Pope Francis has told bishops and cardinals from across the world to climb down from their ivory towers and tackle real-life issues such as divorce, contraception and same-sex unions.
The Pope made the comments as the Catholic Church prepares to address the chasm between its teaching and the problems faced by modern families.
Opening a two-week global synod of nearly 200 Church leaders with a Mass in St Peter's Basilica yesterday (Sunday), the Pope told them to avoid obscure theological debate and intellectual sparring in favour of analysing why so many Catholics defy official teaching on issues such as birth control and premarital sex.
"Synod assemblies are not meant to discuss beautiful and clever ideas, or to see who is more intelligent," the 77-year-old Pope said, in an apparent rebuke to those bishops, archbishops and cardinals who oppose his reformist agenda.
The Catholic Church was like a vineyard, he said, and the role of its leaders was to nurture it with "freedom, creativity and hard work".
"In this case the Lord is asking us to care for the family," the Jesuit Pope told the bishops. For the next two weeks the bishops will hold closed-door debates, in which some of the thorniest contemporary issues facing the Church will be discussed, including the divisive issue of whether to allow divorcees who remarry to be allowed to take Communion.
The Pope has indicated on several occasions that he favours a more "merciful" approach to the issue and has thrown his moral support behind a German cardinal, Walter Kasper, who has argued that the Church should modify its rules.
Catholics who divorce in a civil court and remarry are currently prohibited from taking Communion because in the eyes of the Church their first marriages are still valid, so they are, in effect, committing adultery with their new partners. Many Catholics regard that as unnecessarily mean-spirited and exclusive.
Change is being pushed for by a group of reform-minded cardinals, including Lorenzo Baldisseri, the head of the synod of bishops, Dionigi Tettamanzi, the emeritus archbishop of Milan and Luis Tagle, a cardinal from the Philippines.
They are opposed by powerful conservative currents within the Church, led by cardinals such as Gerhard Mueller, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, George Pell, an Australian who heads a Vatican economic committee and Raymond Leo Burke, an arch-conservative from the United States. Each side has set out its position in a series of addresses, treatises and books.
The Church leaders will discuss the results of a questionnaire sent to dioceses on the orders of Pope Francis, which showed that millions of Catholics ignore the Church's teachings on issues such as sex before marriage and birth control.
"Francis has made a bold move in pushing for this study of family issues," said Georg Sporschill, a Catholic priest and author from Austria.
"The Church must win back credibility among ordinary people, above all on subjects such as sexuality and the family," he told La Repubblica newspaper.
The Church needed to find a "new response" to the many remarried divorcees who feel rejected because of being banned from receiving the Sacrament. Mariano Zagone, 51, from Palermo in Sicily, divorced and remarried 17 years ago and has not been allowed to take Communion since, which he said has been a cause of "great pain".
"But thanks to Pope Francis, something extraordinary is now happening - signs of an opening are giving hope to all believers who are in the same position as me," he added.
No drastic changes, nor moderate ones, are expected to be announced at this synod. Discussions will continue next autumn at a similar assembly and any relaxation of Church teaching may not be known until 2016.
One possible move would be for the Pope to make it easier for Catholics to obtain divorces by appointing more canon lawyers and speeding up what is currently a time-consuming and costly process.