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Catholic Church to reflect on challenges during Synod assembly

Bishops and other participants to collaborate on ideas and solutions to contentious issues affecting the 21st-century Church

Pope Francis delivers his blessing to the pilgrims during the Sunday Angelus prayer in St.Peter's Square at the Vatican on Oct

Pope Francis delivers his blessing to the pilgrims during the Sunday Angelus prayer in St.Peter's Square at the Vatican on Oct. 1. (Photo: AFP)

Published: October 02, 2023 05:25 AM GMT

Updated: October 02, 2023 05:30 AM GMT

Pope Francis will on Wednesday open the Synod of Bishops, a key congress that will for the first time include women and laypeople to help chart the future of the Catholic Church.

The 16th Ordinary General Assembly will take place over four weeks in Rome, bringing together bishops and other participants to collaborate on ideas and solutions to some of the most contentious issues affecting the 21st-century Church.

Underscoring Francis's priority of bringing the Church closer to the faithful, the Synod two years ago invited the world's 1.3 billion Catholics to share views on topics as diverse as divorcees and LGBTQ church members, women deacons and priestly celibacy.

The multi-stage process, with a second session of the assembly scheduled for October 2024, sought input from local dioceses around the globe, with their insights and those from episcopal conferences contributing to a 50-page working document that will be used during this month's discussions.

"It's an important forum for reflection for the Church, on its way of being, of moving forward," Italian priest Giacomo Costa, special secretary of this assembly, told AFP.

During the assembly, 464 participants, including 365 members with voting rights, will meet every day, divided into plenary sessions in five different languages.

The group is mostly made up of bishops, but also includes other clergy.

But for the first time in the history of the Church, 54 of the participants will be women -- nuns and laywomen who will take part in the consultations and be able to vote.

Following the October 2024 assembly, a final document will be submitted to the pope, who can decide whether or not to incorporate its findings into a papal document.

During an ecumenical prayer vigil Saturday, Francis expressed hope that the Synod would be "a place where the Holy Spirit will purify the Church from gossip, ideologies and polarization."

'Pushing boundaries' 

This Synod, with its reflections on sensitive topics and more inclusive process, has ruffled some feathers at the Vatican, especially among conservatives like Germany's Cardinal Gerhard Mueller or the American Cardinal Raymond Burke, who say the process will create confusion and division.

But one informed observer of the Holy See, who asked not to be named, said the participation of laypeople and women will make the synodal process more effective.

"Within the bishops, there is an ecclesiastical culture. With the laity, that won't work anymore, they won't be satisfied with nice words, there will be a demand for procedure, the will to change, efficiency,” the source told AFP.

"In this sense, Francis is pushing the boundaries, which is why many are afraid."

A source within the Vatican told AFP that even if important questions are still unresolved after the Synod, major advances will have been made.

"Questions once considered off-limits are now being brought to the attention of the Church. This is already a huge step on delicate issues," the source said.

"At one time, we couldn't even say the word homosexual. Now, on the table we've got questions concerning homosexuality."

Particular attention in the upcoming discussions will be paid to the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons, or allowing married men as priests in remote areas lacking clergy.

The general assembly will also give Vatican watchers more opportunity to assess the behind-the-scenes dynamics and balance of power within the Church, whose conservative wing has been vocally opposed to Francis.

"We are not here to reinvent another Church. We must be careful: dialogue is not easy, we need arbitrators," France's Christophe Pierre, who was made a cardinal Saturday by Francis, told AFP.

"Many arrive with their ideas, their agenda... but it's not a parliament, we're not going to vote against each other. It's about being together."

Pope Paul VI created the institution of the Synod in 1965.

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