It is being described as a possible milestone in a clash between the conservative and liberal forces in the Roman Catholic Church.
A two-week Synod that brings together bishops from all over the world has begun at the Vatican.
The controversial theme of the family is under the spotlight, and already there has been rare public disagreement among cardinals on key issues.
“Synod assemblies are not meant to discuss beautiful and clever ideas, or to see who is more intelligent,” said Pope Francis. “They are meant to better nurture and tend the Lord’s vineyard, to help realise his dream, his loving plan for his people. In this way the Lord is asking us to care for the family.”
The church is struggling with subjects including gay marriage, contraception and divorce, and is facing growing calls to reform. Some groups not at the Synod are holding parallel meetings.
Martha Heizer, the chairperson of the group IMWAC (International Movement ‘We Are Church’), said: “It’s important for us to have such a meeting because we are not heard by the cardinals and by the Synod. In the Synod the conservative segment of the Catholic church is very, very represented but reform groups are not.”
The Pope says he wants the Church to become closer to ordinary people, but whether that can be achieved will largely depend on the willingness of his senior clergy.