Wishing to 'unleash creativity of mercy,' Francis gives all priests power to forgive abortion

Vatican City — Pope Francis has called on Catholics around the world to “unleash the creativity of mercy” following the end of his special Jubilee year, writing in a new apostolic letter that while the year’s Holy Doors have closed “the door of mercy of our heart continues to remain wide open.”

In the document Misericordia et misera (“Mercy with misery”), released Monday, the pontiff also extends for an unspecified period two powers he had given to priests during the Holy Year.

The pope will continue to allow all priests to absolve those who confess to having had of helped with abortions, an ability normally reserved only to bishops in some places, and will also continue to grant priests of the schismatic Society of St. Pius X faculties to offer absolution of sins to those who approach them for confession.

“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,” Francis writes in the document. “May every priest, therefore, be a guide, support and comfort to penitents.”

The document, which takes its name from a phrase by 4th-century St. Augustine of Hippo, is comprised of 22 short sections over ten pages. It was signed by Francis at the end of the Mass closing the Jubilee year on Sunday.

In the text Francis also announces he will continue “until further notice” the mandate of the "Missionaries of Mercy," priests who had been selected during the Holy Year to hear confessions around the world and who were granted "the authority to pardon even those sins reserved to the Holy See."

In a sign of his concern for those experiencing poverty, the pontiff also announces that the church will now celebrate a new “World Day of the Poor” on the second-to-last Sunday of each liturgical year, which normally falls in mid-November.

“Mercy cannot become a mere parenthesis in the life of the Church; it constitutes her very existence, through which the profound truths of the Gospel are made manifest and tangible,” Francis states in the document. “Everything is revealed in mercy; everything is resolved in the merciful love of the Father.”

The phrase “mercy with misery” comes from a reflection Augustine wrote about the Gospel story of Jesus’ meeting with a woman accused of adultery. When those accusing her threaten to stone her, Jesus asks the one who had never sinned to throw the first stone. After the accusers depart, Jesus tells her: “Go from now on do not sin anymore.”

“Forgiveness is the most visible sign of the Father’s love, which Jesus sought to reveal by his entire life,” states the pontiff. “Every page of the Gospel is marked by this imperative of a love that loves to the point of forgiveness. Even at the last moment of his earthly life, as he was being nailed to the cross, Jesus spoke words of forgiveness.”

The pope also reflects in the document on the role of mercy in the church’s liturgical celebrations, focusing on how mercy is invoked in the different Eucharistic prayers and in the different moments of the celebration of the Mass.

“In a word, each moment of the Eucharistic celebration refers to God’s mercy,” states the pontiff, before mentioning how mercy also plays a vital role in the sacraments of reconciliation and anointing of the sick.

“In the Church’s prayer, then, references to mercy, far from being merely exhortative, are highly performative, which is to say that as we invoke mercy with faith, it is granted to us, and as we confess it to be vital and real, it transforms us,” writes Francis. “This is a fundamental element of our faith, and we must keep it constantly in mind.”

“Even before the revelation of sin, there is the revelation of the love by which God created the world and human beings,” the pope continues. “Love is the first act whereby God reveals himself and turns towards us. So let us open our hearts and trust in God’s love for us. His love always precedes us, accompanies us and remains with us, despite our sin.”

Francis also encourages priests to stress mercy in their homilies during Mass, stating: “A priest’s preaching will be fruitful to the extent that he himself has experienced the merciful goodness of the Lord.”

“Communicating the certainty that God loves us is not an exercise in rhetoric, but a condition for the credibility of one’s priesthood,” writes the pontiff. “The personal experience of mercy is the best way to make it a true message of consolation and conversion in the pastoral ministry.”

Later in the document, Francis focuses on those around the world living in difficult conditions, particularly those suffering from hunger or thirst; those migrating in search of work or food; and those imprisoned in inhumane conditions.

“The social character of mercy demands that we not simply stand by and do nothing,” he states, before announcing the new “World Day of the Poor.” “It requires us to banish indifference and hypocrisy, lest our plans and projects remain a dead letter.”

A Jubilee year is a special year called by the church to receive blessing and pardon from God and remission of sins. The pope surprised the world in March 2015 with announcement of a special Jubilee year for mercy, which had not been previously scheduled. The Holy Year officially ran from Dec. 8, 2015 through Sunday.

Holy Years are normally marked by the opening of holy doors at Rome’s four major basilicas, which pilgrims can walk through as part of a process of receiving forgiveness. For the first time in the centuries of Jubilee years, the pope also asked that holy doors be open in cathedrals around the world during the Jubilee for mercy.

Archbishop Rino Fisichella, the president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, said during a press conference at the Vatican Monday that some 21 million people had come to Rome for the Holy Year and that some 900 million had been recorded as walking through Holy Doors around the world.

Francis had originally granted the special powers to priests in a September 2015 letter that expanded the traditional indulgences available to Catholics Jubilee for mercy.

The Society of St. Pius X was founded by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970 as a response to objections he and others had to the reforms of the Council.

Pope Benedict XVI had sought to repair relations with the group, lifting the excommunications of four of their bishops in 2009. Those efforts ultimately failed when the group's current superior general, Bishop Bernard Fellay, rejected a doctrinal statement drafted by the Vatican for the group to sign.

Members of the schismatic group are considered not to be in full communion with Rome, and, in normal circumstances, its priests and bishops cannot exercise Roman Catholic ministry.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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