Pope Francis on Friday warned the Vatican's top marriage judges that they should not "lock the salvation of persons within the straits of legalism" and indicated he wants the church to no longer charge for the sometimes onerous and expensive annulment process.
"This is a point I want to emphasize: the sacraments are free," Francis told jurists of the Roman Rota, the church's final court of appeals for annulments.
"The sacraments give us grace," he said. "And a marriage proceeding" -- like an annulment -- "touches on the sacrament of marriage."
"How I wish all marriage proceedings were free of charge!" he added.
Annulments have been a source of controversy since at least the time of King Henry VIII, who split with the Roman Catholic church over the pope's refusal to grant him an annulment.
In modern times, the process of nullifying a church marriage has been derided by some as too easy, criticized by others as too complicated, or viewed as too expensive and accessible only those with influence or means.
In the past year, Francis has added new fuel to the debate by raising the related question of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics who do not have an annulment and are barred from receiving the Eucharist.
That's a serious pastoral problem in U.S. parishes, for example, and the pope's push for a solution has sparked an intense pushback by some conservative churchmen and their allies.
Francis convened a major meeting of top bishops last fall to discuss the topic, among other things, and a follow-up convocation is set for next October following the pope's trip to the U.S.
In the meantime, Francis has also sought to reform and streamline the annulment process and he has pushed to make it less expensive, and more widely available. While all U.S. dioceses have a church court, or tribunal, to deal with marriage cases, the majority of Catholics living in poorer parts of the world often have no such recourse even if they could afford it.
Some U.S. dioceses, which account for nearly half of all annulment cases in the Catholic church, have announced that they will no longer charge fees, usually about $400, for the process. The dioceses in Cleveland and South Bend, Ind., took that step last year.
Beyond administrative fixes, however, Francis has also pushed pastors and canon lawyers to be merciful with Catholics and to do everything they can so that the rules do not get in the way of grace and the sacraments.
That was the thrust of the pontiff's address to the church jurists on Friday at the start of the Rota's 2015 term, and it was also the theme of his homily at morning Mass Friday in the chapel at his Vatican residence.
"Confessions often seem like a procedure, a formality," Francis said. "Everything is mechanical! No! Where's the meeting in this? The meeting with the Lord who pardons you, hugs you and rejoices."
Confession, he said in one of his characteristically folksy analogies, "is not like going to the dry cleaners to get a stain removed. No! It's about going to meet with our Father who reconciles, who forgives us and who rejoices."
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