Pope Francis will convene the 14th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops next week. On Sunday, he will celebrate an opening liturgy for the three-week-long summit of 270 Church leaders at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican at ten in the morning. The Synod fathers will concelebrate with him. Then, Monday will be the first working day of the assembly dedicated to the theme of the “Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World.”

But, already two events this week are preparing the groundwork for Sunday’s kickoff. At the Holy See Press Office this morning, Fr. Federico Lombardi held a briefing for accredited journalists covering the Synod. The event took place before Roman noon at 11:30am in the St. John Paul II Hall, located just off the Via della Conciliazione across from St. Peter’s square. It was live streamed here.

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldiserri was on hand to present the theme and method of the meeting of 107 European, 64 American, 54 African, 36 Asian, and 9 Oceanian bishops, including 74 cardinals, 6 patriarchs, 1 major archbishop, 72 archbishops, 102 bishops, 2 parish priests, and 13 religious. EWTN’s Joan Lewis has a full report on his comments at the press conference, here. In the coming days and weeks, we’ll likely hear a lot about Baldiserri since he is the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops. 

Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica interviewed the cardinal back in July of 2014 for Witness, a program that airs on Canada’s Salt and Light television network. It takes under a half hour to watch the entire interview, but it is worth every minute since it sheds light on the close relationship between Pope Francis and the man he appointed to manage the Synod in his name. You can find that interview right here

Nota bene: During the Synod, Fr. Rosica will be serving as the Holy See Press Office’s English language Media Attaché. You can follow his observations and insights on Twitter under the handle @FatherRosica

Then, tomorrow at 19:00 Roman hours, Pope Francis will preside over a prayer vigil in preparation for the Synod. That event will be held inside St. Peter’s square and it will be attended by the Synodal fathers as well as other representatives of that body. The Italian Episcopal Conference is bussing families and members of ecclesial movements and associations in from all the dioceses of Italy. You can follow the prayer service live here.

The events of this and the next three weeks come one year after the Third Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” Together with the pope’s weekly catechetical addresses on the family, completed in recent weeks, and the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, concluded one week ago Sunday, the two synodal assemblies constitute a significant landmark in the pope’s pastoral leadership of the universal Church. 

In his Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, he expressed grave concern for the family, noting that it is “experiencing a profound cultural crisis, as are all communities and social bonds.” But, he stressed that “In the case of the family, the weakening of these bonds is particularly serious because the family is the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another; it is also the place where parents pass on the faith to their children” [66]. As such, he noted that “The Church is called to be at the service of a difficult dialogue” in this chapter of her history [74]. Such a dialogue must be characterized by the “spirit of love which reigns in a family.” That spirit “guides both mother and child in their conversations” as they “teach and learn, experience correction and grow in appreciation of what is good” [139].

The Holy Father’s focus on the family is part of the missionary transformation of the Church he wishes to effect. In his Exhortation on the ‘Joy of the Gospel,’ he said that “I dream of a ‘missionary option,’ that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.” He said that “The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself.” Taking a note from St. John Paul II, he observed that “All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion” [27].

One concrete expression of ecclesial renewal at the service of this missionary transformation is the creation of a new Vatican dicastery, tentatively entitled the Congregation for Laity, Family and Life. At the request of Pope Francis, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi addressed the eleventh meeting of the Council of Cardinal Advisers on this project on September 16, ahead of the pope’s pastoral visit to Cuba and the United States for the World Meeting of Families. The Vatican Information Service reported on the cardinal’s address here.

At the heart of this missionary impulse is a desire to proclaim the Gospel of Mercy. This month’s Synodal assembly on the family constitutes an important part of the Holy Father’s mission of mercy. Back in April, he called for an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy when he promulgated his Bull of Indiction, which was entitled in Latin Misericordiae Vultus. That Jubilee begins December 8 with the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, a little less than two months from now.

Judging from the pope’s messages in Cuba and the US, this mission of mercy has two principle objectives: To proclaim the whole integral truth of the Gospel of the Family, rooted in the Church’s affirmation of traditional marriage; and, to advance social friendship in the context of the culture of encounter. In other words, the mission has the goal of teaching and shepherding. Taken together, these two goals help to explain Pope Francis’ recent meetings on US soil with both Kim Davis and Yayo Grassi

Andrea Tornielli, the Editor of La Stampa’s Vatican Insider, a premier place for Vatican news and analysis, told me that “in the speeches to the Bishops in Washington and Philadelphia, and during the Vigil on Saturday evening, I think Francis presents his personal attitude toward the issue [of marriage, family, and mercy].” He described the pope’s approach as both “positive and propositive, not simply defensive. In the same way of Evangelii gaudium.”

Ahead of this morning’s press conference, I spoke with Fr. Rosica who told me that “It is very clear from the massive response of the American people to Pope Francis’ recent visit that the crowds stand with the Pope in his support of traditional marriage and family life.  It is also abundantly clear the many people appreciate and support Pope Francis’ efforts to foster a culture of encounter and dialogue, and share his concern for those on the fringes of the Church and society.  Those two important themes during his recent visit to Cuba and the USA cannot help but influence the Synod delegates.”

Certainly, they influenced Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio when he served as the Special Secretary of the Tenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on “The Bishop: Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World.” That synodal assembly was convened in Rome from September 30 to October 27, 2001.

At the Fourth General Congregation of the Assembly, on the afternoon of October 2, 2001, the then Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires offered an intervention on the vocation of the bishop. He noted that “The bishop is he who keeps watch; he cares for hope, keeping watch for his people. A spiritual attitude is that which places the emphasis overseeing the flock with a ‘look of togetherness;’ it is the bishop who cares for everything which maintains the cohesion of the flock.” He added that “Another spiritual attitude places the emphasis on watching over, paying attention to danger.” And, he stressed that “Both the attitudes have to do with the essence of the episcopal mission and they acquire all of their strength of this attitude that is considered the most essential, and that consists of keeping watch.”

As the bishops head into the synod aula on Monday, Cardinal Bergoglio, turned Pope Francis, will be keeping watch over the Church he now shepherds as universal pastor.