In the midst of mounting criticism of Pope Francis’ handling of the ongoing sex abuse scandals involving the Catholic church around the world, the pontiff today opened a gathering of bishops summoned to tune into issues relating to young people and their faith.
A bishops’ synod -- as these gatherings are called -- is like an advisory council that discusses specific topics of importance to the church. A final document is produced at its conclusion.
Over 300 participants are scheduled to attend this meeting. These include over two hundred bishops from around the world -- including fifty-one cardinals -- and forty-nine male and female experts and observers -- including 36 young people between the ages of 18 and 29.
The synod opened with a papal morning mass in St. Peter’s Square. Aware that young people feel alienated by the church in these scandal-ridden times, the pope asked his brother bishops to heed the voices of young people in an effort to build a better world than that of their elders.
Pope Francis called for a meeting “that can broaden our horizons, expand our hearts and transform those frames of mind that today paralyze, separate and alienate us from young people."
The participants will debate a 70-page working document entitled "Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment," based on answers given by young Catholics around the world about topics they feel are relevant to them.
Individual, three minute presentations will take up the first week of the meeting and then the assembly will be divided into smaller language groups to continue the discussions. Disagreements usually emerge during most synods. This one is expected to raise controversial issues relating to sexuality and gender, and is likely to lead to contention about the wording of the final document.
The U.S. church is represented by elected members, including Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia -- who has voiced his criticism of the synod. U.S. Cardinal Tobin, who had been invited by the Pope, asked permission to stay home and deal with sex abuse cases relating to his archdiocese.
During the synod, a canonization ceremony is planned for Sunday Oct. 14, when Pope Paul VI and San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero will be recognized as saints.
Speaking to the participants in the synod hall at the start of the meeting today, Pope Francis invited everyone to speak with courage and frankness.
"Only dialogue can help us grow," he said. "An honest, transparent critique is constructive and helpful, and does not engage in useless chatter, rumors, conjectures or prejudices.’’
The synod must be an exercise in dialogue, he stressed, in asking all the participants to reject prejudice and stereotype and "feel free to welcome and understand others and therefore to change our convictions and positions."
He also underlined the importance of listening to all, saying that a church that does not listen "shows herself closed to newness, closed to God’s surprises, and cannot be credible, especially for the young who will inevitably turn away, rather than approach."