VATICAN CITY - On the heels of a bold call by Amazon region bishops for married men to become priests, Pope Francis is urging openness to new ways, and in a possible slap at conservative critics who fear he is weakening the Catholic church's foundations, he cautions faithful against entering the "swampy waters of ideologies."
At Mass Sunday in St. Peter's Basilica to conclude a weeks-long Vatican meeting on the special needs of Catholics in that South American region, Francis thanked the bishops for their candor.
In follow-up remarks to faithful in St. Peter's Square, he didn't cite the vote a day earlier by a majority of the synod's bishops to ordain married men in special circumstances in the region, where some faithful who want to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist don't see priests for months, even years.
But Francis said he and other participants at the gathering, known as a synod, felt encouraged to "leave comfortable shores" in seeking new ways to carry out the church's mission to spread the Catholic faith.
On Saturday, Francis told bishops he would draw his conclusions about their requests in a document he hoped to write by year's end. His conclusions will be eagerly awaited by faithful who wonder if it will include an opening to lifting a ban on married priests, at least in some circumstances, in a part of the world where evangelical Protestant churches are increasingly winning converts.
Allowing married men to be ordained in remote Amazon areas that are facing severe shortages of priests would chip away at the Catholic Church's nearly millennium-old teaching upholding priestly celibacy.
Since Francis on numerous occasions has praised celibacy for priests, it was unclear if the Argentine-born pontiff would embrace the bishops' appeal for married men's ordinations or, more significantly, if such approval would erode the celibacy rule.
The pope said that faithful sometimes ask how they can propagate the word of the Gospel.
"In the synod, we asked it of ourselves, desiring to open new roads for the proclamation of the Gospel," Francis told the crowd in St. Peter's Square.
"To live by the Gospel, one must go beyond oneself. We felt prodded to go out, to leave the comfortable shores of our safe ports to sink into deep waters — not in the swampy waters of ideologies, but in the open sea in which the Spirit invites us to throw out the fishing nets," Francis said, referring to Gospel parables about fishing for the souls of people.
In prepared remarks, which he didn't read, he appeared to hint at the appeal for married priests. In them, he said that setting off from shore meant being open to "new things." The pope sometimes skips part or all of prepared remarks.
His conservative critics, who include so-called traditionalist Catholics, insist that the Vatican adhere strictly to centuries-old rules demanding that the church's priests be celibate, unmarried men. But in the first centuries of the church, married priests were allowed, and nearly all the first apostles were married men.
Currently, the Vatican allows married men to become priests in Eastern rite churches. Eager to include converts, it has also allowed married Anglican priests to remain priests when they join the Roman Catholic church.