Pope Benedict XVI opened a three-week meeting of the world’s bishops with a Mass today in St Peter’s Basilica, inaugurating his first major Vatican event since being elected.
Some in the pews clapped when Benedict, dressed in bright green vestments, passed by, preceded by the more than 250 bishops, cardinals, heads of religious orders and others from about 118 countries who will take part in the Synod of Bishops.
Officially, the synod was called to discuss the Eucharist, or the sacrament of Holy Communion, which Catholics believe is the body and blood of Christ. Bishops will make recommendations on certain aspects of the sacrament for Benedict to consider.
But a range of issues falls under that main topic and are likely to spark debate among the bishops.
Among them is whether Communion should be given to Catholic politicians who back abortion rights and to divorced people who remarry without getting an annulment.
The priest shortage, and whether celibacy contributes to it, as well as dwindling Mass attendance also are expected to be discussed.
“Let us pray that the Holy Spirit illuminates, inspires and guides the work of the synod and pushes us to charity, agreement and the service of the truth,” Benedict said in an opening prayer.
While the focus of the synod is on the bishops and their role in helping the Pope run the church, the meeting in many ways is about Benedict since it’s his first major undertaking since being elected April 19.
Many participants have pointed to the changes Benedict made in organising the synod as evidence he wants it to be a more collegial exchange of ideas than a meeting with a preordained outcome.
Bishops will speak for six minutes rather than eight, allowing for an hour of open discussion at the end of each day.
Benedict focused his sermon at the start of the meeting on the Biblical parables of the vineyard. He repeated a common concern of his, that people today frequently think they can do without God.
“Either we make him a simple devout expression, or he is denied everything, he is banished from public life, thus losing all meaning,” Benedict said. “The reality in the world and in our life is not tolerance but hypocrisy.”
Benedict had invited four Chinese bishops to attend the synod as part of his effort to unify China’s divided church. But the bishops had not submitted the necessary paperwork to attend, Vatican officials said – an indication the Beijing government wouldn’t let them come.
Nevertheless, Monsignor Nikola Eterovic, the general secretary of the synod, remained hopeful.
“We remain open to receiving them, even until the last day,” he told reporters.
In the draft document outlining the synod agenda, the Vatican singled out those who have been divorced and remarry without getting an annulment and Catholic politicians who support abortion rights in criticising Catholics who continue to receive Communion while in a state of “mortal sin”.
The document also noted declining Mass attendance – in some countries, only 5% of the faithful attend – as well as the priest shortage. It cited statistics showing there was one priest for every 1,797 Catholics in 1978 compared with one priest for every 2,677 Catholics in 2003.
As a result, several participants said they expected the church’s celibacy requirement to be discussed since many believe that more men would join the priesthood if they were allowed to marry.
“They’re certainly not going to talk about ordination of women, but I think there might be some discussion of the celibacy law,” said the Reverend Francis Moloney, an Australian theologian at the synod.