Pope Francis has urged participants in a summit on the future of the Catholic family not to shrink from saying what they think because of a fear of what other people might think of them.

He has also cautioned them to listen with humility and accept with an open heart all that their fellow-participants say.

The Extraordinary Synod on the Family has been called partly to discuss how the Church should respond to what Synod organisers concede is increasing alienation among its members from its teaching on sexual morality. 

In his opening address to 253 participants in the Vatican's Synod Hall this morning the Pontiff said:

"Speak clearly. Nobody should say, 'I can't say this. They will think this or that of me.'"

He added that everything that they feel must be said boldly and freely. 

Francis told the 191 cardinals and bishops and the 62 non-voting participants that after a Consistory of Cardinals debated the family last February, a Cardinal had written to him saying that it was a pity that some participants did not have the courage to say certain things out of respect for the Pope, thinking perhaps that the Pope thought differently to them. 

The Pontiff said this is not what synodality is about.

"Because", he explained, "it is necessary to say everything that in the Lord we feel must be said: without human respect, without timidity."

He cautioned participants to listen to each other with humility, accepting with an open heart what each of them says.

He also urged them to speak and listen "with great tranquility and peace, because…..the presence of the Pope is a guarantee for all and a protection of faith".

The Synod has been preceded by heated exchanges between some senior Cardinals on whether to relax the ban on giving Holy Communion to divorced people who have remarried in civil ceremonies. Church doctrine says they are living in sin because they have not remarried in Church.  

Over the next fortnight the gathering will debate issues like contraception, homosexual unions, abortion, poverty, polygamy and child marriage.

After returning to their local churches or administrative posts in the Vatican, the bishops will be asked to consult with the faithful on the outcome of this month's deliberations in preparation for a second, larger Synod on the Family this time next year.

Blog: Bishops to gather for Synod among unrest in Catholic Church