TIME Religion

What the Vatican Really Said About Homosexuality

Pope Francis leads a mass honouring the canonisation of two Canadian saints in St. Peter's basilica at the Vatican on Oct. 12, 2014.
Vincenzo Pinto—AFP/Getty Images Pope Francis leads a mass honouring the canonisation of two Canadian saints in St. Peter's basilica at the Vatican on Oct. 12, 2014.

It's not the big shift people think it is

The Catholic world and the media were riled Monday by a Vatican document interpreted by many as signaling a softer church stance toward homosexuality, but the inclusive tone of the document is a long way from actual policy change.

At issue are three words most people have never heard of: Relatio post disceptationem. That’s the name of the document the Catholic Church’s Extraordinary Synod of the Bishops released Monday, one week into the Synod’s gathering to discuss the state of the family in the modern world. It translates, “Report After Debate,” and it was read aloud in the Synod hall to kick off the Synod’s second week. One of the report’s 58 sections—the one causing the biggest stir—is titled, “Welcoming homosexual persons.”

“Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” the passage begins. “Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”

For a Church that has historically linked the word “homosexual” with the word “sin,” the idea of welcoming gays in any capacity can appear to be a significant move. Headlines immediately spoke of a “dramatic shift” and a “more tolerant” stance from the church.

But before rushing to conclusions, everyone, on all sides, should calm down.

First, here’s what the document actually is:

The relatio is a mid-Synod snapshot of 200+ Catholic leaders’ conversations that happened in the Synod hall last week. It is a starting point for conversations as the Synod fathers start small group discussions this week. It is a working text that identifies where bishops need to “deepen or clarify our understanding,” as Cardinal Luis Antonia Tagle put it in Monday’s press briefing. That means that the topic of gays and Catholic life came up in the Synod conversations so far and that it is a topic for continued reflection.

Second, here’s what the document is not:

The relatio is not a proscriptive text. It is not a decree. It is not doctrine, and certainly not a doctrinal shift. It is also not final. “These are not decisions that have been made nor simply points of view,” the document concludes. “The reflections put forward, the fruit of the Synodal dialogue that took place in great freedom and a spirit of reciprocal listening, are intended to raise questions and indicate perspectives that will have to be matured and made clearer by the reflection of the local Churches in the year that separates us from the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of bishops planned for October 2015.”

So, what does all of that mean? Cardinal Tagle perhaps said it best when he said at Monday’s press briefing, with a smile, “The drama continues.”

The relatio reaffirms at several points that marriage is between a man and a woman. Substance on that point is not changing. The Vatican has been repeatedly clear that this Synod will bring no changes to doctrine, or even a final document with new rites. To “welcome gays” does not mean the Church is no longer equating “gay” with “sin.”

Instead, tone—as it has always been with the Francis papacy—is what is on the table. The style that Pope Francis lives is one that starts with a spirit of embrace, of mercy, and not with sin. It begins with figuring out at what points embrace is possible before determining the points at which it is not. That may be one reason why people like top Vatican watcher John Thavis are calling this mid-synod report “an earthquake.”

But it is also important to remember that the Synod on the Family is almost a two-year-long process, and this snapshot is just that, a snapshot of one week in that process. There will be more such snapshot documents in the coming months. The conversation started earlier this year when bishops around the world surveyed their congregations about family life, it kicked off more formally last week with the gathering in Rome, next the bishops will take the conversations back to their communities, next summer there’s the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia (a traditionally conservative American diocese), and then finally next fall there will be the second Synod with even more bishops from around the world with even more discussion.

Looking for revolution can be misleading. It can mar the actual story of what is and what is not happening. Casual Vatican observers—especially those in the United States, where conversations about sexuality have a different trajectory than in the Vatican or in many developing countries—should be careful to not read into the conversation what they want to hear. The interest in a relatio, a relatively obscure document, does however point to another shift: people actually care about what a group of bishops is doing.

That itself, for many, may be a revolution.

Read next: Pope Francis Wouldn’t Have Wanted the Nobel Peace Prize

TIME Religion

Pope Francis Wouldn’t Have Wanted the Nobel Peace Prize

Pope Francis Attends His Weekly Audience at St Peters Square
Franco Origlia—Getty Images Pope Francis waves to the faithful as he holds his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square on March 19, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican.

Accepting the honor would've been out of character for the Holy Father

Malala Yousafazi and Kailash Satyarthi were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize Friday morning. Pope Francis, a hotly-rumored choice for the honor, did not. And that’s almost certainly just how Pope Francis would want it to be.

Popes do not win the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s just not done. Not even Pope John Paul II was awarded the prize, even when it was widely rumored that he would be its recipient in 2003 for his opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

MORE: Pope Francis, 2013 TIME Person of the Year

Part of the current Holy Father’s global appeal is that he shies away from accolades. They do not fit with his mission, or the ethos of humility that he is trying to infuse into Holy See culture. This is a man who pays his own hotel bill the morning after being named the heir of Saint Peter, even though the Vatican owns his hotel anyway. He is a man who wears old shoes and simple robes, and who refuses to live in the Vatican’s apostolic palace. He has his eyes on a bigger prize, to quote words of the Apostle Paul, toward the upward call of God.

Friday, he again showed that characteristic humility. The announcement of Malala’s win came at 11 a.m. Rome time. Typically, every day this week at 11 a.m., Pope Francis has been finishing a coffee break with the bishops from around the world gathered for the Extraordinary Synod of the Bishops on the Family. (The gathering is the first major policy event of his papacy, and one he specifically called so that church leaders could discuss practical issues facing modern marriages and families.) But this morning, he quietly snuck out of the Synod hall a few minutes before the Nobel Prize committee announced the honoree. Whether it was his intent or not, that move made sure that he would not be in front of any cameras or an audience that might have applauded him if he had won.

Malala’s win also means that Mother Teresa, who won the prize in 1979, remains the most prominent Catholic in history to have received the honor. It is fitting for Pope Francis, by his absence, to continue the legacy of honoring women’s role in society—not only has he been working to bring attention to challenges of family life in the Middle East, but he also has shown sensitivity to women and to their leadership in Church life.

Plus, in what is one of history’s ironic twists—or some might say, providentially recurring themes—Mother Teresa opened her acceptance speech with a prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, the saint for whom Pope Francis chose to be named.

“Lord, make a channel of Thy peace,” the prayer begins, “that where there is hatred, I may bring love; that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness; that, where there is discord, I may bring harmony; that, where there is error, I may bring truth; that, where there is doubt, I may bring faith; that, where there is despair, I may bring hope; that, where there are shadows, I may bring light; that, where there is sadness, I may bring joy.”

For many, Pope Francis is doing just that, Nobel or not.

Dias reported from Vatican City

TIME faith

Meet the Iraqi Couple Attending Pope Francis’ Synod

Elizabeth Dias Riyadh Azzu and Sanaa Habeeb

The Synod bishops have already voted to send a letter of encouragement to Iraqi families

Baghdad has been home to Riyadh Azzu and Sanaa Habeeb for their entire lives. It is where they first met at church in 1969, married in 1976, developed their careers—he is an engineer, she is a pharmacist—and raised their son and daughter, who are now both doctors. Their part of town has long been an area where Christians and Muslims have peacefully coexisted. But now all that’s changing—Iraq’s economic, political, and religious turmoil, especially with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria’s (ISIS) attacks on minority Christian communities, is uprooting their lives.

This week Azzu, 61, and Habeeb, 60, are sharing their story with Pope Francis and the bishops gathered at the Vatican for the Extraordinary Synod of the Bishops on the Family, a special gathering of church leaders to discuss practical issues of marriage and family in the modern world. They are one of the fourteen couples appointed by the Holy Father to participate as auditors, a term for the non-voting attendees. On paper, their role is to serve as “witnesses of Christian family life in an Islamic context.” In person it is to witness to the larger story of the issues Christian — particularly Catholic — families face in the Middle East.

The couple previously represented Iraq with 10 other families at the 2012 World Meeting of Families in Milan. They are humbled by the opportunity to be the ones to share their story at the Synod, they tell TIME. They were likely selected because their English skills are good and they are regular church attendees, Habeeb says, but she added that lots of families deserve this honor. The two main issues are on their minds as they prepare to speak to the Synod fathers: the impact of war on Christians, and immigration’s role in fracturing the family.

Both are experiences they have lived firsthand. ISIS has driven more than 100,000 Iraqi Christians out of the country over the last few months. The June 11 assault of northern Iraq was a disaster for their community. While Azzu and Habeeb were relatively safe in Baghdad, they watched as fellow Christians were driven from cities like Mosul and are now living in tents and church yards. “That did it for us. They were people like us—they had good homes, good jobs, they were driven away just like that,” Habeeb says. “It’s like the 9/11 of Iraq.”

The pair’s family has been torn apart as conditions have worsened in recent years. Their distant relatives have all left the country. Their son moved to Michigan and is now an American citizen. Their daughter, who has a PhD in diagnostic imaging, and her husband, moved with their grandchildren to Germany to try to build a new life. “She has to start again, from zero,” Habeeb explains, talking about how many youth are leaving the country, in many cases along with older family members, which fractures the close family ties Arab countries have developed over centuries. “She had no future. It is a hopeless case, Iraq.”

For now, the couple is staying in Iraq, but they are considering a move to the United States with their son. The burden brought on by being required to pay religious taxes and not be able to openly celebrate Christian feast days and big holidays like Christmas is taking its toll. Many of their moderate Muslim friends have already left the country. Their own church, St. Joseph Chaldean Catholic, has shrunk to 200 families, compared to 2,000 families two decades ago.

The bishops at the Synod are aware of the challenges Christians in Iraq have been facing, and already voted to send a letter of encouragement to Iraqi families. In the midst of it all, Habeeb and Azzu are trying to bear testimony to their Catholic faith and to loving their neighbors, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or anything else. Church, they say, is what has sustained them and given them social community and friends. But they also recognize there are limits to what the Catholic Church can do to improve the situation.

“[The Church has] shown wonderful acts of solidarity, this is beautiful. They are making their voices heard in the world community . . . they are praying, there are contributing financially,” Habeeb says. “What else can they do? It is a moral voice.”

The U.S. and its military power is another matter. “It is [a] very slow reaction, they are saying it takes a lot of time, years maybe, I don’t know why,” Azzu says of the American response. “It is baffling,” Habeeb adds. “They say you people have to tackle their problems on your own, and they are right. . . . I’m sure our politicians are to blame also. . . . We had large expectations when America liberated us the first time, a beautiful sense of freedom. All of this disappeared.”

TIME faith

All-American Boosters of Natural Family Planning Attend Vatican Synod of Pope Francis

Vatican Family
Alessandra Tarantino—Associated Press Vatican Swiss Guards stand on salute as Pope Francis arrives for the morning session of a two-week synod on family issues including contraception, pre-marital sex and divorce, at the Vatican, Oct. 6, 2014.

The Heinzens are pretty much your everyday, middle-class Wisconsin couple. Alice, 60, and Jeff, 63, first met at a bar during a 1977 snowstorm, and their connection was immediate. Their parents each ran small, family-owned businesses—his a printing outfit, hers a shoe company—both had large Catholic families, and both had mothers named Rita. Now, 34 wedding anniversaries, three children, and four grandchildren later, they still attend mass, are Green Bay Packers fans, and host Sunday dinners for their neighborhood.

This week, their life story takes an unusual plot twist: they are attending the 2014 Extraordinary Synod of the Bishops on the Family at the Vatican, one of just fourteen married couples appointed by Pope Francis as Synod auditors, a term for the non-voting attendees at the meeting. They are also the only couple attending from the United States, and on Tuesday afternoon, they made a four-minute presentation to the Synod fathers sharing their experiences of married life.

“One thing that we have in common as auditors is, we are all a little astounded why we are here,” says Alice. “They certainly could have pulled the perfect families out of every country—they did not. They pulled the real families out of the countries, which is true to Francis.”

The Heinzens are in many ways a model of traditional Catholic teaching on marriage, especially its practical side. Jeff is president of McDonell Area Catholic Schools in Chippewa Falls, and Alice directs the Office for Marriage and Family Life for their diocese. They are both well known in Midwestern Catholic circles for their work teaching natural family planning (NFP). Alice serves on the NFP advisory board for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Catholic NFP program that she and Jeff helped to create in Wisconsin has become a model for other NFP programs around the country. They are both active in the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers (NACFLM). Jeff is on an NACFLM advisory committee, Alice co-wrote a Catholic parenting curriculum called Teaching the Way of Love.

In their own life, they have learned that NFP can be a tool to keep a marriage strong. They first got involved with natural family planning after the birth of their third child. Alice had a difficult labor, and she admits she had been thinking, “If this man loves me, he’ll just go in and make sure that we’re done.” Jeff however talked with his priest, who said they had two choices if they were done having children: natural family planning or abstinence. At first Alice resisted—“Come on, I’m a product of the 60s and the 70s…my body my way,” she says—but then they say they learned that natural family planning was about more than fertility, it was about mutual trust in a marriage. Men and women in marriage complement one another and make each other better, she explains: “How better to begin to understand that than at the level of your fertility and the ability to procreate?”

Natural family planning is a method of measuring a woman’s fertility in order to achieve or postpone a pregnancy. Fertility indicators include measuring a woman’s cervical fluid, her temperature, and tracking her menstrual cycles to determine ovulation timing. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Department notes NFP can be an effective method of birth control if more than one method are used and used correctly. For every 100 couples who use the natural family planning method every year, according to HHS, one to 25 will become pregnant.

The Heinzens work training young couples about NFP is likely one of the reasons that they have built relationships over time with many top American bishops, who would have been involved in their selection for Synod participation. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has been vocally defending the practice of not serving communion to divorced and remarried Catholics (and whom Pope Francis removed from the Congregation of Bishops last year) is from their diocese. Cardinal Timothy Dolan was the archbishop of Milwaukee before going to New York, and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz was Alice’s sister’s bishop in Tennessee and led some of her family members on a Holy Lands pilgrimage.

The Synod is only two days in so far, but it is already making an impression on them. As he has been hearing testimonies of bishops and auditors from around the world, Jeff has been feeling the need for the Church to commit especially to fathers, perhaps in the form of a special letter to fathers. “We have to remember that fathers of children aren’t always husbands of wives, and we have to call the fathers forward to step up to the plate again,” he says, choking up with emotion. “If we can get that one stone right, then that whole bridge assembles itself.”

The Heinzens also feel that the presence of the laypeople and the stories they are sharing is making an impression on the bishops. “Just watching the expressions on the Holy Father’s face as he hears those stories…I don’t know how that man sleeps at night with all that he knows,” Alice says, her voice trailing off. “They love us in there. They love us in there, they really do.”

TIME Supreme Court

Meet the Lawyers Fighting for Religious Freedom Today Before the Supreme Court

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
Courtesy Becket Fund Counsel for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty outside of the Supreme Court in Washington.

Arguing for a Muslim prisoner's right to grow a beard is just the latest effort for the firm that won the Hobby Lobby case

Gregory Houston Holt wants to grow a half-inch beard but he can’t, and that’s a problem. Holt is Muslim and he believes that wearing a beard is a requirement of his Salafi faith. But he’s serving a life sentence for attempted murder in Arkansas, where the Department of Corrections has banned beards as a potential security threat. On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Holt’s case, and just as interesting as the outcome of his claim is who will argue it for him. Holt, who now goes by the name Abdul Maalik Muhammad, has put his faith not in a big name first amendment litigator nor in the secularist American Civil Liberties Union, but in the lawyers of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Holt’s faith in the Becket Fund is well founded. A small, non-profit public interest law firm, with just eleven litigating attorneys and a $5 million annual budget, the Fund is a rising star in Washington. Everyone from unknowns like Holt to corporate giants like Hobby Lobby, which this year won expanded religious exemptions from Obamacare, turns to Becket for high profile cases at the high court. Its lawyers are most famous for arguing the often politically incorrect view that the constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion has been eclipsed in recent years by government deference to other parts of the constitution. That’s no easy task, since arguments over religious liberty can be some of the thorniest, and most heated, in America.

But the Becket lawyers are shaking up Washington for a simple reason: they win. Over 20 years, Becket has won 85% of its cases–from 1920-2000, the ACLU averaged a little over 65% in religion cases at the Supreme Court, according to the website procon.org. The Supreme Court repeatedly cites the Fund’s briefs in decisions, and Becket’s first case at the Court in 2012 was a 9-0 slam dunk, ruling that the government cannot interfere with a religious group’s choice of whom to hire, even when the employees claim they were discriminated against because of their physical disabilities. Becket is mastering a pattern, supporters say: identify religious litigants with strong claims, present compelling constitutional arguments, and recruit top free exercise litigators. The result is a resurgent ascendancy of religious freedom relative to other rights. “They have outsized success in these cases coming to the court and winning them at the court,” says Viet Dinh, former U.S. Assistant Attorney General and professor at Georgetown University Law Center. “In many ways I think of them as God’s ACLU.”

Every generation has its own fight over religious freedom—it’s a debate that has driven the American story from the day the pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower. The influx of Catholic immigrants after the Civil War prompted the rise of the Blaine amendments to stop public funding of religious education. Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to salute the flag sparked national debates during World War II. Public school prayer, nativity displays, and the pledge of allegiance prompted the fights of the later 20th century.

It was in the midst of those debates, in 1994, that Kevin “Seamus” Hasson founded the Becket Fund. Hasson, a Catholic lawyer specializing in religious liberty law at Williams and Connolly, felt that the conversation about religion in America was becoming one great non sequitur—one side was arguing that religion was not a societal good while the other insisted that America was a Christian country. Hasson believed that religious liberty comes not from the government or from faith itself, but rather from human dignity. “What we require freedom for is to seek the true, the good, and the beautiful, embrace whatever it is we believe we have found, and express it according the full measure of humanity,” Hasson, who retired in 2011 due to Parkinson’s, says.

Though many of its recent and more prominent clients have been Christian, the Becket Fund has made a point of not pegging itself just to Christian interests, taking on Muslim and Jewish clients, and even more obscure religious causes, like those of a Santeria priest in Texas. Unlike commercial for-profit firms, Becket relies on donors to underwrite its free representation of clients. Some 70% of its donations come from individuals, usually in $25,000 to $100,000 chunks, says Becket Fund president Bill Mumma. The firm’s lawyers are first amendment religious liberty specialists, but the Fund requires they also all be faithful—employees include Mormons, Catholics, evangelicals, Muslims and others.

Becket broke onto the national scene thanks to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. Its clients Wheaton College, an evangelical liberal arts school, and Catholic organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor and Eternal Word Television Network, are among the 319 plaintiffs claiming the law’s requirement to provide female employees with insurance plans that include payment for various contraceptives violates religious freedom. But Becket also focuses on low-profile, high-impact cases. The Fund defended Amish men in upstate New York who said local building regulations infringed on their traditional construction methods. It backed a Sikh woman who wanted to wear a kirpan, a small, religiously-symbolic knife, at her job in a government building. Becket has also mastered plain English press releases and media-savvy optics. When the Supreme Court ruled with Becket that Hobby Lobby should have a religious exemption from the contraception mandate, Becket’s female lawyers, not its male ones, were front and center on TV.

Ultimately, though, Becket’s success comes from higher courts’ openness to new interpretations of the First Amendment’s religious protections. For the last half of the 20th century, the Supreme Court read the amendment’s ban on state-established religion and its guarantee of free religious exercise largely as protecting minorities including smaller sects, women and others. Under recent, more conservative courts, Becket has found sympathy for the idea that majority Christian religions get those protections, too, especially when they face off against local, state and federal governments. That casts religious freedom in a similarly broad jurisprudential light as the First Amendment’s subsequent guarantee protecting free speech. “The overall trend is the court coming to a good place for the proper accommodation of religious views,” says Georgetown’s Viet Dinh, and “that is largely due to the work of the Becket Fund.”

The next big question for Becket is how broad that approach can go—and which other government-protected rights the Supreme Court believes should rank below religious freedom. America’s rapidly shifting views on sexuality, and the government’s willingness to protect same-sex relationships, will soon conflict with groups that believe their religious freedom includes the right to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Mumma suggests his firm will remain on the front line of that fight. “Anytime the government moves strongly closer to or farther away from those big issues that religion occupies, you are going to get religious liberty cases,” he says. “I think we are not yet done with that sort of big round of religious liberty cases.”

For now, Becket’s small team of lawyers is already working on some 40 cases. Firm leaders say it has no plans to expand, instead maintaining its focus on finding and litigating high-impact cases. “When the music stops and we go into court, it really matters whether our lawyers have written a good brief, made a good argument, are able to present a case that’s compelling to judges of all political flavors,” says Mumma. “If we can’t do that it doesn’t matter how much public attention we get.” So far, that strategy is working.

TIME faith

Defining Extraordinary Synod: A Glossary for the Pope’s Big Gathering

Pope Attends Holy Mass For The Opening Of The Extraordinary Synod On The Family
Franco Origlia—Getty Images Pope Francis attends the Opening Mass of the Synod of Bishops in St. Peter's Basilica on Oct. 5, 2014 in Vatican City.

In a meeting about the future of the Catholic Church, the terminology is sometime ancient Greek

There’s a lot about the Extraordinary Synod of the Bishops on the Family that may seem unfamiliar or foreign to observers—especially the vocabulary. As leaders of the Catholic church gather this week at the Vatican to discuss issues, including divorce and remarriage, here’s a rundown of synod-speak for the uninitiated:

Synod: a gathering of clergy, or a church council; synod means “coming together” in Greek

Extraordinary Synod: a synod called for a special and urgent purpose

Synod Father: a priest participating in the synod

Intervention: a written statement composed and submitted by a synod father about views and topics he would like considered in the synod

Ecclesial: having to do with the church

Relator (pronounced, real-AH-tor): the designated person in an ecclesial gathering who conveys, writes or records the information that the meeting will discuss. The 2014 Synod Relator is Cardinal Péter Erdo of Esztergom-Budapest, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Hungary.

Secretary General: the synod’s basic administrator who assists in all the synod’s preparations and forthcoming documents. The 2014 Synod Secretary General is Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri

Mitre: the pointed hat a bishop wears for special occasions, like synod masses

Auditor: person specially selected by Pope Francis to observe the synod and all its proceedings

Fraternal delegates: representatives of non-Catholic Christian communities who are present at the synod

Voting members: cardinals and other papal appointees who can vote in the synod

Non-voting members: auditors, observers, and other participants who cannot vote in the synod

TIME faith

Pope Francis’ Family Synod Forgoes Flash for Spiritual Depth

Pope Attends Holy Mass For The Opening Of The Extraordinary Synod On The Family
Franco Origlia—Getty Images Pope Francis attends the Opening Mass of the Synod of Bishops in St. Peter's Basilica on Oct. 5, 2014 in Vatican City.

It can be easy to fixate on the idea that the Extraordinary Synod on the Family beginning in Rome this week is purely about Catholic Church politics. The world clamors for the latest Catholic hubbub about divorce and remarriage policies, annulment reform, and which Cardinal holds which position on what agenda or controversial marital issue. But something more is happening as bishops gather for the first major doctrinal and pastoral summit of the Francis papacy; something quieter, deeper, and less immediately obvious: a spiritual renewal that Pope Francis hopes to foster between church leaders and their people.

This spiritual undercurrent, although quiet, has been powerfully present in the Holy Father’s actions this weekend. On Saturday evening, before the synod officially began and as a pink sun set behind St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis called the people to gather in the piazza to pray for the upcoming two-weeks of Synod conversations. A choir chanted a hymn as tens of thousands of people arrived, each silently, most with their families. When dusk fell and the moon had risen, each person lit a candle, and thousands of drops of light filled the square. Vieni Santo Spirito, vieni, or Come Holy Spirit, come, the people sang with the choir, over and over. “May the Wind of Pentecost blow upon the Synod’s work, on the Church, and on all of humanity,” Francis told to the crowd. “Undo the knots which prevent people from encountering one another, heal the wounds that bleed, rekindle hope.”

This prayer service was more testimony to the conviction that any real change in the Church must start with prayer—and a reminder of the people themselves. They, these people, these families, are the reason Francis called this Extraordinary Synod in the first place. It is only the third such special meeting a Pope has called since the Synod of the Bishops was created in 1965. The crowd was so vast that Francis himself most surely could not see the details—the children playing with their candles and dripping wax in patterns on the pavers, mothers comforting crying babies, a son helping a grandmother to a chair, the teenage couple taking selfies—but these are the people who experience the issues of family and marriage in ways clergy, who are celibate, rarely do. He was telling the people that they were foremost on his mind as the Synod began.

Francis was also reminding the bishops that the people were foremost on his mind. Most of the church leaders present Saturday evening had just arrived in Rome after having prepared for the Synod for a year, surveying their own congregations about modern family life for their peers’ review these coming weeks. Now, Francis stood before them and the first thing he did was to gather them to encounter the people and their sparks of light. Only when the service ended did he turn to greet the cardinals, one by one. The liturgical message about his priorities, and their priorities in turn, was hard to miss.

If the Holy Father’s Saturday prayer service was about the people, his Sunday mass turned to the bishops. Inside St. Peter’s Basilica, standing beneath Michelangelo’s dome and above St. Peter’s tomb, the Holy Father gave a pointed homily about the bishops’ role. The job of leaders, he preached, is to nurture the vineyard—a Biblical image for the people of God. “Synod Assemblies are not meant to discuss beautiful and clever ideas, or to see who is more intelligent,” he preached. “We are all sinners and can also be tempted to ‘take over’ the vineyard, because of that greed which is always present in us human beings. God’s dream always clashes with the hypocrisy of some of his servants. We can ‘thwart’ God’s dream if we fail to let ourselves be guided by the Holy Spirit.”

His meaning was clear. This meeting is not a time for the bishops to each shine with their own debates, Francis was saying, but rather a time to focus on the people and what the people need. It is, as he put it, about developing “plans [that] will correspond to God’s dream: to form a holy people who are his own and produce the fruits of the kingdom of God.”

The next two weeks will be telling. Francis is presiding over the world’s last truly medieval court, which can at times appear to revert to high school drama and power plays. But the spiritual moments that have shaped the Synod’s start are a concrete reminder that Francis the pastor is the one calling the shots. He’s the one walking the incense around the papal altar at mass, he’s the one celebrating Eucharist, and he’s the one determining where the ultimate emphasis is placed. He is the one in St. Peter’s seat. The bishops are there at his request. It’s the tone he sets that matters.

TIME faith

Pope Francis Keeps Silent on Syria Strikes

Pope Francis arrives with his popemobile at the Catholic University in Tirana, on September 21, 2014.
Filippo Monteforte—AFP/Getty Images Pope Francis arrives with his popemobile at the Catholic University in Tirana, on September 21, 2014.

The pontiff's decision not to comment on latest airstrikes may be as close as he comes to an endorsement — but it has its risks

One voice has so far remained quiet since the United States and five allied Arab nations launched airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) late Monday: That of Pope Francis.

The Holy Father’s silence is a complete contrast to his all-out effort a year ago this month—almost to the week—to prevent U.S. military strikes against the Syrian regime. Then, Pope Francis dominated the news cycle with his message opposing U.S. intervention. He wrote a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, host of the G-20 summit that President Barack Obama was attending, urging leaders to oppose military intervention in Syria: “To the leaders present, to each and every one, I make a heartfelt appeal for them to help find ways to overcome the conflicting positions and to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution,” he argued.

The Pope singled out a Syrian refugee family during a private visit to the Astalli refugee center in Rome so he could hear their story. He flooded his Twitter feed with messages like, “War never again! Never again war!” and “How much suffering, how much devastation, how much pain has the use of arms carried in its wake” and “With all my strength, I ask each party in the conflict not to close themselves in solely on their own interests. #prayforpeace.”

He declared a day of prayer and fasting for Syria and held a five-hour prayer service in St. Peter’s Square as the U.S. and France contemplated military strikes. “How many conflicts, how many wars have mocked our history?” he asked the tens of thousands of faithful gathered. “Even today we raise our hand against our brother. … We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves as if it were normal we continue to sow destruction, pain, death. Violence and war lead only to death.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) sent letters to all members of Congress urging them to vote against military intervention in Syria. The USCCB also wrote to President Obama to make clear that for the Pope and Middle Eastern Bishops “a military attack will be counterproductive, will exacerbate an already deadly situation, and will have unintended negative consequences.”

The Pope’s messaging this past week could not be more different. As the U.S. has considered its next steps in combating the ISIS threat, @Pontifex’s tweets have been about spiritual poverty and God’s love that does not cease. In his visit to Albania, he briefly rebuked (unnamed) religious militants who act in the name of God—“May no one use religion as a pretext for actions against human dignity,” he told diplomats at the presidential palace on Sunday—but that’s about it.

Why the change? Certainly the political landscape has shifted over the past year. The ISIS threat has risen to the global scene, and these latest airstrikes are targeting militant groups rather than Assad’s regime. Russia may now seem like less of an obvious partner for peace after its actions in Ukraine. Pope Francis himself has a panoply of issues on his agenda, from migration crises to Vatican financial reform to the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the family. Plus, there is the risk that the appearance of Vatican support for military intervention against ISIS could flame a “Christian v. Muslim” narrative that could further endanger religious minorities in the region.

The Pope is not usually a figure world leaders look to for foreign policy advice when considering military action—his role is more one of a moral symbol, and so his voice is relevant chiefly for its perceived influence in shaping public opinion. The Catholic Church traditionally holds to the theory of just war, historically accepting military intervention as a sometimes necessary step toward peace. But no one expects a symbol of peace to ever be an advocate for war — and so the Pope’s silence may be as close as the Holy See gets to giving an endorsement.

Francis did hint at his approval of the U.S. bombing campaign in Iraq last month, when it began targeting ISIS positions there. So long as the international community was involved, and not just a sole actor, he told a reporter on his return flight from South Korea, “I can say only it’s licit to stop an unjust aggressor.”

He also sent special envoy Cardinal Fernando Filoni to Iraq to visit displaced and threatened minorities—Christian, Yezidi, and other—in August. “The Church as Church is and will always be against war,” Filoni, who was the Vatican’s ambassador to Iraq under Sadaam Hussein, said upon returning. “But these poor people have the right to be defended. They have no weapons, they have been driven out from their homes in a cowardly way, they have not engaged the enemy.”

But silence about human rights more broadly however has its risks, especially in pivotal political moments like we are seeing this week. Veteran Vatican reporter John Allen Jr. put what’s at stake in the Pope’s diplomatic career best. “To date, the only concrete diplomatic success to which Francis can point is helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cling to power by opposing Western strikes [last year],” Allen wrote for the Boston Globe’s new Catholic site Crux. “Yet assuming that Assad reasserts control, the question is whether Francis will use the Church’s resources to promote greater respect for human rights and democracy. If not, his major political accomplishment could go down as propping up a thug.”

TIME faith

Pope’s Marriage Celebrations Hint at Coming Changes for Church

Pope Francis Vatican Weddings
Alamy Live News Pope Francis celebrates the wedding of 20 couples in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City on Sept. 14, 2014.

Pope Francis dropped a big hint this weekend.

The Holy Father presided over the wedding of 20 couples Sunday in St. Peter’s Basilica. From a distance, the group seemed fairly typical: the couples ranged from ages 25 to 56 and were all from the Diocese of Rome. But the underlying storyline is far more telling: one bride was already a mother, some of the couples had already been living together, and others had previously been married.

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. Pope John Paul II performed the last public marriage ceremony in 2000 as part of the Jubilee for Families, an event that focused thematically on the gift of children and the harm of abortion. Before that, in 1994, he presided over a public wedding ceremony for the International Year of the Family, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly.

For Francis, now is a similar moment of historical importance. In a matter of weeks, he will convene the October Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, the first big-ticket item Francis put on the papal agenda when he became Pope last year. The Holy See reserves such Extraordinary Synods for moments of urgency in the Church’s life—October’s event is only the third Extraordinary Synod ever to be called since the Synod of Bishops was created in 1965—and this gathering’s topic will be “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” In other words, the event will explore how churches can show compassion in the context of modern views and practices on sexuality.

Francis has continually emphasized the importance of pastoral care in the conversation about what the Church condones and condemns. In the Francis papacy, tone, and not just content, matters. The Vatican’s official position is that remarriage can only happen if a previous marriage is annulled, meaning declared to never have truly existed. Cohabitation is frowned upon. But the document that the Vatican has circulated about the Synod indicates that Francis’ priority will be on mercy when it comes to the Church’s characteristically controversial teachings on divorce, remarriage, and cohabitation.

Sunday’s wedding ceremony is another sign that Rome is signaling a new openness to including married people who have been divorced or who have cohabitated in the church’s sacraments. Marriage itself, like communion, is a sacrament in Catholic theology, and both are a way that the faithful can experience life in community with fellow believers. Since local churches currently tend to make their own decisions about serving communion to divorced and remarried, or cohabitating Catholics, any overarching guidance from the Holy Father this October could mean significant change. Cohabiting couples cannot be denied marriage by policy in the Catholic Church, but a priest is not obliged to marry a couple, and so Pope Francis’ example of presiding over a wedding for couples who had lived together will likely encourage other priests to follow suit.

Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics is groundbreaking enough for the Synod without putting the issue of gay marriage on the table. Major change on that topic, however, is highly unlikely at the moment. Pope Francis did not preside over the weddings of any gay couples last weekend. Moreover, his homily at the wedding affirmed that marriage in the Catholic Church remains between a man and one woman. “This is what marriage is all about: man and woman walking together, wherein the husband helps his wife to become ever more a woman, and wherein the woman has the task of helping her husband to become ever more a man,” he preached. “Here we see the reciprocity of differences.”

But, by celebrating the marriages that he did, Pope Francis offered a sacramental blessing that will not go unremembered when the bishops gather in Rome next month.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser