Following the synod

On Sunday, Pope Francis convenes a special type of meeting of bishops — one held only two other times — meant to start a frank debate about the church’s teachings and practices with which Catholics seem to most disagree, struggle with and ignore: family, marriage and sexuality.

The Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops is to run for two weeks. Its theme: “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family In the Context of Evangelization.”

Here are the basics:

Who: The meeting brings together 191 high-level clergy members from around the world, as well as 16 experts and 38 other laypeople who will speak to the bishops. Most of the laypeople are married couples attending to talk about their experiences. One of the couples is Muslim-Catholic.

What: During the first week, everyone meets for four hours in the morning and three more in the afternoon. The second week, they will break into smaller groups.

What’s the end game? No big changes or announcements will come during these two weeks. Pope Francis has simply opened the door for extremely frank dialogue about what is working and what isn’t when it comes to the way the church handles things ranging from families led by same-sex couples to divorce. Next fall, the bishops will be back to lay out a pastoral plan. There may be a rough draft of proposals made public between then and now.

On Friday, Synod Secretary-General Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri told reporters that the meeting was called “to discuss a particularly urgent topic, using appropriate guidelines for the present time, for the good of the entire church. . . . The Christian perspective is based upon history and not ideology, and we find ourselves in an historical moment of change.”

What should I read to get up to speed? Read up on retired German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who was asked by Francis this year to address cardinals who were preparing for this synod. Kasper has emphasized mercy to people and speaks openly about aspects of church practice that he finds dysfunctional.

An American cardinal who leads the Vatican’s Supreme Court, Raymond Burke, has been joined by some more conservative cardinals who are wary of change.

How can I follow the event? The Vatican’s press office created a Web site,, where you can watch news conferences. The office says it will send updates through its Twitter feed, @HolySeePress, and is encouraging the many reporters attending the synod to use the hashtag #synod14.

There is also Vatican Radio and Salt and Light TV. And you can keep up with The Washington Post’s coverage on Twitter: @mboorstein. We’ll be writing about this regularly throughout the two weeks.

— Michelle Boorstein