Pope Francis
Pope Francis makes a speech during an audience with the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See for the traditional exchange of New Year greetings at the Vatican, Jan. 9, 2017. REUTERS/Alberto Pizzoli/Pool

After recent criticisms of Pope Francis by conservatives in the Catholic church, a group of nine cardinals pledged allegiance to the pope, expressing “full support for the pope’s work."

The announcement came at an unusual time, on the first day of three-day meeting. Generally, the cardinals issue statements four times a year, at the end of their quarterly meetings. The last one was in December. But in the statement released Monday, the cardinals said they were standing by the pope “in light of recent events,” which “Vatican sources said was a clear reference to the attacks” on the pope, Reuters reported.

Posters of the pope mysteriously appeared on the walls of the Vatican at the beginning of February, depicting a steely-eyed and frowning Pope Francis.

“Ah Francis, you've taken over congregations, removed priests, decapitated the Order of Malta and the Franciscans of the Immaculate, ignored cardinals ... but where’s your mercy?” the posters' captions asked.

Pope Posters
A worker covers the caption on an illegal poster depicting Pope Francis and accusing him of attacking conservative Catholics, in Rome, Feb. 5, 2017. REUTERS/Max Rossi/File Photo

Although it’s not clear who hung the posters, the Roman dialect of the posters’ messages suggests the offender belongs to a conservative sector of the church, Catholic News Service reported. Pope Francis is known for his relatively progressive stances, and he recently restructured some of its leadership. In the case of the Order of Malta, referenced on the posters, Pope Francis asked the leader of the order to resign in January.

Pope Francis shrugged off the posters, the Italian news agency ANSA reported. He received the news of the attacks with “serenity and detachment,” ANSA reported.

The incident illustrates the growing rift between the liberal pope and his conservative critics. Pope Francis has unnerved the church’s more traditional members with his statements on homosexuality (“Who am I to judge?” he asked in 2013) and abortion (women who have abortions should be forgiven, he said in 2015), among other things.

The Cardinals' full statement read: "In relation to recent events, the Council of Cardinals pledges its full support for the Pope’s work, assuring him at the same time of its adhesion and loyalty to the figure of the Pope and to his Magisterium."