TORONTO (CCN) — Robert Mickens is expecting Pope Francis to “rattle cages” during the synod of bishops on the family by challenging the world’s bishops to face and address the problems within the church.
A key focus, Mickens said, will come as no surprise to most observers — the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics, which took up so much time and media focus at last year’s extraordinary synod of bishops on the family. Francis has indicated he is open to reforming some of the rules on the matter, recently loosening some of the rules around annulments to make the process more streamlined.
“He wants to support the traditional family, that is without a doubt, but he knows that not everyone is there,” said Mickens. “The homily from the final mass (at) the World Gathering of Families (in Philadelphia Sept. 28) was really quite powerful; if they are not against us they are for us. We can co-operate with people if they are not opposed to us.
“He is not afraid of the fact that we have conflicts in the church,” said Mickens, a veteran journalist who’s covered the Vatican for more than three decades, including 11 years with Vatican Radio.
“The pope is going to encourage bishops once again, as he did in the last two sessions of the synod, to speak, to pray and to try to discern creative ways to address many of the problems that we have in the church.”
Dickens spoke with The Register Sept. 28, a day before he was in Toronto to deliver a public lecture on the future of Francis’ pontificate and what his visits to Cuba and the United States might tell us about the synod, which began Oct. 4.
To determine what those problems are, Francis had priests from around the globe canvass parishioners with a questionnaire prior to the synod, which will run until Oct. 25.
More than 300 cardinals and bishops are expected to attend this year’s synod.
The point of engaging parishioners was to find out what issues were important to families, what are the needs of the modern family and what is working well within the church, said Mickens.
“The pope wants the whole church involved in this,” said Mickens, the editor of Global Post Magazine. “This is a whole new method of discernment in the church which makes people who are used to controlling the debate and following the rules very uncomfortable. There was never debate at the synods before.”
In the past Mickens said bishops spent the three weeks of the synod reading documents, writing responses and listening to hierarchy speak.
Francis made it clear to during his papal visit to the United States that “we cannot just dream of the good old days when everyone followed church teachings,” said Mickens.
“He wants people to discuss because it is the only healthy way forward for the church,” he said. “The one thing that the pope is not afraid of is debate.”
Along with opening up debate among the bishops, Mickens also expects Francis to change the frequency at which they speak.
“The pope has already said that there is going to be no final document,” he said. “It is unrealistic to think that these issues which are serious issues can be resolved at a three-week meeting of bishops. It is only going to open up the conversation wider, deep, and it is going to have to be ongoing.
“How frequently, that will be left up to the pope, but my instinct is that the pope will take this opportunity to make the synod of bishops one of the primary elements of the governance of the Catholic Church.”