In an Apostolic Letter made public Monday, Francis said he was extending indefinitely the special permission he had granted to all rank-and-file priests during the just ended Holy Year of Mercy. That permission is the power to forgive the sin of abortion.
"There is no sin that God's mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled" with God, the pope wrote in the 10-page letter, signed Sunday, the day the Holy Year ended.
But, he added: "I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life."
Because the Roman Catholic Church holds abortion to be such a serious sin, absolution had long been a matter for a bishop, who could either hear the woman's confession himself or delegate it to a priest considered an expert in such situations, a potentially intimidating scenario for many of the faithful.
In his letter, the pope appeared to acknowledge that. "Lest any obstacle arise between the request for reconciliation and God's forgiveness," he wrote, "I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion."
A top Vatican official, Monsignor Rino Fisichella, told a news conference at the Vatican on Monday that the pope's words applied to all those who were involved in an abortion — "from the women to the nurse to the doctor and whoever supports this procedure."
"The sin of abortion is inclusive. Thus forgiveness for the sin of abortion is all-inclusive and extends to all those who are participants in this sin," Fisichella said.
Addressing priests, Francis wrote: "I ask you to be welcoming to all, witnesses of fatherly love whatever the gravity of the sin involved, attentive in helping penitents to reflect on the evil they have done, clear in presenting moral principles, willing to walk patiently beside the faithful on their penitential journey, farsighted in discerning individual cases and generous in dispensing God's forgiveness."
“Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven" (Matthew 23:9).