VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis on Monday told a contentious gathering of the world’s bishops on family issues to put aside their personal prejudices and have the courage and humility to be guided by the “surprises” of God.
Francis told 270 cardinals, bishops and priests that the three-week synod isn’t a parliament where negotiations, plea bargains or compromises take place. Rather, he said, it’s a sacred, protected space where God shows the way for the good of the church.
The bishops are debating how the church can better care for Catholic families at a time when marriage rates are falling, divorce is common and civil unions are on the rise. The main sticking points include how the church should welcome gays and divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
Conservatives have been insisting that the gathering strongly reassert church doctrine on homosexuality and the indissolubility of marriage. Progressives are seeking a more merciful approach to a host of family problems, including whether civilly remarried Catholics can receive the sacraments.
Despite Francis’ call for a free and open debate, Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo, a key synod organizer who delivered the introductory remarks, made clear that there is not much to discuss on the divorce-remarried issue since church teaching is clear forbidding the sacraments for these Catholics.
In his opening welcome Monday, Francis repeated a phrase he used in his homily a day earlier that the church’s law cannot become an impediment to its mission of mercy.
“God created law and the Sabbath for man, not vice versa,” he said.
He called for the bishops to show apostolic courage, evangelical humility and faithful prayer over the next three weeks.
The courage, he said, was needed since the church’s attitudes can, “despite good intentions, distance people from God” and make “Christian life a museum of memories.”
He said humility was needed so bishops empty themselves of “their own beliefs and prejudices to listen to their brother bishops and fill themselves with God.”
“A humility that doesn’t point the figure against another to judge them but to extend a hand to help them up without ever feeling superior to them,” he said.
And he called for prayer to hear the “soft voice of God that speaks in silence.”
The run-up to the synod has been particularly contentious: Conservatives have been mounting a campaign to insist that Catholic doctrine be strongly reasserted, particularly on the indissolubility of marriage and impossibility of civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion without an annulment. Progressives have been plotting their own strategy to try to find wiggle room in pastoral practice.
Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois cautioned that anyone expecting changes to doctrine, or even general recommendations to the pope to emerge from the synod would be sorely disappointed. But he suggested that the issue on Communion for the civilly remarried comes down to one of individual conscience.