In a last minute change, Pope Francis will open the academic year at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Rome, replacing Cardinal Robert Sarah whom the Institute had originally scheduled for the task.

The news of the Holy Father’s attendance at the Oct. 27 inauguration comes just weeks after the Pope controversially hand-picked two prelates — Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia and Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri — to head the institute.

The appointments caused some distress as Archbishop Paglia and Msgr. Sequeri, respectively the Institute’s new grand chancellor and president, have expressed views that critics say contradict the moral clarity of the Church’s traditional approach to marriage and the family, something the Institute has always tried to uphold.

Their arrival also came on the heels of the Synods on the Family when some elements of Pope St. John Paul II's teaching on marriage and the family were sidelined by the synod organizers in favor of the kinds of views held by the new leadership.

Some see the replacement of Cardinal Sarah, who heads the Vatican's department for liturgy, as a blow to the African cardinal whose preference for clarity when it comes to the Church's moral teaching is well known. His substitution also follows his outspoken comments in July, advocating priests to celebrate Mass facing East, which earned him a reprimand from the Vatican.

But others are more sanguine about the news, and say the Pope’s presence is being seen as fitting because the following month, on Nov. 22, the Institute will celebrate 35 years since its founding. They argue that it’s better to have just one event attended by the Pope to mark both occasions rather than two in the space of three weeks, and that it is, in any case, a great honor to have the Pope come at all.

There was nevertheless concern when, at a recent event welcoming new students to the Institute, Msgr. Sequeri placed special emphasis on the Pope’s summary document on the family synod, Amoris Laetitia, and stressed the importance of implementing what it states. Critics say the document’s ambiguous language, especially on admitting civilly remarried divorcees to Holy Communion, is not in continuity with the Church clear teaching on the issue.  

“It’s kind of frightening how things are changing,” said one student, adding that some of the professors with sympathies for the ambiguity over the Church's moral teaching are feeling “emboldened” by recent events there.

Still, signs of continuity at the Institute can also be seen. Disciple of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary Father Jose Granados was recently re-confirmed as vice president of the Institute, and sources say there is “respectful and cordial collaboration” with the new leadership. So far no attempt has been made to “turn the institute around and make it completely different,” said one inside source, who stressed that having a new president doesn’t mean professors must suddenly change their convictions.