With the Vatican’s Synod on the Family fast approaching and Pope Francis’ call to the Catholic Church to be a “field hospital for sinners” more focused on mercy than rules, lots of people are looking for hints at what the gathering of bishops will urge at the extraordinary synod next month. A wedding of 20 couples in St. Peter’s Square, some of whom cohabited prior to marriage, has CBS News hailing the “progressive Pope,” who’s progressively progressive. Or something:

Many had been living together prior to getting married, which is forbidden in Catholicism. Some even have children.

But none of that mattered to Pope Francis, who has been more progressive with his views of the church and its relationship with the modern world.

“Lots of people feel alienated from the church, they don’t feel welcome there,” said Candida Moss, theologian professor at the University of Notre Dame.

“But it seems like Francis is saying that the church has to be more progressive, it needs to be more practical and it needs to be more compassionate,” Moss said.

The mass wedding is another example of how progressive Pope Francis has been during his tenure as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. It was the first time he led a group wedding since he was elected 18 months ago. Some say it’s a sign that the pope wants the Catholic Church to be more inclusive.

The symbolic ceremony comes just weeks before the Synod of Bishops, a major meeting on issues of the family. There, catholic leaders are expected to discuss everything from marriage to divorce and even contraception.

All of this focus on progressivism mostly — but not entirely — misses the point. None of the marriages celebrated yesterday would have failed to pass muster under canon law. One of the people married yesterday had been married before, but had also received an annulment in the Church prior to this wedding. The Catholic Church urges people to stop cohabiting and repent of their sin prior to the wedding in order to fully prepare for the sacrament, but in most cases would still perform the ceremony in order to bless the family unit. The presence of children in a relationship, or from a prior relationship, would prompt parishes to require more pre-marital preparation and counseling, as would the annulment, but nothing in this story suggests that those steps were skipped, either. In other words, from this and other reports on the ceremony and couples involved, there isn’t any suggestion that there were any reasons in current canon law and practice to deny them a church wedding.

And that may have been the real point of this event. The public celebration with its pontifical celebration does have something to say about the Catholic approach to nuptials, but primarily that it’s commonly misunderstood — both by the public at large and at the parish level, in too many cases. A large part of that message comes from the Pope’s personal involvement in the ceremony. John Thavis, a longtime Vaticanista and an occasional guest on my show, makes the point that this was a teaching moment from Francis to the world and to the rank and file:

“Cohabitation is a big issue, and how it is dealt with at the parish level is a big concern, so the pope is sending a signal,” said John Thavis, a veteran Vatican reporter.

He said that the couples chosen for the ceremony “seem to be normal people and not necessarily handpicked. It’s one more indication that the pope looks at things the way they really are; he’s a realist.

“It’s a pope willing to say that if you want to be married in the church, we’ll find a way to do it. It’s the ‘who am I to judge?’ pope, who doesn’t want to turn people away and instead wants to find a way to bring people in,” Mr. Thavis said.

The desire to send that signal was made plain by the Vatican itself in its press release on the event. The release contained the homily for the Mass, as well as an explicit acknowledgment of the circumstances of some of the couples in the ceremony:

This morning, Pope Francis celebrated the marriage of twenty couples from Rome, the diocese of which he is bishop, during a Holy Mass celebrated in St. Peter’s Basilica. The cardinal vicar of Rome, Agostino Vallini, and Archbishop Filippo Iannone, vice-regent and director of the diocesan Centre for Family Pastoral, concelebrated with the Pontiff.

The couples married by the Pope, according to a press release from the Vicariate of Rome, are like many others, engaged for different lengths of time; some already live together, others have children, and others met within the parish. The youngest couple were born in 1986 and 1989 respectively, whereas the eldest were born in 1958 and 1965.

ABC’s reporting was a little more on the mark:


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1. It’s another signal that Pope Francis is changing the church to be more open and inclusive.Last July, Pope Francis suggested that that he would not judge priests for their sexual orientation. The pope has also said the church is too focused on issues such as abortion, contraception and divorce. In an interview last year, the pope warned that “the church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.” The church’s teaching “must be more simple, profound, radiant,” he wrote. Sunday’s wedding ceremony appears to be a practical application of that philosophy.

2. Being married by the pope is incredibly rare. Pope John Paul II was the last pope to publicly perform the rite of marriage, when he married eight couples in 2000. So rare is the event that one couple said that “when we discovered that it was happening, that it wasn’t a dream — well, it transformed us,” The New York Times reported. The marriage of those, by the pope himself, who might have been shunned just a couple years ago, sends a powerful message not only to those couples but also to the rest of the world.

3. He wanted to stress the importance of marriage for all Catholics, whatever their situation.He also want to encourage local priests to follow his example and marry couples in similar situations. Pope Francis has long emphasized the importance of the family and marriage between a man and a woman and these topics will be discussed at a Vatican meeting of bishops later this year.

Consider this, then, less of a signal on doctrine than on ensuring the broadest possible embrace within it. It’s not a sign that the Catholic Church is about to change its teachings on divorce and remarriage, as some analyses suggest, but it’s not business as usual either. Francis sent a signal that he wants to make sure the emphasis is on mercy and inclusion as much as possible. That’s been a consistent message since the papal conclave in March 2013, with or without the upcoming extraordinary synod, but put into very specific practice in a very public manner.

Of course, with that said it’s very possible that this will give no particular insight into what the synod may produce. If it does, however, the signal seems to be that the change will be one of approach at the diocese and parish level, with an emphasis on better catechesis on what’s possible within the Catholic faith rather than what basic truths of the faith are worth abandoning. Don’t expect the latter in any kind of Vatican synod, no matter how often one can work in the word “progressive” into an analysis.

Addendum: Here is the homily from the press release, which touches heavily on mercy from yesterday’s readings:

“Today’s first reading speaks to us of the people’s journey through the desert”, he began. “We can imagine them as they walked, led by Moses; they were families: fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, grandparents, men and women of all ages, accompanied by many children and the elderly who struggled to make the journey. This people reminds us of the Church as she makes her way across the desert of the contemporary world, reminds us of the People of God composed, for the most part, of families.

“This makes us think of families, our families, walking along the paths of life with all their day to day experiences. It is impossible to quantify the strength and depth of humanity contained in a family: mutual help, educational support, relationships developing as family members mature, the sharing of joys and difficulties. Families are the first place in which we are formed as persons and, at the same time, the ‘bricks’ for the building up of society.

“Let us return to the biblical story. At a certain point, ‘the people became impatient on the way’. They are tired, water supplies are low and all they have for food is manna, which, although plentiful and sent by God, seems far too meagre in a time of crisis. And so they complain and protest against God and against Moses: ‘Why did you make us leave?’. They are tempted to turn back and abandon the journey.

“Here our thoughts turn to married couples who ‘become impatient on the way’, the way of conjugal and family life. The hardship of the journey causes them to experience interior weariness; they lose the flavour of matrimony and they cease to draw water from the well of the Sacrament. Daily life becomes burdensome, and often, even ‘nauseating’. During such moments of disorientation – the Bible says – poisonous serpents come and bite the people, and many die. This causes the people to repent and to turn to Moses for forgiveness, asking him to beseech the Lord so that he will cast out the snakes. Moses prays to the Lord, and the Lord offers a remedy: a bronze serpent set on a pole; whoever looks at it will be saved from the deadly poison of the vipers.

“What is the meaning of this symbol? God does not destroy the serpents, but rather offers an ‘antidote’: by means of the bronze serpent fashioned by Moses, God transmits his healing strength, namely his mercy, which is more potent than the Tempter’s poison.

“As we have heard in the Gospel, Jesus identifies Himself with this symbol: out of love the Father ‘has given’ His only begotten Son so that men and women might have eternal life. Such immense love of the Father spurs the Son to become man, to become a servant and to die for us upon a cross. Out of such love, the Father raises up his Son, giving Him dominion over the entire universe. This is expressed by Saint Paul in his hymn in the Letter to the Philippians. Whoever entrusts himself to Jesus crucified receives the mercy of God and finds healing from the deadly poison of sin.

“The cure which God offers the people applies also, in a particular way, to spouses who ‘have become impatient on the way’ and who succumb to the dangerous temptation of discouragement, infidelity, weakness, abandonment. To them too, God the Father gives His Son Jesus, not to condemn them, but to save them: if they entrust themselves to Him, He will bring them healing by the merciful love which pours forth from the Cross, with the strength of His grace that renews and sets married couples and families once again on the right path.

“The love of Christ, which has blessed and sanctified the union of husband and wife, is able to sustain their love and to renew it when, humanly speaking, it becomes lost, wounded or worn out. The love of Christ can restore to spouses the joy of journeying together. This is what marriage is all about: man and woman walking together, wherein the husband helps his wife to become ever more a woman, and wherein the woman has the task of helping her husband to become ever more a man. This is the task that you both share. ‘I love you, and for this love I help you to become ever more a woman’; ‘I love you, and for this love I help you to become ever more a man’. Here we see the reciprocity of differences. The path is not always a smooth one, free of disagreements, otherwise it would not be human. It is a demanding journey, at times difficult, and at times turbulent, but such is life! Within this theology which the word of God offers us concerning the people on a journey, spouses on a journey, I would like to give you some advice. It is normal for husband and wife to argue: it’s normal. It always happens. But my advice is this: never let the day end without having first made peace. Never! A small gesture is sufficient. Thus the journey may continue. Marriage is a symbol of life, real life: it is not ‘fiction’! It is the Sacrament of the love of Christ and the Church, a love which finds its proof and guarantee in the Cross. My desire for you is that you have a good journey, a fruitful one, growing in love. I wish you happiness. There will be crosses! But the Lord is always there to help us move forward. May the Lord bless you!”

Update: Peter Ingemi calls this “Pope-a-dope.” Heh.