Where are the international organisations?

When Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council in January 1959 he conceived of it as a meeting comprised exclusively of bishops and periti. As such, he saw no reason for lay people to be invited.

Despite their respect for Pope John, at least some lay organisations and movements were concerned by this. With the experience of the then recent World Congresses on Lay Apostolate of 1951 and 1957 as well as the creation of the COPECIAL, a lay-led quasi-Vatican body responsible for organising such international congresses, they fully expected to have an active presence at the Council.

Thus, as early as September 1960, i.e even before the Preparatory Commissions had begun work, Joseph Cardijn (and others) were proposing the establishment of a sub-commission of lay leaders for the Prep Com on Lay Apostolate:


This did not eventuate. Indeed, nothing changed until after the election of Pope Paul VI in June 1963. Over the next three sessions of the Council, Paul would invite a series of lay auditors from the various continents, reaching an eventual total of 43 lay auditors for the Fourth Session in 1965, plus another ten religious sisters, also technically lay in the sense of being non-ordained.

Here is the list as published by the British Catholic magazine, The Tablet, on 2 October 1965:


Note how each person’s roles are listed with several holding more than one role.

The list includes five lay auditors from the COPECIAL, the International Permanent Committee for International Congresses of the Lay Apostolate, two of which had been held prior to the Council in 1951 and 1957.

By my count, 28 of these lay auditors are there on the basis of their leadership roles in a wide variety of International Catholic Organisations, including COPECIAL itself as well as the Conference of International Catholic Organisations, an umbrella body precisely for such organisations.

Now, it should be noted that technically none of these lay auditors “represented” the organisations from which they came.

Here is how the Pontifical Council for the Laity (now superseded by the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life) explained it in an undated article (prior to 2015) posted on their website:

One should note that the auditors were cho­sen ad personam and not as representatives of the association or organization to which they belonged. One can see from the documents that they were fully aware that their nomination was not “representational”; they were there at the Pope’s personal invitation to present and offer their own personal contribution. They were “mere ” auditors when attending the Main Ses­sion, but within the groups and working com­missions they were locutores. The Council is an ecclesial assembly of individuals. It is far from being a “representational assembly” of the Church. It is an episcopal gathering where the entire Church is present in the person of the bishops, the pastors. Nevertheless, given the pastoral nature of the Second Vatican Council, the decision was taken to invite experts and au­ditors to create opportunities for dialogue and study which could be useful to the Council Fa­thers. An understanding of the nature of their participation is important in order to avoid any misunderstandings.

Interesting how the PCL insists on the fact that these nominations were not “representational”! Certainly, this is explicable in the context of the time and the fact that initially John XXIII had not even conceived of this level of participation of lay people. Rather more worrying that the PCL seemed to see a need to emphasise this fifty years later!

Informally, however, from my reading of various contemporary documents, many of those lay auditors did regard themselves as at least in some sense speaking on behalf of, if not democratically representing, the milieux, social groups or interests and apostolates that their organisations served.

A wide variety of groups

And a wide variety of groups they did in fact speak on behalf of!

On one hand, there was Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary, “representing” groups organised around prayer and the personal apostolate as is Serra International, which describes itself as “the global lay apostolate for vocations”

Women’s organisations were well “represented” (what other word should I use here?). Professional organisations, e.g. doctors and teachers are there. The Catholic press is there too.

Several youth organisations and movements are “represented” as well as a variety of Specialised Catholic Action and General Catholic Action movements. Included here was Patrick Keegan, an early leader of the International Young Christian Workers (IYCW) and also the president of the newly founded World Movement of Christian Workers, who would become the first lay person to address the Council in Plenary during the Third Session in 1964:

Other lay auditors were clearly selected on the basis of their particular expertise, e.g. the French Academician, Jean Guitton, while others were involved at national level, e.g. Martin Work of the US National Council of Catholic Men and Mrs Joseph McCarthy of the US National Council of Catholic Women.

Women were certainly under-”represented” here making up only ten of the 43 lay auditors (although the addition of the ten religious sisters goes some way to balancing this). Moreover, most lay auditors were from Europe (particularly Italy!) or North America. Still, there were a certain number from what we would today call the “Global South” (Eusèbe Adajkpley, John Chen, KC Chacko, Jose-Maria Hernandez, Jose Alvarez Icaza and Luz Maria Longoria, Gladys Parentelli)

Despite its limitations, one has the impression that whoever in the Holy See drew up the list of lay auditors, they were making a genuine attempt to ensure that a whole broad range of Catholic organisations would have a presence at the Council via a lay auditor.

28 international organisations and movements!

What is perhaps most striking about this list today, however, is the fact that 28 of those lay auditors “represent” international organisations. That’s 28 out of 43 lay auditors, a clear indication not just of the esteem in which these organisations were held but also of their importance in the context of the direction that the Council would eventually take.

And it’s certain that many of these lay auditors did indeed play a very active role in the drafting commissions (Gaudium et Spes, Apostolicam Actuositatem…) where they also had the power to speak as “locutores.”

Compare and contrast: The Synod on Synodality

Now, let’s compare that presence of international Catholic organisations at Vatican II with the number of such organisations involved in the forthcoming Synod on Synodality.


By my count, there are 415 participants of various categories who have been named for the First Session.

Of that number, 76 are lay people, a number that does not include non-ordained religious men or women.

Among that 76, ten are members of the secretariat so I will not count them for the purposes of this blog. This leaves 66 lay people:

Two belong to the Information Commission (Paolo Ruffini and Sheila Pires)

One is head of a dicastery (Paolo Ruffini again)

Two are pontifically appointed members both from Spain:

Enrique ALARCÓN GARCÍA, President of “Frater España – Fraternidad Cristiana de Personas con Discapacidad”

Cristina INOGÉS SANZ, theologian

Many are “Witnesses of the Synodal Process” who don’t possess “episcopal power” (munus in Latin) including 41 who are lay people:

Africa 2

North America 8

Latin America 7

Asia 5

Oriental Churches & Middle East 6

Europe 6

Oceania 7

Sadly, the Vatican has not announced the background of these witnesses. This itself would appear to be indicative of the fact that the Vatican does not consider them as “representative.”

There are three special invitees who are lay people, interestingly from three lay movements including two from Italy:

Luca CASARINI, “Mediterranea Saving Humans” (Italy)

Eva FERNÁNDEZ MATEO (Azione Cattolica – Italian Catholic Action)

Margaret KARRAM (Opera di Maria – Movimento dei Focolari)

Finally, there are 19 lay experts and facilitators (less one already counted above, i.e. Sheila Pires).

That makes a total of 66 lay people out of a total of 415 participants (if I haven’t counted anyone twice or missed anyone!) which comes to 15.9%.

Now that’s a big improvement in numbers compared to the number of lay auditors at Vatican II. Several are even members with voting power. Many more women are present.

One international movement at the Synod!

But as I’ve noted previously, the big lacuna is that only three of these people come from lay organisations or movements, only one of which is international, i.e. the Focolari movement.

What a contrast this is with Vatican II where 28 international organisations had a presence via lay auditors, who usually played key roles (president, secretary, founder, excutive committee member…) within those movements.

While technically they may not have “represented” those organisations and movements, they certainly made their voices heard.

Why is this not the case at the Synod on Synodality?

What has happened since Vatican II to allow this change?

If “synodal” meaning “walking together,” how is it “synodal” to exclude so many international Catholic organisations from having a voice at the Synod?

What explanation does the Synod secretariat offer for this? Indeed, what explanation does the new Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life offer?

Here, let us note that since Vatican II, Canon 212 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law actually imposes a duty on lay people to make known their views on important matters

§3. According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.

How can lay people do this without adequate presence or, yes, representation, at the Synod? If a Synod that many commentators have characterised as the most important ecclesial event since Vatican II is not the right “time” to do this, when is the right time?

Transparency demands answers here. Justice requires that this situation changes, preferably in time for the First Session of the Synod on Walking Together.

Stefan Gigacz