What Catholics can learn about synodality from the Eastern Catholic Churches

The Roman Church has much to glean from the Eastern Churches, particularly regarding the importance of the local Church perspectives. However, it must exercise caution to avoid the potential pitfalls associated with political synodality in Eastern Orthodoxy.

Pope Francis with an icon of Christ during the Easter Sunday Mass in St. Peter's Basilica April 4, 2021. (Credit: Vatican Media)

Recently, Pope Francis addressed the delegation who presented him with the 2023 “È Giornalismo” Prize – Francis had declined similar awards in the past, because, as he said, he is not interested in awards. Nevertheless, he accepted this particular award, recognizing the vital role played by social media and social communications in promoting rational discourse and fostering a culture of dialogue, as opposed to confrontation. The Pope openly sought the assistance of journalists “to narrate this process for what it really is, leaving behind the logic of slogans and pre-packaged stories.”

Francis is asking for help to explain to people the upcoming October Synod on Synodality which might be exotic or unfamiliar to Catholics who might find the Synod on Synodality “abstruse, self-referential, excessively technical, of little interest to the general public.”

This assertion resonates with my own experience; many of my students, some of whom are cradle Catholics, remain unacquainted with synodality; this is probably the case with a considerable portion of the Catholic faithful. A Synod on Synodality, therefore, may be difficult to grasp.

As an Eastern Catholic, I find Pope Francis’s call to “Turn East” for synodality models particularly noteworthy. He alludes to Pope Paul VI’s pivotal role in establishing the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops or as he put it:

because he [Paul VI] had realized that in the Western Church synodality had disappeared, whereas in the Eastern Church they have this dimension.

The theme of “Turning East” is not novel; Pope Francis has recurrently invited Westerners to explore synodality models rooted in Eastern Christian traditions. Francis can probably be credited as the pontiff who reintroduced the term “synodality” into contemporary discourse. Pope Francis appears convinced that synodality is the path desired by God for the Church in the third millennium. Pope Francis, since early in his pontificate, has extended an invitation to the Western Church to engage with the concept of synodality. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium he underlines the potential of learning:

…in the dialogue with our Orthodox brothers and sisters, we Catholics have the opportunity to learn more about the meaning of episcopal collegiality and their experience of synodality. Through an exchange of gifts, the Spirit can lead us ever more fully into truth and goodness.

In in Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis views the development of synodality in the Western Church through ecumenical lenses. He posits that this development could contribute to reconciling differences between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The idea is that by adopting synodality, the Western Church might enable the Orthodox Churches to comprehend and recognize the primacy of the Roman Pontiff within a synodal framework, drawing parallels with the position of the Protos (first) in the Orthodox Church and the Roman Pontiff’s role within a synodal ecclesiology.

The Roman Church has much to glean from the Eastern Churches, particularly regarding the importance of the local Church perspectives. However, it must exercise caution to avoid the potential pitfalls associated with political synodality in Orthodoxy, including problems surrounding autocephaly and Orthodox national churches, which have historically engendered divisions within and among Orthodox churches, jeopardizing the Church’s unity and universality.

The historical context underscores the presence of synodality in the early and united Church, both in the Eastern and Western traditions. Several historical examples further illuminate this point.

Probably the earliest source of the synodal model in the early Church is described in the Council of Jerusalem when an issue was raised in Antioch concerning circumcision of the non-Jews. In this historical context, we discern the pivotal role played by the local Christian community. They engaged in a process of consultation with the Apostles and Elders of Jerusalem to address this pressing issue.

Additionally, the community sent Paul, Barnabas and Titus, as well as a delegation, which accompanied them to Jerusalem. This is how the Acts of the Apostles (15:6-28) describes the assembly, the apostles, and the presbyters getting together to discuss the matter. The Apostolic Canons (par 34), emphasizes the importance of reciprocal consent within the ecclesiastical hierarchy and between the bishops and the people. While it acknowledges the bishop as the Protos (the foremost authority) and the head of the community, it underscores that the bishop should not act unilaterally without obtaining consent from other bishops and the community:

The bishops of every nation must acknowledge him who is first among them and account him as their head, and do nothing of consequence without his consent; but each may do those things only which concern his own parish, and the country places which belong to it. But neither let him (who is the first) do anything without the consent of all; for so there will be unanimity, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit.

The Council of Nicaea (325), in Canon 5, mandated the convening of local synods in each province on a semi-annual basis twice a year, specifically before the Lenten season and in autumn. These synods served as forums where both laymen and clergy who had been excommunicated by their local bishops could have an opportunity to appeal their cases. Functioning as ecclesiastical courts, these local synods played a vital role in addressing disputes and grievances within the Church.

The Synod of Laodicea, also in the fourth century (363-64), established a compulsory obligation for bishops to attend these synods. Failure to do so resulted in being held in contempt, with the sole exception being illness, as stipulated in Canon 40. Notably, St. John Chrysostom’s assertion that “Church and Synod are synonymous” underscores the inseparable relationship between the Church and synodical processes, reinforcing the importance of collective decision-making within the ecclesiastical structure.

These early Church examples of synodality are still present in the Eastern Catholic Churches, or Greek Catholic Churches, which are an integral part of the Catholic Church.

Thus, prior to exploring Eastern Orthodox models of synodality, it would be beneficial for the Western Church to examine the existing synodical structures within the Eastern Catholic Churches that are an integral part of the Catholic communion. In these Eastern Catholic communities, synodality has occupied a prominent position, and a robust framework for synodal practices and provisions exists. A wealth of examples illustrating this embedded Eastern Catholic synodality can be found within the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. Here are several illustrative examples.

In the context of electing patriarchs and bishops, the patriarchal or archiepiscopal Churches adhere to a synodal process that differs from the practices used in the Latin Church. Canon 63, for instance, prescribes that:

A patriarch is canonically elected in the synod of bishops of the patriarchal Church.

Canon 65/2 specifies the timing for the convening of the synod of bishops:

The synod of bishops of the patriarchal Church must be convened within one month of the vacancy of the see with due regard for establishing a longer term in particular law, but not, however, beyond two months.

Canon 66 delineates the criteria for active voting rights in the election of a patriarch, limiting the electoral process to ordained bishops (sola membra) exclusively. If a non-member votes, then the election is invalid:

It is forbidden for anyone other than the members of the synod of bishops of the patriarchal Church to be present in the hall at the election of the patriarch …

No one is allowed either before or during the synod of bishops of the patriarchal Church to interfere in any manner with the election of the patriarch (Canon 66/2). And Canon 68 stipulates that bishops are obligated to be summoned to the electoral synod, with provisions for those unable to attend, who may submit written justifications for their absence:

All bishops legitimately convoked are bound by the grave obligation to be present at the election.

If a certain bishop considers himself to be detained by a just impediment, he is to submit his reasons in writing to the synod of bishops of the patriarchal Church. The legitimacy of the impediment is to be decided upon by the bishops who are present in the designated place at the first session of the synod.

It is noteworthy that Canon 72/2 specifies that if the election of the patriarch does not yield a successful outcome within fifteen days from the opening of the synod of bishops of the patriarchal Church, only then is the matter delegated to the Roman Pontiff. Upon accepting of the newly appointed position as patriarch, the newly elected assumes the office immediately, without the requiring confirmation from the Roman Pontiff. Instead, the synod of the patriarchal church proceeds with the enthronement ceremony, adhering to the liturgical prescriptions outlined in the liturgical books. Following the election, the synod of bishops notifies the Roman Pontiff via a synodal letter, and the newly elected patriarch expeditiously requests ecclesiastical communion from the Roman Pontiff (Canon 76/2). This request is conveyed through a handwritten letter. Subsequent to receiving ecclesiastical communion from the Roman Pontiff, the newly elected patriarch gains the authority to convene a synod of bishops or ordain new bishops.

The patriarchal assembly must be convoked at least once every five years or more frequently, if the synod of bishops deems it necessary. The composition of the patriarchal assembly within the patriarchal Church is interesting. In addition to rectors from Catholic universities and deans of faculties of theology and canon law, who are academic theologians and canon lawyers, two lay individuals are extended invitations to join the patriarchal assembly (Canon 143/6). However, it is left to the discretion of the eparchial bishop to determine the specific criteria governing the selection of these two lay representatives for participation in the patriarchal assembly.

These examples serve to exemplify the inherent synodality found within the Eastern Catholic Churches in communion with Rome.

In conclusion, while the Latin Church can certainly look to Eastern Orthodoxy for models of synodality, it must not overlook the rich tradition of lived synodality within the Eastern Catholic Churches, which are in union with Rome. The lesson here, contra Ovid, is that the most fertile ground may often be found in one’s own backyard, and a neighbor’s herd might not always have richer milk.

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About Ines Angeli Murzaku 28 Articles
Ines Angeli Murzaku (http://academic.shu.edu/orientalia/) is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, Director of Catholic Studies Program and the Founding Chair of the Department of Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University. She earned a doctorate of research from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome part of the Pontifical Gregorian University Consortium and has held visiting positions at the Universities of Bologna and Calabria in Italy and University of Münster in Germany. She is a regular commentator to media outlets on religious matters. She has worked for or collaborated with the Associated Press, CNN, Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Voice of America, Relevant Radio, The Catholic Thing, Crux, The Record, The Stream, Vatican Radio (Vatican City), and EWTN (Rome). Dr. Murzaku is currently writing a book on St. Mother Teresa entitled Mother Teresa: The Saint of the Peripheries who Became Catholicism’s Center Piece to be published by Paulist Press in 2020.


  1. Four questions about the western on-the-run (or “walking together”) experiment in what otherwise has merit as a synodal style?

    FIRST, a lesson from the Orthodox Churches which are not in union with Rome…the vulnerability to political power, manifested by the “diversity” of national orthodox churches, e.g., the Ukranian and the Russian. What, then, is the risk of a polyhedral Latin Church becoming sectarian over matters of faith and morals, e.g., the indissolubility of marriage or the “blessing” of the infiltrating and proliferating homosexual lifestyle?

    SECOND, we read, here: “The Council of Nicaea (325), in Canon 5, mandated the convening of local synods in each province on a semi-annual basis twice a year, specifically before the Lenten season and in autumn.” What are the chances that the upcoming Synods will morph toward the notion that Nicaea was more of an inclusionary and consensus-type gathering than it was a clearly an exclusion of Arianism? What, if anything, will be excluded by the Synods of 2023 and 2024?

    THIRD, just wondering, here, where the fine line is between “fraternal collegiality” as clarified by the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium, Ch. 3, and the Explanatory Note) and the apparent drift into more of a town hall meeting?

    Reflecting on the Council, Pope St. John Paul II pointed favorably toward “Synods of Bishops”:

    “We saw this [the desire of some to reduce the Church to ‘political, not religious terms’, i.e., ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’] with the POST-CONCILIAR SYNODS–whether the general Synods of Bishops from all over the world convened by the Pope, or those of the individual dioceses or ecclesiastical provinces. I know from experience hos this SYNODAL APPROACH responds to expectations of various groups and what it can achieve. I think of the diocesan synods which almost spontaneously got rid of the old unilateral emphasis on clergy and became A MEANS FOR EXPRESSING THE RESPONSIBILITY OF EACH PERSON TOWARD THE CHURCH. The sense of communal responsibility by lay people today, is certainly a source of renewal. In view of the third millennium, this sense of responsibility will shape the image of the Church for generations to come” (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, pp. 162-3, CAPS in italics).

    Part of Pope St. John Paul II’s answer to the “fine line” is clear (as in, not ambiguous) where he later credits the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops for initiating the Catechism:


    FOURTH, not to put too fine a point on the “fine line”…

    …but where is the COHERENCE between this richly truthful “synthesis”—and the “facilitated,” tendentious, political, ideological, and contradictory inclusions (and omissions) “aggregated, compiled…and synthesized [!]” into the Instrumentum Laboris for Synod on Synodality?

  2. Thank you. Your insights would be very helpful if Pope Francis wasn’t using Synods (of People?) to slowly foist heteropraxy upon the Church. His synodaling is about remaking the Church with “God’s style” as embodied by Fr. James Martin and reinvented from ancient heretical gatherings of the first millennium by Cardinal Martini. Pope Francis wants nothing to do with unpopular past practices – Eastern or Roman, Orthodox or Catholic.

  3. Many thanks again for another great article about the numerous Eastern Catholic Churches in communion with Rome. I’m not a huge fan of this synod business, but I believe that negotiaions to bring all of the Orthodox Churches back into full reunion with Rome will eventually pan out. Once that hopefully happens, many protestant denominations such as the Lutherans and Episcopalians won’t have a leg left to stand on. (Not that they already do, especially in regards to the True Presence and apostolic succession) We should all pray for a completely reunified East and West.

  4. Listening is one thing, governing another; the two should not be mixed or confused. We need to understand where people are and why in order to better catechize and evangelize them. They must be brought to the unchanging truth. We can not bend the truth to placate their ideas or lifestyles.

    Many years ago I attended an “open meeting “ to evaluate the recently released Papal encyclical on the economy. The participants picked apart this excellent document on Church teaching according to their own preconceived ideas and ideologies. Truth was not a consideration and all ideas were given equal weight. Liberal Protestants were allowed to criticize at will. It was a travesty. I have a feeling that this is what the proposed synodality will end up being- much ado about nothing, a compilation of ignorance, a consensus of a committee. It will be forgotten over time and its relavence will be found in the dust bin. 😂

  5. It is important to note that “It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion”, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost (Filioque), for it Is “ Through Christ, With Christ And In Christ, In The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, (Filioque), That Holy Mother Church, outside of which there is no Salvation, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, (Filioque), exists.

    You can only have a Great Apostasy from The True Church Of Christ, The Church That Christ Has Founded, Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, And Apostolic Church, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost.

    “For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that by His revelation they might make known new doctrine, but that by His assistance they might inviolably keep and faithfully expound the Revelation, the Deposit of Faith, delivered through the Apostles. ”
“Hail The Cross, Our Only Hope.”
“Come Holy Ghost.”

    It has always been about The Marriage, In Heaven And On Earth.

    “Blessed are they that are Called to The Marriage Supper Of The Lamb.”

    Dear Blessed Mother Mary, Destroyer Of All Heresy, Who Through Your Fiat, Affirmed The Filioque, and thus the fact that There Is Only One Son Of God, One Word Of God Made Flesh, One Lamb Of God Who Can Taketh Away The Sins Of The World, Our Only Savior, Jesus The Christ, thus there can only be, One Spirit Of Perfect Complementary Love Between The Father And The Son, Who Must Proceed From Both The Father And The Son, In The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Complementary Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity (Filioque), hear our Prayer🙏🌷💕

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