VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis said the Catholic Church needed to be rebuilt to make it a place of welcome for “everyone, everyone, everyone,” as he opened a divisive meeting on the future of the church that has sparked hope among progressives and alarm among conservatives.
Francis presided over a solemn Mass in St. Peter’s Square to formally open the meeting. But he warned both camps in the church’s culture wars to put their “human strategies, political calculations or ideological battles” aside and let the Holy Spirit guide debate.
“We’re not here to create a parliament, but to walk together with the gaze of Jesus,” he said.
Rarely in recent times has a Vatican gathering generated as much hope, hype and fear as this three-week, closed-door meeting, known as a synod. It won’t make any binding decisions and is only the first session of a two-year process. But it nevertheless has drawn an acute battle line in the church’s perennial left-right divide and marks a defining moment for Francis and his reform agenda.
On the table are calls to take concrete steps to elevate more women to decision-making roles in the church, including as deacons, and for ordinary Catholic faithful to have more of a say in church governance.
Also under consideration are ways to better welcome of LGBTQ+ Catholics and others who have been marginalized by the church, and for new accountability measures to check how bishops exercise their authority to prevent abuses.
Even before it started, the gathering was historic because Francis decided to let women and laypeople vote alongside bishops in any final document produced. While fewer than a quarter of the 365 voting members are non-bishops, the reform is a radical shift away from a hierarchy-focused Synod of Bishops and evidence of Francis’ belief that the church is more about its flock than its shepherds.
The opening Mass and seating arrangements made that clear: The lay participants led off the processional into St. Peter’s Square, followed by the vested clerics, suggesting their primacy of place. Inside the synod auditorium, laypeople sat at round tables alongside cardinals and bishops, rather than in the upper back row of the Vatican’s audience hall as in previous synods.
“It’s a watershed moment,” said JoAnn Lopez, an Indian-born lay minister who helped organize two years of consultations prior to the meeting at parishes where she has worked in Seattle and Toronto.
“This is the first time that women have a very qualitatively different voice at the table, and the opportunity to vote in decision-making is huge,” she said.
In his homily, Francis recalled that his namesake St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day is celebrated Wednesday, also faced divisions and tensions in his lifetime and responded with prayer, charity, humility and unity when he was told: “Go and rebuild my church.”
“Let us do the same!” Francis said. “And if God’s holy people with their shepherds from all over the world have expectations, hopes and even some fears about the synod we are beginning, let us continue to remember that it is not a political gathering, but a convocation in the spirit; not a polarized parliament, but a place of grace and communion.”
He repeated that theme during the first working session of the synod and laid out the ground rules for participants, confirming a media blackout of the meeting. Francis called for a “fasting of the public word” to allow for free debate without the glare or pressures of media coverage.
“More than speaking, the priority is listening,” he said.
Women have long complained they are treated as second-class citizens in the church, barred from the priesthood and highest ranks of power yet responsible for the lion’s share of church work — teaching in Catholic schools, running Catholic hospitals and passing the faith down to next generations.
They have long demanded a greater say in church governance, at the very least with voting rights at the periodic synods but also the right to preach at Mass and be ordained as priests or deacons. Before the opening Mass got under way, advocates for women priests unfurled a giant purple banner at a piazza nearby reading “Ordain Women.”
Lopez, 34, and other women are particularly excited about the potential that the synod might in some way endorse allowing women to be ordained as deacons, a ministry that is currently limited to men. The issue is on the agenda, and delegation from Lopez’ group, Discerning Deacons, was in Rome for sideline events.
For years, supporters of female deacons have argued that women in the early church served as deacons and that restoring the ministry would both serve the church and recognize the gifts that women bring to it.
Francis has convened two study commissions to research the issue and was asked to consider it at a previous synod on the Amazon, but he has so far refused to make any change.
In his homily opening the synod, Francis said such “preconceived” ideas had no place in the gathering. But repeating his new mantra about the church as a place of welcome, he said “tutti, tutti, tutti” must be allowed in: Everyone, everyone, everyone.
The potential that this synod process could lead to real change on previously taboo topics has given hope to many women and progressive Catholics and sparked alarm from conservatives who have warned its call for radical inclusion of LGBTQ+ people could lead to schism.
They have written books, held conferences and taken to social media claiming that Francis’ reforms are sowing confusion, undermining the true nature of the church and all it has taught over two millennia. Among the most vocal are conservatives in the U.S.
On the eve of the meeting, one of the synod’s most outspoken critics, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, delivered a stinging rebuke of Francis’ vision of “synodality” as well as his overall reform project for the church.
“It’s unfortunately very clear that the invocation of the Holy Spirit by some has the aim of bringing forward an agenda that is more political and human than ecclesial and divine,” Burke told a conference entitled “The Synodal Babel.”
In the audience was Cardinal Robert Sarah, who along with Burke and three other cardinals had formally challenged Francis to affirm church teaching on homosexuality and women’s ordination before the synod.
In an exchange of letters made public Monday, Francis didn’t bite and instead said the cardinals shouldn’t be afraid of questions that are posed by a changing world. Asked specifically about church blessings for same-sex unions, Francis suggested they could be allowed as long as such benedictions aren’t confused with sacramental marriage.
Associated Press journalist Trisha Thomas contributed to this report.