By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis opened a gathering of bishops on Wednesday with the Catholic Church in a swirling state of crisis over sex abuse, urging its leaders not to let the next generation's faith be snuffed out "by our own shortcomings, mistakes and sins".
In signs of the extraordinary pressure the Church has come under from the worldwide abuse scandal, Cardinal Charles Chaput, the archbishop of Philadelphia, had called for the "youth synod" to be cancelled so the Vatican could concentrate on preparing another bishops' meeting on preventing sex abuse.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the archbishop of Newark, New Jersey stayed home to deal with the scandal's fallout, and a Dutch bishop, Robert Mutsaerts of Den Bosch, boycotted, saying the synod lacked credibility.
More than 250 other bishops from around the world will attend the month-long meeting with about 40 young people invited to take part as observers.
Two of the bishops are from China, a first following the Vatican's landmark agreement earlier this month that improved ties with the Communist government. Applause broke out as the pope noted their presence in his homily of a Mass for tens of thousands of people in St. Peter's Square. [L8N1WH5SU]
Although the synod's official title is "Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment," the worldwide sexual abuse scandal looms large in the background and many believe it will be part of the informal agenda in the discussions.
"May the Spirit give us the grace to be a memory that is diligent, living and effective, that does not allow itself from one generation to the next to be extinguished or crushed by the prophets of doom and misfortune, by our own shortcomings, mistakes and sins," Francis said in his homily.
The Church is enmeshed in sexual abuse crises in countries including Chile, Germany, the United States and Australia, and the Vatican knows it has to win back disenchanted young people.
The synod began a day after a new Pew Research Center survey found that confidence in the way the pope is handling the sexual abuse crisis has plummeted among American Catholics.
While seven-in-ten American Catholics said the overall opinion of the pope was favourable, six-in-ten said Francis was doing an "only fair" or "poor" job handling the abuse scandal, nearly double the figure at the beginning of 2018.
Francis said he hoped the meeting, which ends on Oct. 28 and will result in a papal document, will be "anointed by hope".
The danger was that young people would be left "exposed to stormy seas, orphans without a faith community that should sustain them, orphans devoid of a sense of direction and meaning in life", he said.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Peter Graff)