ROME — Pope Francis on Monday met with a group of 35 separated and divorced women for over 95 minutes, in a private audience which wasn’t announced by the Vatican, with one participant saying afterwards the pontiff told them “the Church welcomes and embraces us.”

Isabel Díaz, who took part in the encounter, said Pope Francis told them that, with their experience, they can help others who are separated and divorced live through their suffering, and “above all, he underlined repeatedly that the Church welcomes and embraces us.

“It was a blessing, I left crying joy, and above all, I feel blessed,” Díaz said.

The meeting likely would have gone unnoticed, if it wasn’t for the fact that the diocese sponsoring the trip wrote about it on its website.

Last April, the Archbishop of the Spanish diocese of Toledo, Braulio Rodríguez, handed Francis a letter. The missive was written by women who participate in the “Santa Teresa” group, run by the Commission of Family and Life of the diocese. The scope of the pastoral initiative is to accompany separated and divorced women.

After reading the letter, Francis invited them to Rome.

Speaking to the diocesan website, Rodríguez defined the encounter as “very simple, in a relaxed atmosphere.” It lasted for an hour and a half, and the women “entered into dialogue with the Holy Father through a series of questions.”

According to the archbishop, the pope thanked them for coming to Rome, when in reality “it’s us who are thankful, because [the meeting] was something money cannot buy.”

Rodríguez says that the encounter took place after the pope read a letter from the women and one he penned himself, also addressed to Francis: “It was he who showed interest in personally knowing how we do our pastoral work on this area.”

The Santa Teresa group, he added, is part of the pastoral plan aimed at answering “the real problems that exist in our society.”

Esperanza Gomez-Menor, one of the women who was received by Francis, asked him about how divorced parents educate their children when the parents don’t share the same values. According to her recollection, the pope instructed them “from love, educate our children to love and respect everyone and that we have to pray for our ex-husbands.”

Gomez-Menor separated four years ago, and during the Holy Year of Mercy she decided to put an end to her suffering and go to Confession to reconcile with God.

Speaking to the Rome-based news agency Rome Reports, she defined that two-hour long Confession as a precious one, during which she and the priest laughed, cried and afterward she felt a burden taken from her shoulders: “It was a relief.”

“I felt like I was unburdening everything back that could be inside of me at that moment, and once that confession was over, I felt God was with me, he was by my side, that he grabbed my hand, helped me up to continue on my path.”

The group of women went to the meeting accompanied by Father Miguel Garrigós who, together with several priests, coordinates the family and life commission in Toledo, and the monthly meetings of the Santa Teresa group.

“The pope insisted that [as humans] we don’t have the vocation to remain wounded,” Garrigós is quoted as saying. “We have to get used to living with the scar, as it gives us dignity because there was suffering behind it, and he gave us the example of the wrinkles of old people who dignify those who have them.”

Without revealing many details, Garrigós  also said that Pope Francis had asked the group to read his apostolic exhortation on the family, paying particular attention to chapter four, titled “Love in Marriage.

“Forgiveness is difficult, but it goes to the wound and to whom inflicted that wound,” he said Francis told them. “It is a path and a grace of God. I believe one can’t forgive without a grace from God.”

The group meets monthly at a local parish. There, they share a moment of Eucharistic adoration, pray the vespers and talk about different concerns each might have. Those who needed it, also receive material support from the diocesan Caritas office.

They gave the pope a book with personal letters each one wrote to Francis, together with drawings made by their children. The pope, as he usually does when meeting someone, gave each of the women a rosary.