VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Nearing the end of the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis paid a visit to seven families formed by men who left the priesthood to marry. The Vatican said the visit was a sign that God loves and is merciful to everyone experiencing difficulty.

“The Holy Father wanted to offer a sign of closeness and affection to these young men who made a choice that often was not shared by their fellow priests and families,” the Vatican said in a statement about the pope’s visit Nov. 11.

The visit was part of the “Mercy Friday” initiative Pope Francis began in December for the Holy Year, which ends Nov. 20. Almost every month throughout the year, the pope visited a group of people — people recovering from addiction, women rescued from prostitution, infants in a hospital neonatal unit — as his own expression of the corporal works of mercy.

The destinations were not announced in advance and journalists were not invited.

Pope Francis entered the apartment and was greeted by the priests’ children, who embraced him. The adults, the Vatican said, “could not hide their emotion.”

Traveling to an apartment in the Ponte di Nona area on the far eastern edge of Rome, the pope met the families of the former priests. Four of the men had been priests in Rome. A former priest from Madrid and a former priest from Latin America, both now living with their new families in Rome, also were in attendance as was a visiting former priest from Sicily.

After serving in parishes, the Vatican said, “solitude, incomprehension and tiredness because of the great requirement of pastoral responsibility put in crisis their initial choice of priesthood.” The crises were followed by “months and years of uncertainty and doubts that in many cases led them to believe they had made the wrong choice with priesthood. So they decided to leave the priesthood and form a family.”

Pope Francis entered the apartment and was greeted by the priests’ children, who embraced him. The adults, the Vatican said, “could not hide their emotion.”

The former priests and their families did not feel judged by the pope, the Vatican statement said, but felt his closeness and affection. He listened to their stories and paid particular attention to the concerns they raised about “juridical procedures,” apparently in reference to the process of releasing a priest from his priestly promises.

Pope Francis’ “paternal words reassured every one,” the Vatican said. “In this way, once again, Pope Francis intended to give a sign of mercy to those who live in a situation of spiritual and material difficulty, showing the obligation to ensure no one feels deprived of the love and solidarity” of the church’s pastors.