Pope Francis began a weeklong trip to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay on Sunday, where he has focused much of his attention on the church's embrace of the poor, as well as promoting ecological awareness.
But on issues of the family, the pontiff hinted that "scandalous" changes could be on the Catholic Church's horizon after bishops gather in Rome for a meeting on the topic later this year.
The meeting is a continuation of a synod that began in fall of 2014 and which addressed contentious issues, such as allowing communion for divorced Catholics and extending a welcome to people in the LGBT community.
The catechism, or official teaching, of the Catholic Church states that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered" and that people attracted to the opposite sex must remain celibate. Pope Francis signaled a more understanding attitude, however, when he famously said in 2013: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"
In a sermon Monday in Guayaquil, Ecuador, the pope said the bishops will "consider concrete solutions to the many difficult and significant challenges facing families in our time."
"I ask you to pray fervently for this intention," he said of the search for solutions, "so that Christ can take even what might seem to us impure, scandalous or threatening, and turn it ... into a miracle. Families today need miracles!"
Jesuit priest James Martin cautioned that it's still unclear what the pope meant, exactly, when he said change was on the horizon.
"Notice that he said that God turns what we think is 'impure, threatening or scandalous' into something beautiful," Martin said in an email to HuffPost.
"That could mean almost anything. Remember, though, that Jesus frequently went out to people seen as 'impure' (tax collectors, prostitutes, the sick) and healed them and restored them to the community. The Pope may be asking us to remember that God can do the same today."
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Catholic LGBT organization DignityUSA, said she thought the pope's statement sent "clear signals" that he recognizes the damage Catholic teaching does to LGBT familes.
It's high time, she argued, the church amended its stance on LGBT issues in order to better serve the Catholic flock.
"The current reality, where we are too often denied sacraments, means we are not full members of our Church," she told The Huffington Post. "It’s time for the pain and alienation this causes to be stopped."
The church has showed signs recently, she added, "that there may be openness to reconsidering the official stance on LGBT people and our families, as well as other kinds of families currently alienated by Church teachings."
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of LGBT Catholic organization New Ways Ministry, told HuffPost he wasn't expecting "big policy changes" at the synod in October. But he added that the debate, which got underway at the 2014 synod, signaled "an important and big first step towards eventual changes down the road."
A drafted report released during the course of last year's meeting of bishops proposed greater openness toward divorced Catholics and members of the LGBT community. "Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community," the document stated. "Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a further space in our communities?"
Many applauded the report as a "revolutionary" shift away from more condemning attitudes in the church, but celebration didn't last long. The bishops promptly backtracked on the document, rewording passages that seemed to stray too far from traditional teaching.
Pope Francis welcomed the "animated discussions" the document engendered at the time, but warned against "hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God."
Holy See press officer Tom Rosica said the pope asked for the entire document, including the rejected paragraphs, to be made public "to show the degree of maturity that has taken place and that which still needs to take place in discussions over the coming year."
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