VATICAN CITY (CNS) – The world Synod of Bishops on the family is not a parliament where participants will negotiate or lobby, Pope Francis said, but it must be a place of prayer where bishops speak with courage and open themselves to "God who always surprises us."
Opening the first working session of the synod Oct. 5, the pope said the synod's 270 voting members need courage, "pastoral and doctrinal zeal, wisdom, frankness and to keep always before our eyes the good of the church and of families and the supreme law – the salvation of souls."
Arriving about 15 minutes before the session began, Pope Francis welcomed to the synod hall the members, delegates from other Christian communities and the men and women who will serve as experts and observers.
The synod is not a convention or a parliament, Pope Francis said, "but an expression of the church; it is the church that walks together to read reality with the eyes of faith and with the heart of God."
Synod members must be faithful to church teaching, "the deposit of faith, which is not a museum to be visited or even simply preserved, but is a living spring from which the church drinks to quench the thirst and enlighten" people, he said.
The synod hall and its small working groups, he said, should be "a protected space where the church experiences the action of the Holy Spirit."
In a spirit of prayer, the pope said, the Spirit will speak through "everyone who allows themselves to be guided by God, who always surprises us, by God who reveals to the little ones that which he has hidden from the wise and intelligent, by God who created the Sabbath for men and women and not vice versa, by God who leaves the 99 sheep to find the one missing sheep, by God who is always greater than our logic and our calculations."
Synod members need "an apostolic courage that does not allow itself to be afraid in the face of the seductions of the world" that are attempting "to extinguish in human hearts the light of truth" and replace it with "little and temporary lights," he said.
However, at the same time, Pope Francis said, apostolic courage does not tremble in fear "before the hardening of certain hearts that despite good intentions drive people further from God."
Evangelical humility is "emptying oneself of one's own convictions and prejudices in order to listen to our brother bishops and fill ourselves with God," he said. It is a humility, "which leads us not to point a finger in judgment of others, but to extend a hand to help them up again without ever feeling superior to them."
Trust-filled prayer is an attitude of openness to God and silencing one's own preferences "to listen to the soft voice of God who speaks in silence," Pope Francis told the synod members. "Without listening to God, all of our words will be just words that don't quench or satisfy." Without prayer, "all our decisions will be just decorations that instead of exalting the Gospel cover and hide it."
The gathering began with mid-morning prayer, which included the reading of a passage from the Second Letter to the Corinthians: "Brothers, rejoice. Mend your ways, encourage one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you."
Throughout the synod, members will offer a brief meditation during the morning prayer. Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucipalpa began Oct. 5, telling the bishops: "We are not a church in danger of extinction, far from it. Neither is the family, although it is threatened and struggling."
The synod, he said, is not a place "to mourn or lament" the challenges families face, but to rejoice and seek perfection and to help families do the same.
The discussions aim at "the unanimity that comes from dialogue," he said, but can be disturbed by "ideas defended to the extreme."
Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo of Esztergom-Budapest, chosen by the pope to introduce the discussion, spoke for close to an hour, outlining the questions the synod will be called to discuss over the course of three weeks. The gathering is set to conclude with a Mass Oct. 25.
Looking at the situation of families around the world, he said, one of the primary challenges is economic. Too many families do not have food, shelter or employment. Young people delay marriage and parenthood because they do not have or think they do not have the means to support a family. Millions of families are torn apart by war and migration.
In addition, the cardinal said, with an exultation of individualism there is a widespread distrust of institutions – including of the church, the state and the institution of marriage.
The Catholic Church at every level, he said, must affirm the missionary role of families, ensuring married couples are part of marriage preparation programs, family support groups and outreach to families in crisis emotionally or economically.
"The life of the human being and of humanity is part of a great project, that of God the creator," he said. "As in all aspects of life, we find our fullness and our happiness if we are able to freely and wisely put ourselves into this great project that is full of wisdom and love."
Turning to the widely debated topic of the pastoral care of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, Cardinal Erdo said pastors must be ready to help couples verify whether or not their church marriage was valid.
If it was a valid marriage, he said, it is indissoluble, as Jesus himself taught.
"The mercy of God offers pardon to the sinner, but requires conversion," Cardinal Erdo said. If it is impossible for a person to return to his or her spouse, then the church requires that in the new union the partners refrain from sexual relations.
"It is not the failure of the first marriage, but living together in a second relationship that impedes access to the Eucharist," he said.
Cardinal Erdo said the synod would be called to examine more carefully the idea of offering a "penitential path" to such couples, a path that would lead to their receiving absolution and having access to the Eucharist, perhaps gradually. But, he said, his opinion was that such a path necessarily would require a promise of sexual abstinence.
"Between the true and false, between good and evil, there is no graduality," he said. "Even if some forms of cohabitation have some positive aspects," for example in the joint care of children, "that does not imply the unions can be presented as good."
Responding to reporters later, Cardinal Erdo said his report's affirmation of the indissolubility of marriage and moving away from seeking a pastoral approach to allowing those couples to receive Communion were the result of the input the synod sought from Catholics around the world after the extraordinary synod on the family last year.
Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois of Paris, one of the synod presidents, told reporters, "If you are looking for a spectacular change in church doctrine you will be disappointed."
At the same time, said Italian Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, special secretary of the synod, "the synod is not gathering to say nothing." The goal is to find new pastoral methods to bring the church "closer to the men and women of its time."