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Catholics reflect on Pope Francis' comments on social issues

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NEW YORK (AP) -- Catholics attending Sunday services around the globe said they were heartened by Pope Francis' recent remarks that the church has become too focused on "small-minded rules" on hot-button issues like homosexuality, abortion and contraceptives.

Worshippers applauded what they heard as a message of inclusion from the man who assumed the papacy just six months ago.

"I think he's spot on," said Shirley Holzknecht, 77, a retired school principal attending services in Little Rock, Ark. "As Catholic Christians, we do need to be more welcoming."

In Havana, Cuba, Irene Delgado said the church needs to adapt to modern times.

"The world evolves, and I believe that the Catholic Church is seeing that it is being left behind, and that is not good," said Delgado, 57. "So I think that they chose this Pope Francis because he is progressive, has to change things."

Francis, in an interview published Thursday in 16 Jesuit journals worldwide, called the church's focus on abortion, marriage and contraception narrow and said it was driving people away.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the pope's words were welcome.

"He's captured the world's imagination," Dolan said after Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. "Like Jesus, he's always saying, `Hate the sin, love the sinner.'"

But Dolan said Francis' change in tone didn't signal a change in doctrine.

"He knows that his highest and most sacred responsibility is to pass on the timeless teaching of the church," Dolan said. "What he's saying is, we've got to think of a bit more effective way to do it. Because if the church comes off as a scold, it's counterproductive."

In Brasilia, Brazil, the capital of the country with the largest Catholic population in the world, 22-year-old student Maria das Gracas Lemos said Francis was "bringing the church up to date."

She said children of divorced parents used to be barred from some schools in Brazil. "All that has changed. In Brazil, people are no longer rejected because they are divorced," Lemos said. "The church has to catch up with changes in society, even if it still doesn't admit divorce."

Isaias Miguel Ortiz, a teacher at a private university in the Dominican Republic, took a similar view of Pope Francis' statements on gays. Although he believes the church will never accept homosexuality, Ortiz said Francis is "getting closer to more people."

"All the people should be accepted the way they are," he said.

The pope didn't say he accepted abortion or homosexuality, noted Martha Fabiola Rojas Lerma, 76, of Mexico City. Rather, he said he wasn't going to stress those issues.

"It was very correctly well-spoken," she said. "There's a lot of injustice. Instead, we should work so that everyone has the basics, shelter, food, clothing."

In Philadelphia, churchgoer Irene Fedin said priests "should be more focused on helping the person gain a spiritual connection to God instead of just condemning people because of certain actions that they believe are wrong."

Outside a church in Coral Gables, Fla., Frank Recio said he was grateful that the pope is trying to shift the church's tone.

"I'm a devout Catholic, always have been. I think the Catholic Church had gotten out of touch with the way the world was evolving," said Recio, 69, who's retired from a career in the technology industry.

Recio said he would support changes like allowing priests to marry. "It's a natural state in life, for men and women to have a partner," said Recio.

In Boston, Evelyn Martinez, 26, said she agrees with Francis that compassion should be one of the church's main priorities.

"I don't believe that someone's sexuality should keep them away from any religion," said Martinez, a graduate student at Emerson College who attended Mass on Saturday night.

Jose Baltazar, a 74-year-old vice president of an insurance company and longtime church volunteer in Manila, in the Philippines, said the pope has set his priorities mindful of stark realities.

"We have to give priority in working to bring those who have gone astray back to the fold," Baltazar said. "We pray for them. Why did they go astray? What's our shortcoming? What's the shortcoming of the Catholic Church?"

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Associated Press writers Rodrique Ngowi in Boston; Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana, Cuba; Jeannie Nuss in Little Rock, Ark.; Marco Sibaja in Brasilia, Brazil; Katherine Corcoran in Mexico City; and Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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