Pope Francis' stunning criticism of the Catholic Church's emphasis on divisive social issues like abortion and gay marriage has Minnesota's nearly 1.1 million Catholics digesting the meaning of his words.

Some parishioners hailed them as signaling a profound shift away from battles over hot-button topics that have split congregations, while others pondered what effect the pope's message might have on how priests and bishops lead their flocks in the future.

A marked departure from his predecessors, the pope's frank statements reported this week appear to fly in the face of bishops in Minnesota and across the U.S., who for years have preached against same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception and poured millions of dollars into the political fights.

Mike Donahue, a member of St. Odilia church in Shoreview, said he's encouraged by Francis' emphasis on compassion over harsh censure when addressing issues like same-sex marriage.

While the number of Catholics in the United States has declined over the past decade to nearly 65 million followers, the number has remained fairly steady in Minnesota.

"I feel positive we're headed in the right direction," said Donahue. "He's going to stir things up … take it back to the pastoral level where the people have more of a say. I think you have to tolerate various cultures and views … They're all people of the earth. "

For their part, Minnesota bishops do not view Francis' comments as a rebuke to their efforts to ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota.

Many Catholics were upset that church leaders took a leading role in the political fight, contributing nearly $650,000 to the campaign for a state constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage, which failed Nov. 6. Legislators went on to legalize same-sex marriage.

The new pope's comments "instead are a positive reminder that all Catholics must strive to wholeheartedly share the saving truths of the Gospel with love, even when that message is sometimes misunderstood," Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, said in an e-mailed statement.

Group will continue lobbying

The group, the main lobbying arm for the state's bishops, "will continue to advocate for the dignity of all human persons and policies that serve the common good, including a social safety net for the poor, a path to citizenship for immigrants and their families, the legal abolition of abortion and policies that strengthen the institution of marriage, not weaken it," Adkins continued.

In interviews published Thursday in Jesuit journals, Francis said he had been "reprimanded" for not pressing church opposition to abortion. He said "it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."

"The church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently," Francis said.

During his first six months in the papacy, Francis has repeatedly emphasized the church should be focused on social justices issues, like helping the needy and impoverished.

His comments this week in the extensive, 12,000-word article contained no change in church teaching, but advocates pushing for church reform nonetheless lauded Francis' welcoming tone and viewed his statements as an invitation to Catholics in the pews to become more involved in the discussion of issues facing the church.

Questions of priorities

"Catholics are very excited about it. It gives them hope," said Paula Ruddy, a board member of Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, a Twin Cities area advocacy group that seeks increased lay participation in the church on financial and other key matters, such as allowing for women priests and selecting bishops.

Ruddy said she was encouraged by the pope's message that other important issues, like helping the poor, also need to be emphasized by the church.

"The pope is talking about compassion," she said. "I think what he is trying to do is bring a healing [to the church.] … I think we're all going to have to do that. We're going to have to stop this us vs. them attitude and try to work together. I think the pope is modeling that."

Mark McCartan, a member of Pax Christi church in Eden Prairie, said he was heartened by the pope's conciliatory approach but wonders if Catholics might be confused if they interpret the pope's message as running counter to what U.S. bishops are saying.

"I think there's going to be a mixed reaction to this. It's too early to say," McCartan said. "He's putting things up for dialogue, which I'm in favor of."

Whether the pope's message of reform has any effect on how U.S. bishops and priests lead the church remains to be seen, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter.

"What he says raises the question of how high a priority this should be for the bishops," Reese said.

"I think this is an opportunity for the bishops to regroup … It's a call for them to rethink their priorities. Is fighting gay marriage so important? His priority is reconciliation, not division."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Rose French 612-673-4352