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August 05, 2015 12:25 PM

In a true sign of the times, Pope Francis says Roman Catholics who’ve divorced and remarried deserve better treatment from the church (as do their children). He urged pastors not to treat these couples as if they were excommunicated, multiple sources report.

“People who started a new union after the defeat of their sacramental marriage are not at all excommunicated, and they absolutely must not be treated that way,” he told a crowd of tourists at his first general audience on Wednesday, after a summer break. “They always belong to the church.”

Francis, 78, questioned how the church could insist that children of failed marriages be raised with a good example of faith when the church itself keeps the parents at a distance.

Catholic teachings frown upon divorced couples remarrying, as it’s considered living in sin. These couples are not allowed to receive Communion, leaving many of them feeling shunned by their church. (Receiving communion is a symbol of full participation in the Catholic community.)

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The Pope’s emphasis on mercy in church leadership is raising hope among many such Catholics that he might lift the Communion ban. A monthlong meeting on family issues will be held at the Vatican this fall – a follow-up to a similar meeting last year.

Pope Francis has been strong in spreading a message of inclusion. In July he held his first public meeting with a married gay activist during a trip to Paraguay. Historically, the Catholic Church has also considered homosexuality a sin, TIME reports.

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