In this Dec. 4, 2014 photo, Pope Francis listens to...

In this Dec. 4, 2014 photo, Pope Francis listens to a speech during a special audience he held for members of the FOCSIV Italian Catholic volunteers, at the Vatican. Credit: AP / Andrew Medichini

The Vatican Thursday abruptly ended a takeover of the main umbrella group for American nuns, resolving a long-simmering controversy before Pope Francis' U.S. visit in September.

The Vatican probe of the nuns' group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious -- started seven years ago under Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI -- had shocked and saddened the sisters and their supporters across the country.

Thursday's surprise announcement in Rome, ending the investigation and takeover two years before schedule, marks a major shift in the Vatican's treatment of American nuns under the reform-minded Francis, analysts said.

After the announcement, Leadership Conference representatives had a 50-minute meeting with Pope Francis, who did not comment publicly.

The sisters said in a statement they were "deeply heartened" by Francis' "expression of appreciation" for their work. The conference represents 80 percent of the 57,000 nuns in the United States.

"Alleluia!" tweeted Sister Mary Ann Hinsdale, a theologian at Boston College and member of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, an order of nuns.

The Vatican took over the Leadership Conference in 2012, accusing it of taking positions that undermined Catholic teachings on abortion, same-sex marriage and the all-male priesthood, and of promoting "certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."

The Vatican appointed a special delegate, Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, to oversee a formal review of the group's plans, programs and statutes -- even approve speakers at its programs.

In a six-paragraph joint report that accompanied Thursday's announcement, the Leadership Conference and the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which led the probe, said the group's new statutes focus on Christ and being faithful to church teaching.

An advisory committee will ensure manuscripts in Leadership Conference publications are doctrinally sound, and that speakers at conference events use the "ecclesial language of faith" in their remarks, according to the report.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst for The National Catholic Reporter, called it "a very good deal for both sides."

"Everybody wanted to put this behind them," he said. "The important thing is that it is over before the pope comes to the U.S. The last thing they [the U.S. bishops] wanted was questions raised about this during the pope's visit."

The pope will visit New York City, Philadelphia and Washington in late September.

The Leadership Conference asked nuns across the country to abide by a Vatican request not to comment on the developments for 30 days.Dennis McCarthy, a long-time lay leader at Our Lady of the Snow in Blue Point, who has pushed for the church to modernize, said the probe's end is "another strong indication that the church might well be moving closer to the 21st century."

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