Making universal a practice common in most U.S. dioceses, Pope Francis on Tuesday authorized all priests to offer forgiveness "for the sin of abortion" during the Roman Catholic Church's Holy Year of Mercy, beginning in December.
In a letter to the president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, Francis instructed priests to both welcome women who seek forgiveness for terminating a pregnancy and reflect with them on "the gravity of the sin committed."
"I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision," Francis wrote. "What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope."
The pope's effort to make absolution more accessible to all precedes his first visit to the U.S., where abortion is one of the primary political issues dividing the Catholic Church. It also precedes an October meeting where bishops will discuss how Catholics who have divorced and remarried can once again receive the sacraments.
While some believe Francis is setting the stage for his American trip and the synod on the family, others believe he is mapping a longer view for his pontificate.
"It's an extension of the themes he's identified and prioritized since the start of his papacy," said Michael Budde, senior research scholar at DePaul University's Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology. "He takes church teaching seriously but he's persuaded that there is a need to drastically reconceptualize some of the pastoral implications, to say God is love and God is merciful."
The Catholic Church teaches that women who know the church's opposition to abortion, but still seek one, excommunicate themselves. They must abstain from receiving communion until they receive absolution. Vatican officials say many bishops have granted priests the permission to offer forgiveness, but it's less common outside the U.S. and in Eastern Rite churches. The pope's indulgence will make the process universal.
Still, priests across the Chicago Archdiocese breathed a sigh of relief, expressing hope that the indulgence will be a teachable moment for clergy, congregants and people who have left the church.
"It's things like abortion that have made some people ashamed to the point that they don't even come to church anymore because they feel they're not worthy of acceptance by the church, community or of God's forgiveness," said the Rev. Tom Walsh, pastor of St. Martin de Porres Church on the West Side. "Why I'm pleased about the pope making this announcement is he's opening the doors of discussion of how we can bring healing."
In the letter, Francis offered his own reflection on the dilemma facing some women, regardless of whether they know the church's view on the practice.
"The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails," Francis wrote. "Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option.
"I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion," he continued. "I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal."
In March, Francis announced a jubilee year to be called the Holy Year of Mercy. The jubilee will begin on Dec. 8, the Catholic feast of the Immaculate Conception, and end on Nov. 20, 2016, the church's feast day of Christ the King.
A jubilee year is a special year called by the church to receive blessings and pardon from God. Popes have designated jubilee years every 25 or 50 years since the early 14th century. Pope John Paul II called the most recent jubilee year in 2000.
"Pope Francis' statement … does serve as a kind of information alert for a group of disenfranchised women who have felt unwelcome by the Church," said Candida Moss, professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame.
"Even though John Paul II used much the same language and forgiveness has always been available — albeit through more formal channels — but that message wasn't out there because the rhetoric that accompanies abortion is so elevated that it eclipses the church's teaching on forgiveness and mercy," Moss said
To take advantage of the indulgence, the faithful are traditionally asked to make a pilgrimage to Rome or to their local cathedral, make confession, participate in Mass and pray for the pope's intentions. However, the pope added in his letter that the sick and incarcerated should be granted indulgence as well, even if they can't meet all of the requirements.
Tommie Romano, 78, of Skokie confessed to a priest in 1981 for the abortion she had four years earlier. She has been a faithful Catholic and anti-abortion activist ever since. She worries that women like her won't understand that the pope is reiterating something that has been in place for a while and will wonder if their forgiveness back then was real.
But she also hopes it will encourage women to come forward if they haven't already and start the healing process.
"The hardest thing was forgiving myself," she said. "I believe the Lord heals."