The pope led a Mass at the start of a key synod set to deal with family, marriage and the Church's attitudes towards homosexuals. The Roman Catholic pontiff asserted that the Church cannot be "swayed" by popular opinion.
Hundreds of bishops and delegates from all over the world met in the Vatican on Sunday, for a three-week summit on controversial issues, including Church teachings on homosexuality.
Speaking at the opening of the synod, Pope Francis dedicated one third of his homily to the topic of love between a man and a woman and its role in society.
"This is God's dream for his beloved creation: to see it fulfilled in the loving union between a man and a woman, rejoicing in their shared journey, fruitful in their mutual gift of self," he said.
The pope also spoke of the "true meaning of the couple and of human sexuality in God's plan," a clear reference to the importance the Church places on heterosexual marriage.
The synod starts its deliberations only a day after a Vatican monsignor publicly came out as gay, in a bid to challenge what he called the Church's "paranoid" attitudes toward homosexuals.
The Roman Catholic leaders sharply criticized the move of Father Krzysztof Olaf Charamsa, saying that his statements were aiming to "subject the synod assembly to undue media pressure." The priest was summarily fired from his post in the Vatican's doctrine office.
Living in sin
Gay issues are only a part of the synod agenda, with Catholic teachings on divorce also expected to stir controversy.
According to the current convention, divorced and remarried Catholics cannot receive communion or give confession. The only way to remarry in a Catholic church is to receive an annulment, a ruling from a church tribunal proclaiming the previous marriage invalid.
Recently, Pope Francis has radically reformed the annulment process, making a positive decision from the tribunal easier to obtain. Progressive prelates led by German Cardinal Walter Kasper have since called for a path of penance that might eventually lead divorcees back to receiving sacraments.
Still, Francis said the Church cannot be "swayed by passing fads or popular opinion." He also called marriage an indissoluble bond.
At the same time, he added that the Church should not point fingers and "seek out and care for hurting couples with the balm of acceptance and mercy."
"The Church must search out these people, welcome and accompany them. A church with closed doors betrays herself and her mission and instead of being a bridge, becomes a roadblock," the pope said.
The gay 'disorder'
The three-week forum is only the final stage of the process started by Francis two years ago, when the Holy See sent out a 39-point questionnaire on Church teachings to bishops, parishes and ordinary Catholic families around the world.
In a similar meeting last year, a group of delegates attempted to push through a statement about gay unions providing "precious" support. The move was overruled.
The official doctrine states that homosexuality is an "intrinsic disorder," and although being gay is not a sin, homosexual acts are.
dj/sms (AFP, AP, Reuters)