What's a synod anyway?
To begin the process, bishops and people from around the world are consulted on a subject (such as the Word of God, or the Eucharist). Their comments are collected and circulated to everyone as a guideline for future discussion. From this a working document - "instrumentum laboris" - is published, and that's what the synod fathers plough through during the meeting itself! When the work of the synod fathers is done, the Pope takes their propositions and produces a final document called an "Exhortation" which is published some time later and is for everyone.
A synod is assisted by experts, who are often lay people, and witnessed by observers, such as those from other Christian denominations. Fewer than one in ten of all the bishops worldwide are present, so it's important to get a representative group that can discuss a topic and make wise recommendations for the future. With hundreds of people gathered together there is a strict limit on how long each participant - even bishops! - can speak at a time. Sometimes the limit can be as short as 3 minutes, so everyone's got to stay alert and on the ball to get the work done.
* The last job of the bishops gathered at a synod assembly is to elect those who will carry on its work, and plan the next one! That's why although the public meeting only happens occasionally, the "synod of bishops" is really a permanent organisation within the Church.
What's this one all about?
We know that our Faith, once strong here and elsewhere in Europe and North America, is being challenged. Whereas in the past missionaries went in great numbers from Europe to spread the Gospel, now we seem to struggle. In his homily for the opening Mass of the synod, Pope Benedict reminds us that "the Church exists to evangelise" - to bring Good News - but notes that sometimes people do not practice the Faith they have received in baptism, and this affects our ability to share it with others. The New Evangelisation, he says, is aimed at "those who, though baptised, have drifted away from the Church and live without reference to Christian life".
"The Synodal Assembly [which opens today] is dedicated to this New Evangelisation, to help these people encounter the Lord, Who alone fills existence with deep meaning and peace; and to favour the rediscovery of the faith, that source of grace which brings joy and hope to personal, family and social life."
Our Faith is not a theory, it is a person - Jesus Christ. The synod of bishops is meeting now to discuss especially how we can all be renewed in this Faith and share it with others. So the Year of Faith and the synod go hand-in-hand!