of the document is “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World,” with sections addressing topics such as family challenges, discernment of the vocation of family, the mission of the family, and its role in procreation and raising children. Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the General Secretary to both Synods, authored introductions to each document.

  1. “Relatio Synodi”

More commonly referred to as simply a “Relatio,” it is the document which officially concludes a Synod’s work. Pope Francis delegated ten Synod Fathers to draft this final document. The Relatio of last year’s Extraordinary Synod was published publicly, and is serving as groundwork for this year’s Ordinary Synod. Check it out here on the Vatican’s website.

  1. “Lineamenta”

The Lineamenta is a preparatory document sent to bishops of the world for their comments. The Lineamenta for this year’s Synod was derived from last year’s Relatio, and can be best expressed as an updated and edited version of the document. In essence, it is the first of the this Synod’s documents. While this Lineamenta contains much of what was set forth in the Relatio, it focuses on more pointed themes, while introducing a new set of questions for consideration in this year’s Ordinary Synod. It may be found here.

  1. “Interventions”

These are the speeches prepared and given by Synod participants, in response to topics outlined in the Instrumentum Laboris – along with the hopes and concerns of their respective nations. Interventions are generally kept at around three minutes in length (to honor the time that must be divided among many participants) although longer written versions are often composed and submitted. In contrast to last year’s Extraordinary Synod, this year’s delegation is permitted to share their interventions with the public, if they so wish. Many Bishops are doing so via their personal blogs and Diocesan papers – be sure to check them out.

  1. “Circoli minori”

An Italian phrase for “working groups,” these small-group circles of bishops meet to discuss the Synod points and produce reports in response to the Instrumentum Laboris. Perhaps the most interesting component of the circoli is the fact that members are grouped by language and not by geography, which in turn, places figures such as Canadian Bishop Paul-Andre Durocher with Bishop Maurice Piat of Mauritius. The circoli include groups which converse in Italian (Italicus), Spanish (Hibericus), English (Anglicus), French (Gallicus), or German (Germanicus). You can find their reports on the official Vatican website here.

  1. “Modi”

Short for “modifications,” modi are the proposed changes that the circoli recommend in addition to their small group reports, in response to the Instrumentum Laboris. Some modi may be proposals for new or additional sentences, removal of phrases, or even entirely new drafts of paragraphs. Often, they are requests for clarifications, or a re-phrasing of language in order to make it more clear and consistent across the universal Church.

  1. “Familiaris Consortio”

In 1981, Pope Saint John Paul II published this prolific Apostolic Exhortation – a document, which has been often referred to in the Synodal proceedings. Familiaris Consortio focuses on the role of the Christian family in the modern world, and touches particularly upon themes of light and shadows for families, the role of women, the responsibilities of fathers, and the rights of children. Check out the document in its entirety here.

  1. “Parrhesia”

Parrhesia is an ancient Greek word (παρρησία) meaning freedom in speaking, unreservedness in speech, or boldness. It is close to in spelling, but not to be mistaken for another word often used in the Catholic lexicon, “parousia” (παρουσία); meaning presence, arrival, or official visit. In Catholic theology, “parousia” is almost always used in reference to the second coming of Christ. The importance of the former parrhesia, is that Pope Francis has repeatedly called for spiritual clarity, open dialogue, and frankness in this Synod, in efforts to avoid confusion or campaigning. Parrhesia is a word he has invoked not only at the opening of the Synod, but again and again, throughout his pontificate. At their Canonization Mass, the Holy Father described Saint Popes John XXIII and John Paul II as being filled with the parrhesia of the Holy Spirit. During his Apostolic Journey to the USA, he addressed bishops in Philadelphia, imploring them to “dialogue fearlessly” with each other, their Dioceses, families, and society: “The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia, the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it.” Pay attention when Pope Francis uses this word; he means business!

Editorial Thanks to Fr. Joseph Zwosta

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