ROME, ITALY (CNA/EWTN News) - Although the Jubilee of Mercy has ended, Pope Francis has decided that some of the novelties he applied to the Church during the Holy Year will continue.
He is allowing all priests to absolve the sin of abortion from here on out, while SSPX priests will be able to continue hearing confessions validly.
"That's been common practice here for a long time, " said Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo. "For us here in Buffalo or in most of the United States since the early 80's the bishops have had the possibility of extending that permission to all the priests of our diocese and, since the time of Bishop Edward Head back in the eighties, every priest in the Diocese of Buffalo is given that permission to absolve. "
"The Pope makes it clear again that the Church considers abortion a grave moral evil, a very serious sin, but he's saying we should never let that keep us from, in as simple and loving way as we can, inviting people to be touched by the mercy of God in the sacrament of Confession."
The Pope announced his decision in his new Apostolic Letter "Misericordia et Misera," meaning "Mercy with Misery." Published Nov. 21, the letter was signed by the Pope Nov. 20 during Mass for the close of the Jubilee of Mercy. In addition, he has indefinitely extended the mandate of the Missionaries of Mercy and has decided to institute the World Day for the Poor, which will take place each year on the Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time.
In the letter, Pope Francis said that "the Sacrament of Reconciliation must regain its central place in the Christian life."
"Given this need, lest any obstacle arise between the request for reconciliation and God's forgiveness, I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion," the letter read.
The provision made for the duration of the Extraordinary Holy Year "is hereby extended, notwithstanding anything to the contrary."
Pope Francis firmly stressed that "abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life," but insisted 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."
The Pope had initially declared that all priests could forgive the sin of abortion in a set of pastoral guidelines for the Jubilee issues Sept. 1, 2015, in which he also granted SSPX priests the faculty to forgive sins in confession.
A woman who obtains an abortion automatically incurs a "latae sententiae" excommunication, along with those who assisted her in the process. Because of this excommunication, the sin of abortion can normally only be absolved by a bishop, or certain priests appointed by him.
For specific occasions such as Advent or Lent, some bishops extend this faculty to all priests within their diocese. In the U.S., the faculty to absolve abortion has already been delegated to all priests.
However, the Pope's new provisions take it to a universal level.
In his new apostolic letter, Pope Francis also extended his decree allowing SSPX priests to hear valid confessions.
He noted how during the Jubilee, he allowed "that those faithful who, for various reasons, attend churches officiated by the priests of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X, can validly and licitly receive the sacramental absolution of their sins."
"For the pastoral benefit of these faithful, and trusting in the good will of their priests to strive with God's help for the recovery of full communion in the Catholic Church, I have personally decided to extend this faculty beyond the Jubilee Year, until further provisions are made, lest anyone ever be deprived of the sacramental sign of reconciliation through the Church's pardon."
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.
Pope Francis has taken several steps to move forward on the path of full unification with the SSPX Society, including the offer of a personal prelature, which is a Church jurisdiction without geographical boundaries designed to carry out particular pastoral initiatives. At present, the only personal prelature in the Church is Opus Dei. However, the Society has so far rejected this proposal.
As another sign of his push for this emphasis on mercy to continue beyond the Jubilee, Francis also extended the special faculties given to the Missionaries of Mercy.
On Ash Wednesday, more than 1,000 priests were sent out around the world as ambassadors of mercy.
Selected from every continent, the Missionaries of Mercy placed a special emphasis on their role as preachers and confessors.
They were given two special faculties that are usually unavailable to the average priest, the first being that they were not limited in geographic location in terms of hearing confessions.
Usually a priest has to ask permission from the local bishop before hearing confessions in a diocese other than their own, however for the Missionaries of Mercy that was not the case.
A second aspect of the Missionaries' mission was that they were able to absolve sins in cases otherwise reserved to the Holy See. Though there are several such sins, the Holy See clarified that the faculties of the Missionaries of Mercy were limited to just four: Profaning the Eucharistic species by taking them away or keeping them for a sacrilegious purpose; the use of physical force against the Roman Pontiff; the absolution of an accomplice in a sin against the Sixth Commandment ("thou shalt not commit adultery") and a direct violation against the sacramental seal by a confessor.
Bishops were encouraged to contact Missionaries of Mercy in nearby dioceses and invite them to come to their own.
In his letter, the Pope thanked the missionaries for their "valuable service aimed at rendering effective the grace of forgiveness."
"This extraordinary ministry does not end with the closing of the Holy Door," he said, voicing his desire for their ministry "to continue until further notice as a concrete sign that the grace of the Jubilee remains alive and effective the world over."
As a "direct expression of my concern and proximity" to the Missionaries, Pope Francis said the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization will oversee them and "find the most suitable forms for the exercise of this valuable ministry."
Francis stressed in his letter that "this is the time of mercy. Each day of our journey is marked by God's presence."
"It is the time of mercy for each and all, since no one can think that he or she is cut off from God's closeness and the power of his tender love," he said, and pointed especially to those who are weak, vulnerable and excluded.
He said it is also a special time of mercy for them "because the poor should feel that they are regarded with respect and concern by others who have overcome indifference and discovered what is essential in life."
Francis said that during the special Nov. 11-13 Jubilee for the Socially Excluded, as all Holy Doors around the world apart from that of St Peter's Basilica were closing, "I had the idea that, as yet another tangible sign of this Extraordinary Holy Year, the entire Church might celebrate, on the Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, the World Day of the Poor."
"This would be the worthiest way to prepare for the celebration of the Solemnity of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, who identified with the little ones and the poor and who will judge us on our works of mercy," he said, adding that the day would also help both communities and individuals "to reflect on how poverty is at the very heart of the Gospel and that, as long as Lazarus lies at the door of our homes, there can be no justice or social peace."
"This Day will also represent a genuine form of new evangelization which can renew the face of the Church as She perseveres in her perennial activity of pastoral conversion and witness to mercy," he said.
Francis noted that during "an intense" Jubilee Year, "we have received the grace of mercy in abundance."
"Because each of us has experienced at length this loving gaze of God, we cannot remain unaffected, for it changes our lives," he said, encouraging all to become witnesses of mercy.
The Jubilee, he said, "has truly been like a new visitation of the Lord among us."
The Pope placed a strong emphasis on the topic of forgiveness throughout the document, as well as the need to look forward and continue the Jubilee path "with joy, fidelity and enthusiasm, experiencing the richness of God's mercy."
Mercy ought to be "celebrated," he said, above all in the liturgy and in the Sacraments, particularly those of penance and the anointing of the sick, as well as in scripture and, for priests, in their homilies.
He spoke of the importance of showing compassion and consolation to others, and offered a special word of closeness to families and married couples amid the various challenges they face.
"We have to remember each of us carries the richness and the burdens of our personal history; this is what makes us different from everyone else," he said.
"Our life, with its joys and sorrows, is something unique and unrepeatable that takes place under the merciful gaze of God."
Pope Francis also spoke of the importance of mercy at the time of death, which is often trivialized "to the point of treating it as an illusion or hiding it from sight."
"Yet death must be faced and prepared for as a painful and inescapable passage, yet one charged with immense meaning, for it is the ultimate act of love towards those we leave behind and towards God whom we go forth to meet," he said, and emphasized the importance of the priest in sharing in this moment.
He also placed a strong emphasis on practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, which he said are "proof of mercy's immense positive influence as a social value" in modern society.
Mercy, he said, "impels us to roll up our sleeves and set about restoring dignity to millions of people; they are our brothers and sisters who, with us, are called to build a city which is reliable."
While many signs of mercy were carried out during the Jubilee, "this is not enough," he said.
"Our world continues to create new forms of spiritual and material poverty that assault human dignity." Because of this, "the Church must always be vigilant and ready to identify new works of mercy and to practise them with generosity and enthusiasm."
Francis encouraged the faithful to "make every effort" to come up with both "specific and responsible" ways of practising charity and the works of mercy.
"Mercy is inclusive and tends to expand in a way that knows no limits. Hence we are called to give new expression to the traditional works of mercy," he said.
He closed his letter by looking to Mary, "who always looks upon us with her eyes of mercy."
"Let us trust in her maternal assistance and follow her perennial counsel to look to Jesus, the radiant face of God's mercy."
George Richert contributed to this story.