Ask a Franciscan

Preparing for the 2023 World Synod of Bishops

I have seen a couple of articles about this synod. These articles suggested that it would be helpful to read (or reread) the Vatican II documents. Can you recommend a book describing what Vatican II was all about? Something in plain English without interpretation by the author? 

First, start with the documents themselves. I suggest Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations, edited by Austin Flannery, OP (Costello Publishing). This inclusive-language translation is very readable. 

“For a synodal Church: communion, participation, and mission” is the theme for this synod. Preparation documents are available via the synod link at

Every book about Vatican II includes an interpretation. I highly recommend What Happened at Vatican II, by John W. O’Malley, SJ (Belknap Harvard). 

If you read only the council’s final documents, you won’t know, for example, why the original draft of what became the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation was rejected by most of the bishops in November 1962, requiring years of extensive revision before its final approval on November 18, 1965. 

I had Father O’Malley as a professor at the University of Detroit in 1970, a transformative experience. His recent and excellent memoir, The Education of a Historian: A Strange and Wonderful Story (St. Joseph’s University Press), includes memories of his doing doctoral-level historical research in Rome between 1963 and 1965, attending several council events and following its work. He was the first Catholic priest to receive a fellowship to the American Academy in Rome, where he wrote his PhD dissertation in history for Harvard. 

If you want an even closer look at the council, you might enjoy My Journal of the Council, by Yves Congar, OP (Liturgical Press). Perhaps the busiest of the council’s periti (experts), he advised on the council’s preparation, worked during all four sessions on many of the council’s major documents, and was involved in the council’s implementation. Named a cardinal in 1994, Congar died the following year. 

The synod, which will close in October 2023, was initiated last October. It will have a diocesan phase (October 2021 to August 15, 2022) and a later national/continental phase.  

The word synod means “listening/journeying together.” In a sense, this synod is asking, “What is God asking of the Catholic Church in this time and place?” I think all of us need to ponder that question and our response. Answers to that question will certainly stretch everyone. 

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