The predicament of divorced and remarried Catholics will be a major topic of discussion when bishops from around the world meet at the Vatican in October 2014.
The Vatican announced on Oct. 8 that an extraordinary session of the Synod of Bishops will meet Oct. 5-19, 2014, to discuss the "pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization."
The pope had told reporters accompanying him on his plane back from Rio de Janeiro in July that the next synod would explore a "somewhat deeper pastoral care of marriage," including the question of the eligibility of divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.
Pope Francis added at the time that church law governing marriage annulments also "has to be reviewed, because ecclesiastical tribunals are not sufficient for this. It is complex, the problem of the pastoral care of marriage."
Such problems, he said, exemplified a general need for forgiveness in the church today.
"The church is a mother, and she must travel this path of mercy, and find a form of mercy for all," the pope said.
The announcement of the synod came amid news that the Archdiocese of Freiburg, Germany, had issued new guidelines making it easier for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.
The Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, said that such matters were more properly dealt with at a church-wide level, "under the guidance of the pope and the bishops."
"For persons or local offices to propose particular pastoral solutions runs the risk of generating confusion," he said. "The Holy Father is placing the pastoral care of the family at the heart of a synod process that will be larger, involving the reflection of the universal church."
The October 2014 gathering will be an "extraordinary general session" of the synod, which according to the Code of Canon Law is held to "deal with matters which require a speedy solution." It will be composed for the most part of the presidents of national bishops' conferences, the heads of the Eastern Catholic Churches, and the heads of major Vatican offices.
Only about 150 synod fathers will take part in the session, which will run for two weeks, Father Lombardi said, compared with about 250 bishops who attended the three-week ordinary general assembly on the new evangelization in October 2012.
This will be only the third extraordinary synod since Pope Paul VI reinstituted synods in 1965, to hold periodic meetings to advise him on specific subjects.
A 1969 extraordinary session was dedicated to improving cooperation between the Holy See and national bishops' conferences; and a 1985 extraordinary session, dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the end of the Second Vatican Council, recommended the compilation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was published seven years later.
Pope Francis, who replaced the synod's secretary-general Sept. 21, has suggested that he wants to make it into a permanent advisory body. On Oct. 1, Pope Francis and the new Council of Cardinals advising him on church governance spent much of their first day together discussing synod reform. On Oct. 7-8, the pope attended meetings of the synod's governing council. Instead of summoning the council officers, according to the usual protocol, the pope visited them at their office a few blocks from Vatican City.