Pope opens meeting of the world’s bishops with Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica
VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Benedict XVI inaugurated his first major Vatican event since being elected in April, welcoming more than 250 of the world’s bishops to Rome on Sunday for a meeting on some of the pressing issues facing the Catholic Church.Flanked by cardinals, bishops, patriarchs and other prelates from 118 countries, Benedict celebrated a two-hour Latin-filled Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica to open the three-week synod, during which bishops will make recommendations to the pope on running the church.”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.Officially, the Oct. 2-23 meeting was called to discuss the Eucharist, the sacrament in which Catholics receive Communion, believed by the faithful to be the body and blood of Christ.Benedict acknowledged Sunday that to some the topic “might be something taken for granted” and not necessarily worth three weeks of discussion. But he said Catholic doctrine called for the Eucharist to be lived “in ways that are always new and adequate to the times.””The Eucharist can be considered a lens through which the face and path of the church can be seen,” he said after the Mass, speaking from his studio window overlooking St. Peter’s Square.As a result, a host of current issues are expected to be discussed by the bishops, including whether Communion should be given to Catholic politicians who back abortion rights and to divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment.The working document for the synod also mentions the shortage of priests in many parts of the world and declining Mass attendance – although it also devotes significant time to other issues such as the design of church interiors and the role of the laity in Masses.Bishop Donald Trautman, one of the alternate American bishops named to the synod, criticized the scant attention paid in the document to the “pivotal problem” of the priest shortage, which has forced the closure of hundreds of parishes in the United States and the clustering together of others.”For the synod fathers not to discuss in a significant way the critical shortage of celebrants for Eucharist would be a disservice to God’s people,” he wrote in this week’s edition of the Jesuit weekly America.”This does not necessarily entail a discussion of optional celibacy, but it does invite a broad conversation on why young men are not answering Christ’s call, why many are not coming to Eucharist, and what the church can do now to minister more effectively to youth,” he wrote.Several participants said they expected a discussion of celibacy for priests – but that they ultimately expected bishops to reaffirm the current policy.Participants also indicated they expected discussion of the church’s position that Catholic politicians should not support legislation contrary to church doctrine, including abortion rights.The synod document says it may be a sin to support a politician who openly favors abortion “or other serious acts against life, justice and peace” and that receiving Communion would thus “be an act of grave personal dishonesty and causing scandal.”The issue was highlighted during the U.S. presidential election campaign after St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke said he would deny the Eucharist to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, a Catholic who supports abortion rights.Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, a Roman Catholic whose Liberal Party drafted the legislation to legalize gay marriage in Canada, was asked at a recent news conference about the Vatican’s opposition to gay marriage and his religious beliefs.”I believe in the separation of church and state. I believe in the Canadian Charter of Rights,” he said, referring to the country’s bill of rights. “I do not believe the prime minister of the country can cherry-pick those rights. As a Catholic, that’s my faith, and I’ll keep that to myself.”The pope had invited four Chinese bishops to attend the synod as part of his effort to unify China’s divided church, but there was no sign of them Sunday – an indication that the Beijing government had not allowed them to travel.China forced its Roman Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, and worship is allowed only in government-controlled churches. Millions of Chinese, however, belong to unofficial congregations loyal to Rome.Benedict has tried to reach out to Beijing, saying he wants to establish diplomatic relations and bring all of China’s Catholics under Rome’s wing.The Communist Party-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association and Chinese Catholic Bishops College said soon after the four bishops were named that they could not come. They said the pope had shown “no respect” because the government had already told Rome they were too old and ill to travel.
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