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Photograph: EPA/GIUSEPPE LAMI

The Catholic Church needs to be in listening and understanding mode towards sinners, Pope Francis said Sunday, five days ahead of the publication of a document that may soften the Vatican's approach towards divorcees.

Bishops rowed bitterly in 2014-15 on whether the church should change its approach on family issues, for example softening a ban on remarried divorcees taking Holy Communion, and adopting more welcoming tones towards homosexuals and unmarried couples.

Francis did not comment directly on the dispute, but said that "all infirmities can find healing in God's mercy," and proposed "touching and soothing the wounds that today afflict the bodies and souls of many of our brothers and sisters."

"So many people ask to be listened to and to be understood," the pontiff added during an open-air Mass in St Peter's Square.

Francis' remarks, stressing the need for the Vatican to be more open towards unorthodox lifestyles, can be seen as preparing the ground for Friday's apostolic exhortation, the papal document due to draw the conclusions from the bishops' acrimonious synod debates.

One proposal from the bishops' synods which the pope may take up is the introduction of case-by-case procedures allowing remarried divorcees to take communion following a period of penance and guidance from their priest.

The row over the treatment of divorcees and others who stray from Catholic family teaching, including people who use artificial contraceptives, is a reflection of a wider theological debate within the Catholic Church.

A progressive camp, led by German bishops, says the church should adapt to modern lifestyles in order not to lose touch with the faithful; conservatives retort that sacrificing key family life principles would amount to a betrayal of the Gospel.

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