VATICAN CITY — In a new set of pastoral guidelines for the upcoming Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has made some significant moves, allowing all priests to forgive the sin of abortion and granting SSPX priests the faculty to forgive sins.
“One of the serious problems of our time is clearly the changed relationship with respect to life,” the Pope said in a Sept. 1 letter addressed to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, charged with organizing the jubilee.
In today’s society, “a widespread and insensitive mentality” has become an obstacle to welcoming new life, with many who don’t fully understand the deep harm done by the “tragedy of abortion,” he said.
However, Francis also noted that there are many women who, despite thinking abortion is wrong, feel that they have no other choice.
“I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision,” he said.
A woman who obtains an abortion automatically incurs a latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication, as well as those who assisted her in the process. Normally the sin of committing an abortion can only be absolved by a bishop, or priests appointed by him, as is the case in the United States.
For specific occasions such as Advent or Lent, some bishops extend this faculty to all priests within their diocese.
However, the Pope said that the forgiveness of God can’t be denied to a person who has sincerely repented, especially when the person comes to the sacrament of confession in order to be genuinely reconciled with the Father.
Because of this, Francis said, he has allowed all priests for the Jubilee of Mercy “to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.”
In another significant move, Francis has also allowed priests from the Society of St Pius X to “validly and licitly” hear confessions during the holy year.
“This Jubilee Year of Mercy excludes no one,” the Pope said in his letter, explaining several bishops have informed him of the society’s “good faith and sacramental practice,” albeit combined with an “uneasy situation from the pastoral standpoint.”
The Society of St. Pius X was founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970 to form priests, as a response to what he described as errors that had crept into the Church following the Second Vatican Council. Its relations with the Holy See became strained in 1988, when Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated four bishops without the permission of Pope John Paul II.
The illicit consecration resulted in the excommunication of the five bishops; the excommunications were lifted in 2009 by Benedict XVI, and since then, negotiations between the society and the Vatican to re-establish full communion have continued.
In his letter, Francis expressed his confidence that solutions to recovering full communion with the priests and superiors of the society could be found in the near future.
In the meantime, “motivated by the need to respond to the good of these faithful, through my own disposition,” he declared that those who approach priests of the society for confession during the jubilee “shall validly and licitly receive the absolution of their sins.”
Pope Francis also turned to those who, due to reasons of age, illness or incarceration, will not be able to walk through the Holy Doors in Rome in order to obtain the plenary indulgence connected with the jubilee.
Each of the four major basilicas in Rome has a holy door, which are normally sealed shut from the inside so that they cannot be opened. The doors are only opened during jubilee years, so that pilgrims can enter through them in order to gain the indulgence.
In May it was announced that as part of the Year for Mercy, holy doors will for the first time be designated in dioceses and will be located either in the cathedral or in a church of special significance or a shrine of particular importance for pilgrimages.
For the elderly and sick, often confined to their homes, the Pope said that living their illness and suffering with “joyful hope” and attending Mass, receiving Communion and participating in community prayer, “even through the various means of communication,” is a way that they can receive the jubilee indulgence.
In regards to prisoners, Francis said that they will be able to obtain the indulgence in the chapels of the prisons.
He said that directing their thoughts and prayers to God each time they cross the door of their cells would signify their passage through the Holy Door, “because the mercy of God is able to transform hearts and is also able to transform bars into an experience of freedom.”
The Pope also pointed to how a jubilee indulgence can be obtained for the deceased and encouraged prayer for them during Mass, that “the merciful face of the Father” free them of the remainder of every fault.
Francis then turned to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, explaining that the experience of mercy “becomes visible in the witness of concrete signs, as Jesus himself taught us.”
Therefore, each time that someone personally performs one or more of the 13 works of mercy, such as feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, burying the dead, willingly forgiving offenses, comforting the afflicted or praying for the living and dead, that person will “surely obtain the jubilee indulgence.”
For all those who will celebrate and experience the grace of the jubilee either as pilgrims in Rome or in their individual dioceses, Francis prayed that the indulgence would be “a genuine experience of God’s mercy” for each one.
He affirmed that in order to receive the indulgence one must make a pilgrimage to the Holy Door, either in Rome or in their diocese, “as a sign of the deep desire for true conversion.”
In addition to the cathedrals and shrines where the Holy Door of Mercy will be opened, the Pope also designated that the indulgence could be attained in the churches traditionally identified as Jubilee churches.
He stressed the importance of remembering that the reception of the indulgence must be linked “first and foremost to the sacrament of reconciliation and to the celebration of the holy Eucharist, with a reflection on mercy.”
It will be necessary, he said, “to accompany these celebrations with the profession of faith and with prayer for me and for the intentions that I bear in my heart for the good of the Church and of the entire world.”