ROME — Two prominent Catholic cardinals participating in the synod on the family spoke about the need for Catholics to be involved in the public square and Pope Francis’s vision for the Church during a special panel discussion at the North American College Wednesday.

Cardinal George Pell of Australia and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York both said that while changes in teaching weren’t up for debate, they agreed with the necessity to soften some of the Church’s rhetoric related to homosexuality and other family issues. They also said they were troubled by the level of family disruption that exists around the world.

But Dolan said he found bishops to be surprisingly optimistic about their ability to deal with those family issues. And he admitted to being surprised that Pope Francis has turned out to be such a charismatic rock star.

In his opening remarks, Dolan said that Francis wants bishops to evangelize the Church not by starting out talking about rules and doctrine, but rather by first talking about Jesus and demonstrating what the Church is all about.

“What Pope Francis is telling us to do … is to lead with a person, not to lead with that person’s teaching, or moral standards,” he said. “Our ability to teach faith and morals will be much more effective if we don’t lead with them, but lead with a person.”

Read Crux’s coverage of the synod

Pell, now the pope’s chief financial czar, said Catholics, especially clergy, must be involved in the public square.

“I hope you’re not going to be one of those priests or bishops whose primary mission is to keep out of the press,” he told the audience. “If we are silent, we can’t complain that we’re not being heard.”

“Our society desperately needs what we Catholics and what we Christians have to offer,” he said, praising the United States as “one of the most religious societies in history.”

In the question-and-answer portion of the event, both cardinals were asked for their reaction to the first few days of the Synod. Pell said he was quite worried “about the level of trouble we’re in with marriage and the family. There are very few societies [around the world] where the trend is running in the direction of a stronger family life.”

In the weeks leading up to the synod, several cardinals have engaged in at times pointed debate about divorce and annulments, and Pell made no effort to hide which side he is on.

“As Christians, we follow Christ,” he said. “Some may wish Jesus might have been a little softer on divorce, but he wasn’t. And I’m sticking with him.”

Although Dolan said he found the talks by members of the laity at the start of each day’s Synod session “refreshing,” comments by bishops of the world “at times can move me to tears because they are pastors — they know their people well, and they are speaking with immense love and tenderness about their people,” especially those who are outside the Church.

And yet a sense of optimism still permeates the synod, he said. “Even though there is this gritty realism and bluntness about the pastoral challenges we have, you don’t detect much hand wringing or gloom. We trust God’s wisdom. There is a candor about the challenges we face, but there’s not a sense of panic or pessimism.”

Dolan acknowledged that the bishops are debating how to soften their rhetoric when discussing homosexuality and other topics affecting families.

“When we talk about some time of renewal and reform of our vocabulary, we don’t mean to soften or to dilute our teaching, but to make it more credible and cogent,” he said. “It’s not a code word for sidestepping tough things; it’s more a methodology.“

Pell agreed, but warned that the bishops cannot take the language revision too far. “We’ve got to be intellectually coherent and consistent.” he said. “Catholics are people of tradition, and we believe in the development of doctrine, but not doctrinal backflips.”

When asked whether Francis had turned out to be the kind of pope he thought the Church was getting when he was elected 13 months ago, Pell said that in the pre-conclave meetings, “the cardinals made it clear they wanted improvements in the management of the money here. They wanted the public scandals cleaned up. I was pretty certain that Pope Francis would back that, and he has magnificently.”

But Dolan admitted to being surprised by the Pope’s magnetism. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio “was a very retiring, behind-the-scenes man. In no way did I think of him as charismatic, someone who would electrify the crowd,” Dolan said. “But that gets back to his simplicity.”

The event marked the Rome launch of Crux, a new website covering the Vatican and the Catholic Church, a project of The Boston Globe. Each cardinal spoke for about 15 minutes, and then a panel of Crux journalists — John L. Allen Jr., Ines San Martin, and Michael O’Loughlin — asked questions. The United States debut event was held at Boston College last month, featuring Cardinal Sean O’Malley.

Calling Crux “an unconventional endeavor for the Boston Globe or really any other major American news organization,” Globe editor Brian McGrory said Crux “will not have an ideological bent,” but promised coverage of a range of issues, including “hot button” ones present in modern Catholicism.

Monsignor James Checcio, rector of the North American College — home to 254 seminarians from the US, Canada, and Australia — welcomed attendees, saying that Crux “has certainly made an early mark for itself.”