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How to Cover the Catholic Church

cate were a 1994 consistory on new religious movements and the defense of

human life, and a 2001 assembly focusing on the church’s priorities for the

21st century. The

Sala Stampa

will publish information in the



an extraordinary consistory, which lasts three to four days, and certain cardi-

nals may make their speeches available to reporters.


A synod is another type of meeting, in this case involving bishops, and is

almost always held in two different instances: (1) a general session, or world-

wide synod, which examines a specific theme concerning the entire church

and gathers prelates from across the globe; or (2) a special session, which

deals with a particular region, such as Africa. In either case, it is the pope who

convokes one. Pope Paul VI reinstituted the synod structure following the

Second Vatican Council.

Unlike an ecumenical council, which any bishop has a right to attend,

synod participants are elected representatives of their bishops’ conferences

or are appointed by the pope. The Union of Superiors General, representing

heads of male religious orders, also elects a small number of its members as

synod participants. The synod may offer suggestions to the pope at the close

of its assembly, but it does not enact any binding decisions.

In rare cases the pope will call an

extraordinary synod

, made up of the

presidents of bishops’ conferences and papal appointees. It’s a smaller assem-

bly, about half the size of a general or special session, either of which generally

numbers about 250 participants. The last extraordinary synod was convened

in 1985, to mark the 20th anniversary of Vatican II.

A preparatory document, called the


, goes out in advance to

get comments. A follow-up document, the

instrumentum laboris

, outlines the

topics. During the meeting itself, bishops present speeches more or less hew-

ing to the chosen subjects. Pope Benedict XVI cut the amount of time per

address down to six minutes, from his predecessor’s limit of eight minutes.

He also cut the length of synods themselves to three weeks, from the previous

four. After the bishops’ prepared remarks, the assembly holds an open discus-

sion at the end of the day.

The press office will provide summaries of speeches and hold daily brief-

ings—but, as with other Vatican meetings, don’t expect an avalanche of infor-

mation. The summaries and briefings tend to leave out the meat of the discus-

sions. Some bishops may provide copies of their presentations.