Pope Francis urged the Vatican’s highest court on Friday to safeguard “the good of the family” in Church decisions regarding marriage annulments, saying that children are “innocent victims” in the separation of their parents.

“We must not tire of giving all attention and care to the family and to Christian marriage … May the Holy Spirit, whom you invoke before any decision to be made on the truth of marriage, enlighten you and help you not to forget the effects of such acts: first of all the good of the children, their peace or, on the contrary, their loss of joy in the face of separation,” Pope Francis said in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace on Jan. 29.

In his annual speech to the members of the Roman Rota, the pope stressed that judges in the Vatican courts were “called to be open to the horizons of this difficult but not impossible pastoral care, which relates to the concern for the children as innocent victims of many situations of breakup, divorce, or new civil unions.”

He said: “Dear Judges, in your judgments you do not fail to bear witness to this apostolic anxiety of the Church, considering that the integral good of people requires not remaining inert in the face of the disastrous effects that a decision on matrimonial nullity can entail.”

The Roman Rota is one of the three courts of the Holy See, along with the Apostolic Penitentiary and the Apostolic Signatura. Among the Rota’s primary responsibilities is considering appeals in marriage nullity, or annulment, cases.

The pope addressed the Roman Rota while seated, apologizing at the beginning of his speech that his sciatica -- which has caused him to cancel several public appearances -- continues to bother him.

“The sentences of the ecclesiastical judge cannot ignore the memory, made up of lights and shadows, which marked a life, not only of the two spouses but also of the children. Spouses and children constitute a community of persons, which is always and certainly identified with the good of the family, even when it has crumbled,” the pope said.

Pope Francis explained that it was essential not to leave Catholics suffering with “the intervention of the civil authorities alone.” He highlighted his 2015 reform, established by the apostolic letter “Mitis iudex,” which allows bishops to act as judges in the local trial for annulments.

“I take this opportunity to urge every bishop … to open up ever more to the challenge linked to this issue,” the pope said.

“It is very urgent that the collaborators of the bishop, in particular the judicial vicar, the operators of the family pastoral care and above all the parish priests, strive to exercise that diakonia of protection, care and accompaniment of the abandoned spouse and possibly of the children, who undergo the decisions, even if just and legitimate, of matrimonial nullity,” he said.

Describing a particular situation that a family might find itself in, he said: “The new sacramental union that follows the declaration of nullity will certainly be a source of peace for the spouse who requested it. However, how to explain to the children that -- for example -- their mother, abandoned by their father and often not willing to establish another matrimonial bond, receives the Sunday Eucharist with them, while the father, cohabiting or awaiting the declaration of nullity of the marriage, cannot participate in the Eucharistic table?”

The pope recalled discussions on this topic at the family synods in 2014 and 2015 and said that his apostolic exhortation “Amoris laetitia” could be “a useful pastoral tool” for assessing such situations. One of the longest documents in papal history, it consists of an introduction and nine chapters reflecting on challenges to marriage and family life.

“In this document clear indications are given so that no one, especially the children and the suffering, is left alone or treated as a means of blackmail between divided parents,” the pope said.

Pope Francis has announced that the Church will begin a special year dedicated to the family, beginning on March 19, marking the fifth anniversary of the signing of “Amoris laetitia.”

The Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life has said that the year will include monthly videos from the pope, international academic symposiums on Amoris laetitia.

The dicastery explained that resources would be shared with parishes, dioceses, and universities on “family spirituality, formation and pastoral activity for marriage preparation … and on the holiness of married couples and families who live out the grace of the sacrament in their daily life.”

“I invite everyone to take part in the initiatives that will be promoted during the Year that will be coordinated by the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life. Let us entrust this journey, with families all over the world, to the Holy Family of Nazareth, in particular to St. Joseph, the devoted spouse and father,” the pope said on Dec. 27.

In his address to the Roman Rota, Pope Francis acknowledged Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto’s coming retirement from his role as dean of the Roman Rota. He thanked Pinto, who turns 80 in March, for “the tenacity he had to carry out the reform of marriage processes,” which the pope said has faced “a lot of resistance.”

The pope expressed his wish that the tribunal, as “an authoritative manifestation of the juridical wisdom of the Church,” would “continue to consistently carry out its not easy function at the service of the divine plan for marriage and the family.”

“Invoking the gifts of the Holy Spirit upon you and your work, I will cordially impart the Apostolic Blessing,” the pope said.