VATICAN CITY — Setting the tone for a two-week meeting of Roman Catholic bishops, Pope Francis on Monday urged participants to speak openly and clearly, without fear of censure. He also called on the participants to listen to each other with humility and to respect differing opinions.
“Do not say: I cannot say this, if I do they will think badly of me. Speak freely of everything you believe,” Francis instructed the nearly 200 prelates assembled in the Vatican for the synod, which will chart the church’s course regarding family life in contemporary society.
“It is necessary to say everything that in the Lord we feel must be said,” without any concern that it might contradict the pope, he said. Holding back discussion “is not good,” Francis added, even as he exhorted the participants to “listen with humility and accept with an open heart all that our brothers say.”
The synod — the first of two international meetings on the family, set one year apart — aims to spur debate about the pastoral challenges faced by priests in the modern world, where the notion of family has transcended the traditional nuclear model to include single parents, de facto unions and gay couples, while finding solid grounding in the theology and traditions of a 2,000-year-old institution.
The groundwork for the meeting was laid, in part, by a questionnaire sent last year to bishops’ conferences around the world to gather opinions from Catholics. Responses on the acceptance of church teachings on issues like birth control, premarital sex and gay unions helped to form the so-called Instrumentum Laboris, or working paper of the synod. The Rev. Bruno Forte, secretary general of the synod, said at a news conference Monday that 84 percent of all episcopal conferences had responded to the questionnaire. “That tells us that the church felt the need to participate,” he said.
The seemingly collegial run-up to the meeting has raised expectations that the church might change some of its positions affecting family life — for example, by allowing divorced and remarried Catholics who have not obtained an annulment to receive holy communion.
But Vatican experts cautioned against expecting big changes.
“Pope Francis has a habit of raising expectations because he’s willing to take a fresh look at things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that change is coming,” said John Thavis, a longtime Vatican analyst. “But I think that if change doesn’t come, it will be experienced as a great disappointment.”
Introducing the main points that the synod should address over the next two weeks, Cardinal Peter Erdo, the archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest in Hungary, stressed Monday that church teaching remained valid when it came to issues like the “indissolubility of marriage” as well as divorce and remarriage.
As Thavis, the Vatican analyst, put it, this willingness to engage the world “is fairly new for the leadership of the church.”