Pope Francis is indefinitely extending the special permission he granted for the duration of the recently ended Holy Year of Mercy, allowing all Catholic priests to continue to absolve the "grave sin" of abortion.
"I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life," the pope wrote in a statement, reports NPR. "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. May every priest, therefore, be a guide, support and comfort to penitents on this journey of special reconciliation."
Before, ordinary priests could not absolve "sins" related to abortion. Because abortion is seen as such a serious sin in the eyes of the church, only a bishop could hear the woman's confession and decide if she deserved absolution, according to The Associated Press.
In December 2015, the Pope granted special permission for all priests, no matter their rank, to make this decision, as part of the Catholic Church's Year of Mercy, a longstanding Catholic tradition in which followers can receive special indulgences for sins that, in the past, would never have been forgiven. The Year of Mercy ended Nov. 20.
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Pope Francis is now extending the "mercy" regarding abortions indefinitely, allowing all priests to absolve, "lest any obstacle arise between the request for reconciliation and God's forgiveness."
Kate D'Annunzio, who runs a group in Pennsylvania that provides counseling to women who have had abortions, tells CNN that Francis' decision not only tells priests that they can forgive, but that they can also welcome women back into the church.
"We are extremely ecstatic that the pope is recognizing that the decision women have made has harmed them in so many ways, and they want to be reunited with the church," she said. "The church has had the ability to forgive these women, but many of these women had difficulty forgiving themselves. This outreach by the pope is saying 'Don't isolate yourselves, come back to the church.'"
Since Francis began his papacy in March 2013, he has set his sights on creating an image of the Catholic Church that is more forgiving. He has made waves in the religious community by adopting more liberal stances on gay and lesbian rights, contraception and divorce.
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"Overall he is trying to make it easier for people to be forgiven and feel forgiven," Jesuit priest the Rev. James Martin told CNN.