VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis called on Catholic leaders on Wednesday to set aside politics and work to make the Church more welcoming for all, as he opened a global meeting that conservative critics say risks “poisoning” the faith.
Delivering a homily in St Peter’s Square at the start of the first global gathering of Church leaders, or synod, for four years, the pope said bishops should avoid “human strategies, political calculations or ideological battles”.
“We are not here to carry out a parliamentary meeting or a plan of reformation,” he said in the homily of the Mass, which the Vatican said was attended by a crowd of 25,000.
The synod was not an attempt to “depart from the sacred patrimony of the truth received from the Fathers”, he said. But the Church must avoid becoming either “a rigid Church, which arms itself against the world and looks backward” or “a lukewarm Church, which surrenders to the fashions of the world”.
Church doors must be “open to all, all, all”, he added.
Conservative critics of the pope have become increasingly outspoken in advance of the synod, which is due to discuss topics including the role of women, acceptance of LGBT Catholics, and the impact of climate change on the poor.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, a Rome-based American who is one of the pope’s leading critics, has called for a defence against the “the poison of confusion, error and division” he feared the synod might introduce.
For the first time, women, including several nuns, will be allowed to vote, something that conservative women have contested, saying only bishops should have that right.
Two days before the synod started, five of the Church’s 242 cardinals disclosed they had sent a letter to the pope demanding clarifications on blessing for same-sex couples, the role of women and other issues.
The pope was joined in celebrating Wednesday’s Mass by most of the 21 new cardinals he promoted to the high rank on Saturday, a move that further cements his legacy. He has now appointed nearly three-quarters of the electors who will have the right to vote for his eventual successor.
Duty to resist
Church leaders have been preparing for the month-long synod for the past two years, asking Catholics around the world to share their vision for the future of the Church.
The pope has decided to include about 70 lay people, half of whom are women, alongside the cardinals and bishops among the 365 “members” with the right to vote at the synod.
Discussions will run through this month and resume in October 2024. A papal document will follow, most likely in 2025, meaning changes in Church teaching, if any, would be a long way off.
Conservatives have assailed the very concept of this synod, saying any discussions on doctrinal issues should come from the top and lay people who are not ordained should not have a say. Only men can be ordained in the Catholic Church.
On the eve of the synod, conservatives held a conference in a theatre a block from the Vatican.
“It is our duty … to resist steadfastly any attempts to change the teaching of the Church that may emerge from this Synodal Assembly,” said Father Gerald Murray, a commentator on US-based conservative Catholic television network EWTN.
In impromptu remarks at the start of Wednesday’s first working session, the pope asked participants to observe “a certain fast” from talking to journalists so that all members could express themselves freely.
Participants are bound by synod rules of confidentiality and discretion. The Vatican plans to hold occasional briefings.
Many of the discussions are taking place in small groups of about a dozen people each at round tables in the large hall where the pope holds general audiences.