Skip to content

Synodal instrumentum laboris: A brief guide for busy readers

The working document for October’s session of the synod on synodality was presented Tuesday at a Vatican press conference. 

A Vatican press conference on July 9, 2024, presenting the working document of the synod on synodality’s second session. Screenshot from @VaticanNews YouTube channel.

The 50-page text, known as the Instrumentum laboris (Latin for “working instrument”), will guide participants in the Oct. 4-27 session of the event officially styled as the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

Where are we in the global “synodal process”? What does the new document say? And what will happen next? 

Here’s a brief guide for busy readers.


How we got here

As the Vatican Council II drew to a close in 1965, Pope Paul VI established a permanent institution in Rome called the Synod of Bishops.

This body’s primary task was to “promote a closer union and greater cooperation between the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops of the whole world.”

Marking the Synod of Bishops’ 50th anniversary in 2015, Pope Francis highlighted Paul VI’s observation that the institution could be “improved upon with the passing of time.”

Francis said: “We must continue along this path … It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.”

In 2018, he issued the apostolic constitution Episcopalis communio (“Episcopal communion”), reshaping the Synod of Bishops. He suggested that while the institution was “essentially configured as an episcopal body,” it was also “a suitable instrument to give voice to the entire People of God.”

The pope formally launched a global “synodal path” at a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in October 2021. The process began with unprecedented consultations at a diocesan level, followed by continental gatherings

The synodal path entered its “universal” phase with the synod on synodality’s first session in Rome in October 2023. This grueling event featured delegates seated at round tables in the Vatican’s cavernous Paul VI Hall. The session ended with a “synthesis report” summarizing discussions.

In March this year, Pope Francis announced the creation of 10 “study groups” focused on the most complex and contentious issues raised at the first session. While the groups will report briefly on their findings at the second session, their work will continue until at least June 2025.

And that brings us to today, and the release of the second session’s working document, which draws on submissions from 108 bishops’ conferences worldwide and 9 out of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches.

A word cloud showing the prevalence of terms in the new Instrumentum laboris. Created at

Subscribe now

What the new document says

The Instrumentum laboris is 20,000 words long, or around 90 minutes of reading, depending on your pace.

It has a somewhat lyrical, scene-setting introduction that describes the synodal process as “a call to joy and to the renewal of the People of God.”

It explains that while the first session focused on the question “How does a synodal Church describe itself?”, the second will address “How to be a synodal Church in mission?”

The text has another preliminary section setting out the “foundational understandings of synodality.” This includes an attempt to define the notoriously nebulous term “synodality.” The word, it says, refers to “a style that starts from listening as the first act of the Church.” It emphasizes that synodality does not detract from the authority of the Church’s pastors and is “not an end in itself.”

The “Foundations” section also addresses one of the central themes of the synodal process: the role of women in the Church. It says that opportunities for greater female participation “often remain untapped.”

It notes that bishops’ conference worldwide have called specifically for women to have “wider access to positions of responsibility in dioceses and ecclesiastical institutions,” more “positions of responsibility in seminaries, institutes, and theological faculties,” and more “women judges in all canonical processes.”

On the much-debated topic of women deacons, the text says that local Churches are divided. It underlines that the issue “will not be the subject of the work of the second session,” but will be addressed by one of the 10 study groups announced by Pope Francis in March (Study Group 5, addressing “some theological and canonical matters regarding specific ministerial forms.”) 

The working document proper consists of three parts, which seek to “illuminate the missionary synodal life of the Church from different perspectives.” 

Part I examines “relationships — with the Lord, between brothers and sisters and between Churches — which sustain the vitality of the Church in ways more profound than the merely structural.”

Part II looks at “the pathways that support the dynamism of our ecclesial relationships.” 

And Part III considers “the places that are the tangible contexts for our embodied relationships marked by their variety, plurality and interconnection, and rooted in the foundation of the profession of faith, resisting human temptations to abstract universalism.” 

(This is a characteristic example of the working document’s sometimes rarefied and clumsy prose.)

Each of the three parts tackles big themes that have emerged during the synodal process. 

Part I addresses topics such as the gulf between priests and bishops, and how a synodal “reimagining of the ordained ministry” might help to overcome “the difficulty of bishops and priests in truly walking together in their shared ministry.”

Part II touches on the contentious topic of who participates in the Church’s decision-making processes. It also has a section dedicated to “Transparency, accountability, and evaluation” containing some strikingly specific proposals.

A commitment to transparency, it says, should include effective councils for economic affairs, the involvement of competent lay people in pastoral and economic planning, the publication of annual financial statements, ideally approved by external auditors, and — perhaps most interestingly — an annual statement evaluating “the performance of the mission.”

This review, it suggests, should explain what steps each Church body is taking to protect children and vulnerable adults, to promote “women’s access to positions of authority and their participation in decision-making and taking processes,” and to undertake performance assessments of Church personnel.

Part III, meanwhile, looks at the place of “local Churches in the one and unique Catholic Church.” It considers the disputed question of how much authority local bishops’ conferences possess. 

It notes that a proposal has emerged from the synod process to recognize “episcopal conferences as ecclesial subjects endowed with doctrinal authority, assuming socio-cultural diversity within the framework of a multifaceted Church, and favoring the appreciation of liturgical, disciplinary, theological, and spiritual expressions appropriate to different socio-cultural contexts.” 

While the ecclesiastical jargon is dense, this is a potentially far-reaching proposal.

The working document ends, naturally, with a brief conclusion summing up the ground covered. 

It says: “The questions that the Instrumentum laboris asks are: how to be a synodal Church in mission; how to engage in deep listening and dialogue; how to be coresponsible in the light of the dynamism of our personal and communal baptismal vocation; how to transform structures and processes so that all may participate and share the charisms that the Spirit pours out on each for the common good; how to exercise power and authority as service.” 

“Each of these questions is a service to the Church and, through its action, to the possibility of healing the deepest wounds of our time.”

Subscribe now

What’s next

The working document says that when the synod on synodality’s second session begins in October, participants will work through each of the text’s three sections, engaging in “prayer, exchange, and discernment.”

As the gathering wraps up, “a final document relating to the whole process will be drafted and will offer the pope proposals on steps that could be taken.”  

“We can expect a further deepening of the shared understanding of synodality, a better focus on the practices of a synodal Church, and the proposal of some changes in canon law,” the text suggests, while stressing that “we cannot expect the answer to every question.”

Pope Francis has repeatedly extended the synodal process. So will the October session mark the end of the synod on synodality?

The working document underlines that the two sessions in Rome are “part of a broader process which, as the apostolic constitution Episcopalis communio states, will not cease at the end of October 2024.”

Vatican Cardinal Mario Grech has often said that Episcopalis communio transformed the Synod “from an event into a process.”

While the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops is scheduled to end Oct. 27, the wider synodal process is intended to be a more or less permanent feature of “the Church of the third millennium.” 

Subscribe now

Comments 29