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The Synod Could Be The Defining Moment Of Francis' Papacy

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Bishops and cardinals pray as Pope Francis celebrates the opening Mass of the Synod of Bishops, in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Sunday.

Catholic bishops and other representatives of the world's more than 1 billion Roman Catholics are meeting in Rome on Sunday for the start of the Synod on the Family. This meeting will guide Church teaching on issues like marriage, divorce and contraception.

Lively and contentious debate is expected. The 279 bishops, from 120 countries, will tackle questions of marriage, divorce and homosexuality — hot-button issues in the U.S. and world at large. They could fundamentally alter more than 2,000 years of Catholic understanding — "going all the way back to the Hebrews and the law of Moses," according to the National Catholic Register.

"They are discussing issues that go to the heart of what it means to be a Catholic living in a particular culture," says Kathleen Sprows Cummings, head of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. She spoke with NPR's Michel Martin about the synod, in the first installment of a new series, Words You'll Hear.

Only bishops can vote at the synod — a word that comes from a Greek term meaning "assembly" or "meeting" — but 17 married couples and 17 individuals were invited and can share their perspectives, Cummings says.

She says they'll be part of what's likely to be the defining moment of Pope Francis' papacy, she says.

"It's going to deal with some very contentious issues within the church," Cummings says. "Specifically, how to respond to Catholics who are separated or divorced, whether they'll have access to the sacraments or not — presently they do not — issues about how to respond to gay and lesbian Catholics. ... These are issues that divide us here in the United States very sharply — issues about gay marriage."

A working paper, the Instrumentum Laboris, released ahead of this year's synod has caused tension between traditionalists and reformers. Various groups have been lobbying — writing letters, circulating petitions — seeking to outline their positions. Gay Catholics, women theologians and African bishops opposed to homosexuality are among the biggest lobbying groups this year.

Cummings says Francis knows these issues are crucial for the church.

"Pope Francis — you know, I lost count of the number of times during his visit to the United States he used the words 'dialogue' and 'encounter,' " Cummings says. "He stressed it's important to have a conversation, and I think it's a conversation that people from a variety of religious backgrounds and traditions are going to be watching very closely."

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