ROME (RNS) Pope Francis on Friday (Nov. 11) made a surprise visit to meet several men who took the controversial step of leaving the priesthood and starting a family.
A Vatican statement said the pope left his residence in the afternoon and traveled to an apartment on the outskirts of Rome where he met seven men who had left the priesthood in recent years. The pontiff also met their families.
It was one of the pontiff’s final gestures in his Jubilee Year of Mercy, which concludes at a Mass in St. Peter's with new cardinals on Nov. 20, and it was one of the most unusual.
One Friday a month during the jubilee year Francis has made a surprise visit to a different group of people -- the elderly in a nursing home, refugees, or infants in a neonatal unit.
Earlier Friday, for example, Francis met with thousands of homeless and marginalized people at the Vatican and asked for their forgiveness.
"I ask your forgiveness if I have ever offended you with my words or for not having said something that I should have," the pope said, according to Catholic News Service.
"I ask your forgiveness for all the times that we Christians stand before a poor person or a situation of poverty and look the other way," Francis added.
The meeting later Friday with men who have left the priesthood to marry was much more intimate, and no less poignant.
Former priests lose the close ties to the church they once had and their status raises controversial questions about ordaining married priests or permitting those who have left to marry to return to the clergy.
The Vatican said Francis wanted to express “his closeness and affection” to the men -- five Italians, a Spaniard and a Latin American -- and their families.
“They spent months and years wrestling with uncertainty and doubts before coming to the decision they had made a mistake by becoming priests,” the statement said, "then decided to leave the priesthood and create a family."
The pope was greeted warmly by the ex-priests and their children and listened to their personal stories, the Vatican said.
The Vatican said the men had made the difficult decision to leave the priesthood despite opposition from other priests or their families saying periods of “loneliness, misunderstanding, (and) fatigue” had prompted them to reconsider their vocation.
His latest Friday visit may hearten those in Italy and around the world who have urged the pope to review the church's long-standing policy of mandatory celibacy.
(Josephine McKenna covers the Vatican for RNS)