In Depth

Extraordinary synod: is Pope Francis planning a revolution?

Marriage, divorce and contraception will all be discussed in an incredibly rare meeting of the Catholic Church

This weekend, senior clergy from the Roman Catholic Church will meet for an extraordinary synod in Rome – an incredibly rare assembly of bishops that has only happened twice before in the Church's modern history.

The gathering will be watched closely by Catholics around the world and will serve as a "litmus test" for Pope Francis' papacy, the BBC says. So will the Pope live up to his billing as a revolutionary or will he reveal himself to be a more orthodox pontiff than many had suspected?

What is an extraordinary synod?

Extraordinary synods (or "extraordinary general assemblies of the Synod of the Bishops" to give them their full title) are meetings reserved for "moments of urgency" in the Church's life, Time says.

The topic under discussion this time round is "the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelisation” – effectively a broad discussion around the Church's attitudes to marriage, divorce and contraception in the contemporary world.

The assembly in Rome this weekend will be just the third extraordinary synod since the creation of the Synod of Bishops in 1965. The first occurred in 1969 and the second was in 1985.

What may come out of the meeting?

The extraordinary synod will see the conservative and moderate elements of the Church discussing key issues that have historically proven divisive. Hopes are high among moderates, for example, that the Pope might loosen the ban preventing many people who are divorced and remarried from taking communion, The Guardian says.

Some commentators have pointed to a public event last month where Pope Francis presided over the wedding of 20 couples in St Peter's Basilica in Vatican City as a "big hint" about the current thinking of the Holy See.

While on the surface the couples may have seemed fairly conventional – ranging in age from 25 to 56 and all hailing from the Diocese of Rome – a number of the couples were comparatively unorthodox: one of the brides was already a mother, a number of the couples had already been living together, and some had previously been married.

As Time notes: "Popes rarely preside over public marriage ceremonies, but when they do, they tend to be linked to moments when the Church is trying to make a bigger point about the place of the family in society."

Also of note is the document that has been circulated by the Vatican ahead of the assembly, which takes a comparatively soft tone on the questions of cohabitation, divorce and remarriage.

Will the Pope be discussing any other thorny issues?

The gathering of bishops will also discuss contraception and homosexuality, but most Vatican watchers do not expect any radical new pronouncements on either matter. According to the BBC's James Harding, Pope Francis is seeking a change of emphasis in the approach of the Church, not a major overhaul.

Jane Livesey, the General Superior of the Congregation of Jesus – a global order of nuns – told the BBC that Francis's central message is: "There are different ways of interpreting the doctrine, and my way of doing it is through the prism of mercy and forgiveness."

Whether or not the synod leads to significant change, many commentators believe that the stakes for the assembly are high. Tina Beattie, a liberal Catholic theologian, told the Guardian that the stage has been set for "an epochal, defining struggle".

"Will the Church emerge from this as a church more in the image of Vatican II and Francis," she asked, "or will Francis be defeated by very powerful conservative forces so that we might see the emergence of an even more doctrinally rigid and unyielding ethos?"

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