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On Tuesday, Pope Francis made some sweeping changes to the process by which Catholics annul their marriages, thereby streamlining the process which church members considered too lengthy and expensive.

Francis' move is the latest in a series of reforms aimed at making the Catholic Church more accommodating to its parishioners. Without annulments, Catholics who remarried would not be allowed to receive Holy Communion, which many believe to be a painful exclusion.

The Vatican's Tuesday announcement came just weeks before Francis' makes his first-ever visit to the United States, which is responsible for about half of the annulments granted in 2012, the latest year which statistics are available. There were nearly 50,000 annulments in 2012.

The three major changes were:

  • Eliminates the second review by a cleric before a marriage can be annulled.
  • Bishops are given the ability to fast-track and grant annulments under certain circumstances, such as infidelity or spousal abuse.
  • With the exception of nominal administrative fees, the process should be free and be completed no later than 45 days.

Francis' reforms on Tuesday came via two motu proprio documents, which is Latin for "by the Pope's own initiative. They will become a part of Catholic canon law as of Dec. 8, which marks the beginning of the Pope's "Year of Mercy."

A prominent Catholic priest called Francis' announcement an act of mercy from a Pope who listens carefully to the people's concerns.

Previously, Francis said that the process of obtaining annulments was too onerous, that it dragged on for years and could cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. Last year the Pope said that some procedures are so long and so burdensome and that people give up.

The General Social Survey found that in the U.S., 28% of Catholic marriages end in divorce. Though that figure is lower than the general population, it still amounts to 11 million adults, CNN reported.

Without receiving an annulment, if a divorced Catholic were to remarry, they were considered an adulterer and could not participate in some sacraments, such as Holy Communion.

The Pope's annulment changes are part of an overall strategy aimed at creating a more inclusive church that will reach out to lapsed Catholics who may have left over issues, such as abortion and divorce.

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