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VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis faced his biggest challenge so far with typical flair on Monday. Dressed in white, the pontiff with a common touch walked unaccompanied to the first day of a two-week synod to discuss family values — in contrast to most of the 191 bishops and cardinals who were taken to the venue by car.
The subtle statement came ahead of meetings that could bring major changes in the Catholic Church's teachings on family matters, and hints at divisions at the top of the institution.
The Extraordinary Synod on the Family will debate a variety of issues including cohabiting couples, teen mothers and children from same-sex unions. The summit follows an unprecedented wide-ranging survey of Catholics worldwide on all aspects of family life including contraception, same-sex marriage and divorce.
While the survey's results haven't been released in full, church leaders around the world have indicated that many of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics feel the church is out of touch with their needs. This is something that reform-minded Pope Francis seems intent on changing.
"Pope Francis wants the people of God, at every level, to express themselves, and this is the true novelty of this synod," Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the Secretary General of the synod, told reporters on Friday. "The Christian perspective is based upon history and not ideology and we find ourselves in an historic moment of change."
One sign of change is that 13 Catholic couples are attending and speaking to the celibate and male church leaders about marriage — the first time there has been non-clerical participation in such a high-level meeting.
"The pope said that he wanted to get a serious conversation started on the topic, and that's precisely what he's gotten"
While it's unlikely that the church will change its attitude towards hot-button issues like homosexuality or abortion, real change may come to the way that it deals with divorced Catholics who remarry.
According to church teaching, Catholics who divorce need to receive an official annulment, a lengthy process by a church tribunal meant to prove the marriage was never valid in the first place, before they can remarry. Those who do so without the Church's consent are considered sinful adulterers, and are therefore unworthy of receiving communion.
In July 2013, the pope said that church law governing marriage annulments "has to be reviewed, because ecclesiastical tribunals are not sufficient for this."
In February, the pope asked Walter Kasper, a German cardinal who has openly supported giving communion to divorced and remarried Catholics, to deliver a major address to the College of Cardinals. This was yet another sign the pope may be in favor of relaxing the current ban.
Already, the pope's attempts to bring the church closer to its flock have also caused divisions among his closest aides. An increasing number of cardinals — the most senior ecclesiastical leaders after the pope - have risen against the threat to change what is considered an untouchable status quo.
On Wednesday, days before the start of the synod, a powerful group of cardinals published a book called "Remaining in the Truth of Christ." It is an open rebuttal of the pope's suspected flexibility towards remarried divorcees.
"I don't think it's a 'feud' so much as a very serious exchange of views on a very serious subject," said George Weigel, NBC News' senior Vatican analyst. "The pope said that he wanted to get a serious conversation started on the topic, and that's precisely what he's gotten."
The synod lays the groundwork for a bigger gathering of bishops next year, and no decisions are expected before then. But given the apparent division between conservative and progressive Cardinals, it will be seen as the first, real test of leadership by a pontiff who seems to have won over millions of Catholics worldwide, but not all of the cardinals who elected him.