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Sunday, November 16, 1997 Published at 05:18 GMT


Pope opens American bishops' synod

The Pope is hosting leading Church figures from the Americas

The Pope opens a month-long gathering of Roman Catholic bishops from both North and South America at the Vatican on Sunday.

The synod is one of a series of meetings Pope John Paul II has called to examine the problems facing the Roman Catholic Church at the end of the 20th century.

One of the most pressing issues is how to reach out to Catholics who have left the Church, especially in South America, which has seen a marked spread of evangelical sects.

Other subjects include the large economic disparities between North and South America, drug trafficking, prostitution, and the environment.

Some burning issues, such as whether clergymen should be allowed to marry, or the role of women in the Church, are not on the official agenda.

However, behind the scenes there will inevitably be confidential discussions on the prospects facing the Roman Catholic Church in the next century and in the next Pontificate.

Preparations for the meeting have not been smooth. Many Brazilian bishops, for example, would have preferred the synod to be held in Latin America, not at the Vatican.

[ image: The Pope can accept or reject the synod's recommendations]
The Pope can accept or reject the synod's recommendations
The meeting takes place behind closed doors and is subject to tight control by the Vatican. It has no powers of decision-making, but makes recommendations to the Pope, who is free either to accept them or reject them.

The synod brings together more than 230 bishops and more than 50 leading Catholic laymen and women from Canada, the US, Central and South America and the Caribbean. They represent about half the world's membership of the Catholic Church.

It is one of four such meetings, each focussing on a specific continent. The Pope has already heard opinions from Church leaders in Europe and Africa at previous synods. Next year it will be Asia's turn.

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