ROME – In a document concluding his jubilee Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has extended indefinitely special permission for priests to forgive women and others involved in abortions, as well as permission for Catholics to receive forgiveness from members of a breakaway traditionalist body.
The pontiff also called for a day on the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar that normally falls sometime in November to be observed as the “World Day of the Poor.”
“It would be a day to help communities and each of the baptized to reflect on how poverty is at the very heart of the Gospel, and that, as long as Lazarus lies at the door of our homes,” referring to a Gospel figure who was poor, “there can be no justice or social peace.”
On abortion, Francis made a strong distinction between the sin and the sinner.
“I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion,” the pope wrote.
“I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life,” Francis said. “In the same way, however, I can and must state that there is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with the Father.”
On the members of the traditionalist society, Francis was equally insistent on the primacy of mercy and the forgiveness of sins.
“For the pastoral benefit of these faithful, and trusting in the good will of their priests to strive with God’s help for the recovery of full communion in the Catholic Church, I have personally decided to extend this faculty beyond the Jubilee Year, until further provisions are made, lest anyone ever be deprived of the sacramental sign of reconciliation through the Church’s pardon,” he wrote.
The reference is to the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, founded by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, which broke with Rome in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) over a variety of issues, including modernization in the liturgy as well as ecumenical and interfaith dialogue.
Both provisions, for the forgiveness of abortion and the validity of confessions to traditionalist priests, were originally made by Francis at the beginning of the jubilee year, but at the time were valid only for the period of the year itself.
The concession on abortion has had little practical effect in places such as the United States, where many bishops had already delegated permission to priests to forgive the sin, but symbolically it’s been interpreted as a major gesture of outreach to women and others who’ve been involved in what Francis described on Sunday as a “horrendous crime” and “very grave sin.”
The document in which these provisions were presented, titled Misericordia et Misera (“Mercy and Misery”) was signed by Francis at the end of a Mass marking the conclusion of the jubilee year on Sunday, and presented by the Vatican in a news conference on Monday.
The pontiff began the jubilee year on Dec. 8, 2015, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and ended it on Nov. 20, the feast of Christ the King.
Although some have found Francis’s emphasis on mercy excessive, suggesting it comes at the expense of calling sin by its real name, the pope stressed in the document that forgiveness is the essence of God’s love.
“None of us has the right to make forgiveness conditional. Mercy is always a gratuitous act of our heavenly Father, an unconditional and unmerited act of love,” he wrote.
“Consequently, we cannot risk opposing the full freedom of the love with which God enters into the life of every person,” Francis said.
Francis also rejected suggestions that his emphasis on mercy is at odds with the Church’s traditional proclamation of divine law.
“Remaining only at the level of the law is equivalent to thwarting faith and divine mercy,” he said in the document.
“Even in the most complex cases, where there is a temptation to apply a justice derived from rules alone, we must believe in the power flowing from divine grace,” he wrote.
Francis argued that showing compassion for the suffering is a special form of mercy, one which should endure beyond the formal close of the Holy Year.
“The drying of tears is one way to break the vicious circle of solitude in which we often find ourselves trapped,” he wrote.
“A reassuring word, an embrace that makes us feel understood, a caress that makes us feel love, a prayer that makes us stronger…all these things express God’s closeness through the consolation offered by our brothers and sisters,” he said.
The pontiff did not directly address controversy that erupted within the past year over his document on the family, Amoris Laetitia, and its provisions seemingly opening the door to a return to Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried.
Indirectly, however, he argued that people in difficult family situations have a special need for God’s mercy.
“This Jubilee Year cannot overlook the complexity of the current realities of family life,” he wrote. “The experience of mercy enables us to regard all human problems from the standpoint of God’s love, which never tires of welcoming and accompanying.”
In general, the pope suggested that the sufferings and pathology of the early 21st century illustrate the need for a rebirth of appreciation for the traditional virtue of mercy.
“Throngs of people continue to migrate from one country to another in search of food, work, shelter and peace. Disease in its various forms is a constant cause of suffering that cries out for assistance, comfort and support. Prisons are often places where confinement is accompanied by serious hardships due to inhumane living conditions,” he wrote.
“Illiteracy remains widespread, preventing children from developing their potential and exposing them to new forms of slavery,” Francis said. “The culture of extreme individualism, especially in the West, has led to a loss of a sense of solidarity with and responsibility for others.”
In another section of the letter, he expanded on the point.
“Being unemployed or not receiving a sufficient salary; not being able to have a home or a land in which to live; experiencing discrimination on account of one’s faith, race or social status: these are just a few of the many examples of situations that attack the dignity of the person,” Francis said.
“In the face of such attacks, Christian mercy responds above all with vigilance and solidarity,” he said.
“Our world continues to create new forms of spiritual and material poverty that assault human dignity,” the pope wrote. “For this reason, the Church must always be vigilant and ready to identify new works of mercy and to practice them with generosity and enthusiasm.”
Unless Pope Francis or a future pope decides differently, the next jubilee year is set to be celebrated in 2025.