ROME — As the countdown builds toward a major document in which Pope Francis is expected to address the controversial issue of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, the pontiff has invited a group of divorced and remarried believers to a private audience.

While the outreach certainly confirms Francis’ interest in better pastoral care for divorced Catholics who have remarried outside the Church, it doesn’t quite tip his hand in terms of which way he may be leaning on the Communion debate.

Francis invited a diocesan group in Italy that started a program to reach out to those who are in what the Church calls “irregular unions.” A date has not been set.

On the last Saturday of January, Francis called Deacon Paolo Tassinari, the coordinator along with his wife Alessandra Rosano of a group called L’anello perduto (“The Lost Ring”), in the Italian diocese of Fossano, located in the northern Piedmont region.

Francis and Tassinari spoke on the phone for several minutes about the diocesan program, launched in 2008 at the request of Bishop Giuseppe Cavallotto.

Tassinari told the diocesan paper La Fedeltá about Francis’ call, saying he found it hard to believe that the pontiff was interested in “our little project.”

“This gesture of his is his hundredth to express the affection and esteem that the bishop of Rome has for a ‘periphery’ of human beings, such as the ones who live or have lived the failure of their own marriage,” Fossano said.

The call came after some 60 members of the group sent a letter to Francis to share their experience of divorce.

“In separation we have suffered abandonment, betrayal, the break-up of families, the collapse of the deepest values we believed in, the loss of identity and of all the safety, [our] confidence in God and at times the faith,” the group wrote in the letter.

“In this traumatic context, the Church has proven to be generally indifferent, or even hostile, and God seemed distant and aloof,” they told the pope.

Toward the end of the letter, however, the group praised Fossano and the diocesan initiative, saying it helped them participate in Mass and other celebrations in way that allowed them to find a place within the Church.

“They welcomed us fraternally and healed our wounds,” the group said to Francis. “By sharing all these experiences, a great spirit of solidarity and friendship was born among us ‘lost rings.’”

Notably, however, the project does not permit divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

“A vision of this experience that isn’t coherent with the Bible wouldn’t be justifiable, wouldn’t be admissible from the theological point of view, the pastoral point of view, nor the spiritual point of view,” wrote the Rev. Duilio Albarello, theology professor, in a 2011 book produced as part of the initiative.

Albarello argues that Christian life can’t be “exclusively reduced to the full participation in the Eucharist,” because “a wealth remains available, made of a lot of things to be shared by all.”

He then says that instead of “frustratingly waiting” for Church teaching to change, the divorced and civilly remarried can be “in full communion with Christ through the Father and the Holy Spirit.”

Also in the book, the Rev. Ettore Signorile, an expert in Church law, argues that the question of pastoral care for divorced and civilly remarried couples can’t be reduced to “can they or can’t they receive Communion,” or whether they can be godparents, which is also prohibited.

Signorile conceded that in some cases it’s unavoidable for a couple to separate, but insisted “there are ways of living this separation.”

While he was still archbishop of Buenos Aires as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Francis was supportive of a group called Camino a Nazareth (“Road to Nazareth”), a pastoral movement founded in Argentina in 1995 by a divorced and remarried couple, Silvia and Jorge Castello, and a priest named the Rev. Francisco Ronconi.

In essence, the group tries to find ways to help divorced and remarried couples to live within the present rules, rather than advocating for change. It also operates in Chile and Venezuela, with plans to expand to other Latin American nations.

In 1999, Bergoglio sent a letter to the group in which he stated: “I share with you the pain you refer to. You set a clear and hopeful path, inviting those in this situation to find their own place in Our Mother Church.”

After becoming pope, Bergoglio sent another letter expressing support to the movement, which offers a nine-month formation process and then invites couples to involve themselves in their parishes.

Pope Francis is expected to issue a document, technically called an “apostolic exhortation,” drawing conclusions from the two synods of bishops on the family sometime soon, possibly in late February or early March.