VATICAN CITY (AP) - Pope Francis says he is looking for a "sincere, open and fraternal" debate about divisive family issues that opens Sunday with progressives hoping for change and conservatives intent on keeping the status quo.
Francis made a cameo appearance Saturday at a twilight prayer vigil in St. Peter's Square on the eve of a two-week meeting of bishops aimed at making the church's teaching on sex, marriage, divorce and homosexuality relevant to today's Catholics.
Francis said he wanted the bishops to listen - really listen to what the people of God are saying - and then engage in a "sincere, open and fraternal" debate that will respond to the "epochal changes" that families are living through today.
Francis set the stage for a wide-ranging debate when he decided last year to send a 39-point questionnaire to bishops' conferences around the world, seeking input from ordinary Catholics about their acceptance of church teaching on a host of issues related to Catholic family life.
The surveys confirmed that the vast majority of Catholics ignored and rejected church teaching on sex and contraception. The responses also said the church must develop a pastoral plan to minister to gays in civil unions and to children being raised in such families, making the synod the first time the Vatican is addressing homosexuality on a pastoral level.
Church reform groups said such honest responses were reason to hope that under Francis, a meeting of bishops might yield some change if only for the fact that Francis has asked bishops to honestly speak their minds.
Pope seeks 'sincere, open' debate on family issues
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - OCTOBER 30: Pope Francis attends an audience with President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz at the Apostolic Palace on October 30, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. The Vatican has confirmed that Pope Francis will speak before the European Parliament in Strasbourg, on November 25th, during its plenary assembly. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
Pope Francis (R) wears a plastic poncho as he waves to well wishers after a mass in Tacloban on January 17, 2015. Pope Francis will spend an emotional day in the Philippines on January 17 with survivors of a catastrophic super typhoon that claimed thousands of lives, highlighting his concern over climate change. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - FEBRUARY 02: Pope Francis leads Mass with members of the institutes of Consecrated Life at St. Peter's Basilica on February 2, 2015 in Vatican City, Vatican. Pontiff further urged the bishops to pay special attention to vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life, saying that they need 'adequate training' throughout their ministry. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
METRO MANILA, PHILIPPINES - 2015/01/18: Pope Francis is in his 5-day trip to the Philippines for the first time from January 15 to 19. The pontiff's trip will be highlighted by visits to Haiyan-struck areas in the Visayas region, South of Manila. (Photo by John Jerome E. Ganzon/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Pope Francis smiles in front of a videocamera as he take part in a video conference to mark the end of the IV Scholas Occurrentes World Educational Congress, at the Vatican, on February 5, 2015. The 'Scholas Occurrentes' organization is an international project based in Argentina that brings together schools and educational networks from different cultures and beliefs. AFP PHOTO / ANDREAS SOLARO (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
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Pope Francis holds a St. Therese's Icon during a press conference aboard a plane during his trip to the Philippines on January 15, 2015. Pope Francis arrived in the Philippines on January 15 for a five-day trip in the Catholic Church's passionate and chaotic Asian heartland that is tipped to attract a world-record papal crowd. AFP PHOTO / GIUSEPPE CACACE (Photo credit should read GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - NOVEMBER 26: Pope Francis attends his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square on November 26, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. During today's General Audience Pope Francis told pilgrims the Church is on a continuing journey towards heaven. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - OCTOBER 02: Pope Francis kisses a young kid as he arrives in St. Peter's Square for his weekly audience on October 2, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. During the audience the Pontiff said the Church is not without sin because it is made up of sinners. Priests, sisters, bishops, cardinals and even Popes are sinners. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
Pope Francis speaks during the audience to the Vatican employees, on December 22, 2014 in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican AFP PHOTO / ANDREAS SOLARO (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - MAY 26: (ISRAEL OUT) Pope Francis prays by the Western Wall on May 26, 2014 in Jerusalem, Israel. Pope Francis arrived in Israel on Sunday afternoon, a day after landing in the Middle East for his first visit to the Holy Land. During his visit to the West Bank the Pontiff addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as 'unacceptable' and urged both sides to find courage in seeking a peaceful solution. (Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)
Pope Francis kisses a boy as he arrives for his general audience in St Peter's Square at the Vatican on February 26, 2014. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - SEPTEMBER 24: Pope Francis loses his 'papalina' cup as he catches a baseball ball thrown by a faithful at the end of his weekly audience at St. Peter's Square on September 24, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. During his General Audience on Wednesday, Pope Francis reflected on his Apostolic Voyage to Albania. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
Pope Francis smiles as he wear a military Alpine hat upon his arrival at St.Peter's square for the weekly general audience on March 5, 2014. The pontiff today has defended the Catholic Church's record on tackling the sexual abuse of children by priests, saying 'no-one else has done more' to root out paedophilia. AFP PHOTO / ANDREAS SOLARO (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - DECEMBER 17: Pope Francis blows out the candles on his birthday cake during his general audience at St Peter's square on December 17, 2014 at the Vatican City, Vatican. (Photo by Evren Atalay/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Pope Francis caresses a child during the audience to the Vatican employees, on December 22, 2014 in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican AFP PHOTO / ANDREAS SOLARO (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis gestures in St.Peter's square at Vatican during his weekly general audience on March 5, 2014. Pope Francis has defended the Catholic Church's record on tackling the sexual abuse of children by priests, saying 'no-one else has done more' to root out paedophilia. AFP PHOTO / ANDREAS SOLARO (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis exchanges gifts with the Prime Minister of Romania Victor Ponta (R) as his wife and European Parliament Member Daciana Sarbu (L) looks on during a private audience in the pontiff's studio at the Vatican on March 1, 2014. AFP PHOTO / POOL / ALESSANDRA TARANTINO (Photo credit should read ALESSANDRA TARANTINO/AFP/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - APRIL 23: Pope Francis drinks mate as he holds his weekly audience on April 23, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. Pilgrims have started to arrive in St. Peter's Square for the Canonization ceremony for Pope John XXIII and John Paul II, which will take place on Sunday 27th. (Photo by Giulio Origlia/Getty Images)
Pope Francis greets a child dressed up as a pope as he arrives for his general audience in St Peter's square at the Vatican on February 26, 2014. AFP PHOTO / OSSERVATORE ROMANO. RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / OSSERVATORE ROMANO' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS (Photo credit should read OSSERVATORE ROMANO/AFP/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - FEBRUARY 21: Pope Francis greets cardinals as he arrives at the Synod Hall for the morning session of Extraordinary Consistory on the themes of Family on February 21, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. Pope Francis will create 19 new cardinals during his first consistory on February 22. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
Pope Francis salutes the crowd as he arrives for his general audience in St Peter's square at the Vatican on February 19, 2014. AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis is welcomed by faithfuls while arriving for a visit to the parish of San Tommaso on the outskirts of Rome on February 16, 2014. AFP PHOTO / ANDREAS SOLARO
(Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
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"If all Francis manages to do is encourage bishops to speak out and to say what they really think, then he will start a revolution almost by accident," said Miriam Duignan of the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, a progressive British think tank.
She insisted that most bishops don't really want to preach that artificial contraception is morally indefensible or that homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered," as church teaching holds.
"Whether it starts with priestly celibacy or attitudes toward homosexuality or birth control: Once you admit that your teaching was flawed, that it was based on flimsy premises and that you were wrong, we can start the conversation," she said.
While conservative groups say there is indeed a risk that the synod will result in merely sowing confusion over church teaching about sex and marriage, prelates participating in the synod are intent on reinforcing doctrine, not changing it.
"The synod is not meeting to create some new teaching in the church or to break with that tradition," the hard-line American Cardinal Raymond Burke told reporters this week. Rather, he said, the meeting is designed to "hold true to it ... underline it's important for our present time, and I hope that's what's going to happen."
Associated Press religion writer Rachel Zoll contributed from New York.
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