An unprecedented Vatican investigation of U.S. women's religious orders that alarmed Roman Catholic sisters when the inquiry began years ago ended Tuesday with a report signaling a softer approach under Pope Francis.

The report praised sisters for their selfless work caring for the poor and promised to value their "feminine genius" more, while gently suggesting ways to serve the church faithfully and survive amid a steep drop in their numbers. There was no direct critique of the nuns, nor any demand for them to change - only requests that they ensure their ministries remain "in harmony with Catholic teaching."

"There is an encouraging and realistic tone in this report," said Sister Sharon Holland, head of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella group for most U.S. religious orders. "Challenges are understood, but it is not a document of blame, or of simplistic solutions. One can read the text and feel appreciated and trusted to carry on."

Sharp contrast

The laudatory language contrasted sharply with the atmosphere in which the review started under Pope Benedict XVI. Cardinal Franc Rode, who in 2008 initiated the nationwide study when he led the Vatican office that oversees religious orders, said there was concern about "a certain secular mentality that has spread in these religious families and, perhaps, also a certain 'feminist' spirit."

Rode left the post while the review was still underway, and his successors had said they wanted friendlier ties with the sisters.

Still, many nuns remained concerned about the outcome of the investigation under Francis' still-young pontificate. Some nuns had taken legal steps during the inquiry to shield the financial assets of their religious orders in case of a Vatican takeover.

'An opportunity'

The report expressed hope that sisters would take "this present moment as an opportunity to transform uncertainty and hesitancy into collaborative trust" with the church hierarchy. Many sisters have complained that their work often went unrecognized by priests, according to the report.

American nuns are dealing with the fallout from a separate investigation from a different Vatican office.

The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in 2012 ordered an overhaul of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents about 80 percent of U.S. sisters. The doctrine office said the organization strayed from church teaching and promoted "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."

Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain was appointed to oversee the Leadership Conference, potentially through 2017.