VATICAN CITY — During the closing Mass of a major summit of Roman Catholic clerics on family issues, Pope Francis took the pulpit at St. Peter’s Basilica and delivered a sermon that appeared at times to veer into lecture.
After three weeks, the gathering — called a synod — had exposed a rift within the church hierarchy. Some bishops and cardinals were pressing for more inclusion for the divorced and remarried and for gay men and lesbians. But many others had pushed back, insisting that the church’s rules and moral compass could not be so easily altered.
On Sunday, Francis responded by invoking the biblical story of Jesus stopping to talk to a blind man, even as his disciples walked by. Francis’s parable was open to interpretation, and some viewed his homily as a general call for mercy at a time of natural disasters and a migrant crisis in Europe.
But after his speech to the synod a day earlier in which he admonished the “closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the church’s teachings and good intentions,” his homily on Sunday seemed to others to serve as a reminder to his lieutenants of a core tenet of his papacy: outreach.
“None of the disciples stopped, as Jesus did,” to talk to the blind man, Francis said. He continued: “If Bartimaeus was blind, they were deaf. His problem was not their problem. This can be a danger for us.”
He added: “A faith that does not know how to grow roots into the lives of people stays barren. And instead of an oasis, it creates more deserts.”
Asked to clarify the pope’s message, Vatican spokesman Thomas Rosica only said, “Once again, Pope Francis used the homily at Mass to bring together the major themes of the Synod of Bishops and to put the powerful ecclesial experience into perspective.” He added, “I simply thank God that Francis is guiding the church at this moment in history.”
Francis’s message came as the synod’s final communique — effectively a list of 94 recommendations to the pontiff — employed a more welcoming tone toward divorced and unmarried couples. But it also stopped well short of calling for clear and rapid changes to church policies. It suggested that the faith Francis leads is now at something of a crossroads.
“This synod has shown that two churches exist,” said Marco Politi, a Rome-based papal biographer and longtime Vatican watcher. “Francis’s church of forgiveness, mercy and being close to people where they suffer, and the church of the doctors of the law, that in this synod came across as the majority.”
As the synod ends, analysts are looking at the result as a victory for church conservatives in several ways. The question is: What will Francis do?
One thing that is not at stake is a rewrite of church doctrine, or the fundamental truths and teachings of the church. Rather, liberals had been pressing for alterations in policies, with the most important being a pathway that would grant divorced and remarried Catholics the right to receive Communion.
Clerics did agree to find more ways for divorced Catholics to participate in church life. But whether a door should be opened for divorced and remarried Catholics — who the church teaches are living in a state of adultery — was left ambiguous.
In effect, the synod agreed to disagree — leaving it to Francis to address such delicate questions. But deciphering exactly what he will do is no easy task.
For all his gestures and expressions of outreach to divorced and other Catholics who do not necessarily conform to church teachings, he has not been explicitly clear about precisely what kind of changes he would like to see. Vatican watchers say one reason he called the synod was to strive for a consensus. Now he has one, and the question is whether he will seek to go beyond the synod recommendations.
How he decides to act next will be key to interpreting whether Francis is likely to spark broader reform in the church. Experts say the past three weeks showed, however, that it is not clear whether the hierarchy of the church is ready for substantial change.
“The conservative positions remain predominant, and the pope had to take it into account,” said Massimo Franco, author of “The Crisis of the Vatican Empire” and a columnist at the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.