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OpinionCommentaryPope Francis Visit

Next stop for Pope Francis? A synod on family issues.

Pope Francis speaks in front of Independence Hall,

Pope Francis speaks in front of Independence Hall, from the lectern used by President Abraham Lincoln during the Gettysburg Address, alongside a statue of President George Washington, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, in Philadelphia. Credit: AP / Alex Brandon

On to the synod! After a triumphal weekend in the City of Brotherly Love, Pope Francis is heading back to Rome. In Philadelphia, his moving words capped a family festival of song and story. Then he met with sexual abuse victims, visited prisoners, and celebrated a hugely attended Mass, closing the World Meeting of Families.

Starting next Sunday, he'll lead what could be a contentious synod on family issues.

That synod, essentially the second half of one that took place last fall, will address knotty questions such as whether divorced Catholics should be permitted to receive Communion. It will attempt to strike a difficult balance between the pope's emphasis on God's mercy and the church's teaching about marriage and family. Many Catholics want mercy to prevail, but a core of bishops don't want to see any change. Compared to resolving that tension, the pope's grueling U.S. schedule has been a mere leisurely popemobile ride through Central Park.

On this trip, and especially this weekend, family is at the top of the pope's mind. Though his speeches to Congress and the United Nations General Assembly and his visit to the site of the 9/11 attacks made much of the news, it was the World Meeting of Families that attracted him to his first visit to America. And being surrounded by families at a festival on Saturday night energized him.

If you looked closely at that festival -- past Mark Wahlberg hosting, past Aretha Franklin and Andrea Bocelli singing, beyond the touching stories that families came to tell Pope Francis -- you could see two faces of the church, foreshadowing the coming struggle at the synod.
One face, of course, was that of the pope himself. For much of this visit, he has been reading carefully crafted, powerful speeches that are well worth study. But Saturday night, after listening to families tell their stories, the pope abandoned his prepared speech about family and decided to speak from the heart. Liberated from the tyranny of the printed page and free to be himself, Francis gave a master class in the theology of the family, mixing profundity with broad humor.

"All that is beautiful leads us to God," the pope said, in his native Spanish. Then he told a tale of a boy's question. " 'What did God do before creating the world,' " the pope recalled the boy asking. "I assure you, I found real difficulty answering the question. I said, 'Before creating the world, God loved, because God is love .... It was so big, this love, that God could not be egoistic. It had to be poured out of him, so as to share that love with those outside of himself. And God created the world.' " Then he returned to the theme of his encyclical, Laudato Si', the need to preserve the common home that Creator's bursting love gave us: "We are destroying it."

The pope admitted that people might ask what he knows about the family, since he isn't married. And he acknowledged that families have problems and quarrels. "Sometimes, plates can fly," he said, laughing, "and children bring headaches. I won't talk about mothers-in-law." The pope didn't shrink from acknowledging the imperfection of families. "In the family there are indeed difficulties, but those difficulties are overcome with love," he said.
It was Francis-turned-loose, more joyful and open than the pope reading from a prepared speech, who called the family "a factory of hope," and offered this sound advice: "Never let the day end without making peace."

The other face was the conservative, worried-about-Francis one, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput. At Mass in the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul earlier Saturday, Chaput told the pope that the city could very easily be renamed Francisville. And at the festival and during the pope's visit to a prison, Chaput played the role of beaming host, basking in papal glory. But it wasn't too long ago, in 2013, that Chaput said out loud what many of the more conservative bishops were grumbling. Back then, he told the National Catholic Reporter that right wing folks in the church "generally have not been really happy about his election, from what I've been able to read and to understand. He'll have to care for them, too, so it will be interesting to see how all this works out in the long run."
Whatever Chaput thinks of Francis, then or now, the Vatican lists the archbishop among the nearly 300 participants in the Synod on the Family, where he seems likely to be a strong voice for the status quo.

At last year's first session, the synod began with some wide-ranging, freewheeling, open discussion on complex issues -- a freedom of speech encouraged by the pope. But the document that concluded the session backed away from any significant changes in church practice. The pope has since taken a major step, easing the process of issuing annulments, which declare that the marriage was null and void from the start. But that doesn't change the church's teaching that a valid marriage is indissoluble. So difficult issues remain.

This month, in advance of the synod, Ignatius Press -- a bastion of orthodoxy -- published a book called "Eleven Cardinals Speak on Marriage and the Family: Essays from a Pastoral Viewpoint." It's not a call for reform, but a plea for the church to stay the course, not to change its basic pastoral practices about marriage.

So the stage is set for some battles in Rome. But on Saturday night, the pope spoke lyrically of the beauty of family life. On Sunday, he met with sexual abuse victims at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, said that "God weeps" for the pain they bear, and told bishops plainly that "all responsible will be held accountable." It remains to be seen how many bishops will be included in that accounting -- bishops who covered up abuse and failed to help the victims.

From the seminary, Francis traveled to Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, an institution much in the news for overcrowding and for correction officers accused of beating prisoners. In an open letter to the pope, The Marshall Project, a nonprofit online news organization focused on criminal justice, said: "Although it houses only 3,000 of the 2.2 million Americans currently incarcerated, Curran-Fromhold is as clear an illustration of the current issues facing the American justice system as you could ask for."

But it wasn't statistics, or the debate in America about moving away from excessive incarceration, that brought the pope to jail. It was a desire to visit prisoners, as Jesus commanded in Matthew 25.

"I stand among you a pastor, a shepherd, and above all your brother, to share in your plight and make it my own," the pope told the prisoners. "This time in your life can only have one purpose, to give you a helping hand in getting back on the right path .... All of us have something we need to be cleansed of or purified from--all of us." And he reminded them that Jesus offered the real hope of redemption. "He comes to save us from the lie that says no one can change."

Then the pope moved slowly through the prisoners, shaking hands with each, tracing the sign of the cross on their foreheads, embracing them, offering the comfort of human touch to those we too often consider untouchable. And he thanked the prisoners for the chair they built for him -- a chair that can now serve as a physical reminder that a pope cared enough for those convicted of crime to sit in it, rise from it, and embrace them.

In prison, in Congress, at the UN, and everywhere he went, Francis offered firm guidance on many issues. In the spirit of CNN's Twitter promotion, asking people to summarize what the pope meant to them in three words, here are three-word summaries of what he had to say in a few key areas: To the American bishops: You must dialogue. On nuclear weapons: Scrap them all. On the arms trade: Stop it now. On immigration: Treat them lovingly. On families: Love conquers all. On prisoners: Everyone can change. On capital punishment: Abolish it globally. On women's role: Not so much.

The pope's visit culminated in the Mass Sunday on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, in the heart of the Philadelphia, with an enormous outdoor congregation. His homily offered more encouragement to families, as did in his impromptu talk on Saturday night.
In the Gospel reading of the day, Jesus tells his disciples that anyone "who gives you a cup of water to drink" in his name will not go unrewarded. Francis pivoted on that small gesture, to talk about families. "Like happiness, holiness is always tied to little gestures," he said. "These are little gestures that we learn at home, gestures that we learn in the family ....

Love is shown by little things, by attention to those small daily signs that make our lives feel always like we're at home. That is why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches."
Now Francis returns to the synod, to the Vatican, to the difficult task of reforming it and shaping to fit his own vision of a church of the poor, for the poor, a church that goes out to the peripheries, led by shepherds willing to smell like their sheep. In all that, I wish him Godspeed.

Bob Keeler is a former member of Newsday's editorial board.