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ROME, February 27, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) — Pope Francis urged parish priests participating in a Vatican-run course titled the “New Marriage Procedure” to “welcome” cohabitating couples living in fornication who “prefer to live together without getting married.” The pope did not ask priests to admonish such couples for living in grave sin nor did he ask them to work for their conversion and repentance.

“At the same time, make yourselves close with the style of the Gospel itself, in the encounter and welcome of those young people that prefer living together without getting married,” he told priests at the Saturday, February 25 event organized by the Roma Rota, the Vatican’s highest ecclesiastical court.

“On the spiritual and moral plane, they are among the poor and the little ones, toward whom the Church, following in the footsteps of her Teacher and Lord, wants to be a Mother that does not abandon but comes close and takes care. These persons are also loved by Christ’s heart. This care of the last, precisely because it emanates from the Gospel, is an essential part of your work of promotion and defense of the Sacrament of Marriage,” he added.

Last year Francis said that cohabitating couples are in a “real marriage” and receive the grace of the Sacrament. “I’ve seen a lot of fidelity in these cohabitations, and I am sure that this is a real marriage, they have the grace of a real marriage because of their fidelity,” he said at that time.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls fornication “gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses and the generation and education of children.”

It further states that situations such as cohabitation “offend against the dignity of marriage; they destroy the very idea of the family; they weaken the sense of fidelity. They are contrary to the moral law. The sexual act must take place exclusively within marriage. Outside of marriage it always constitutes a grave sin and excludes one from sacramental communion.”

The formative course was designed to teach parish priests working in their own respective diocesan courts on marriage annulments, and other related matters, how to implement the changes of the two Motu Proprio, Mitis Iudex and Misericors Jesus, with Amoris Laetitia giving the larger framework.

Francis told the priests that for “every person and every situation you are called to be fellow travelers to witness and support.”

He urged them to “support” all couples who have determined by themselves that their marriage is invalid and want it officially declared as such.

“When you offer this witness, may your care be also to support all those who have realized the fact that their union is not a true sacramental marriage and want to come out of this situation. In this delicate and necessary work, proceed in such a way that your faithful recognize you not so much as experts of bureaucratic acts or juridical norms, but as brothers who put themselves in an attitude of listening and of understanding,” he said.

Francis stated that priests are often the first representative of the Church to whom young people encounter when they get married and at the same time the first to whom they turn when their marriage is in crisis.

“It is you to whom the spouses turn, when serious problems in their relation occur and they find themselves in crisis and have the need to revamp the faith and rediscover the grace of the sacrament; and in some cases ask indications to begin a process of annulment.”

The process of discernment he left in the hands of the individual in their parish since “nobody better than you knows and is in contact with the reality of the social grid of that territory, and experiences the various complexities.”