The Holy Year of Mercy — a Catholic tradition that begins Nov. 29 — offers special indulgences for believers’ sins.
“May priests fulfill this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed, besides indicating a path of authentic conversion by which to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence,” Pope Francis said in his letter to the Archbishop Rino Fisichella.
The Pope’s decision to grant all priests the authority to absolve sins of abortion will not change Catholic doctrine, and will only be in place until the end of the Holy Year in Nov. 2016.
“The idea of a Holy Year is when we ask, ‘How do we invite people back in the Church who might have drifted away?” said Michael Lasky, pastor and campus minister at UNC Newman Catholic Student Center Parish.
The Holy Year typically only comes once every 25 to 50 years, with the most recent in 2000.
“Pope Francis is just pulling this one out of nowhere,” Lasky said. “Not nowhere — it’s somewhere in his heart — but he has seen so much of the suffering that people carry in the world and he’s saying, ‘Let’s bring everybody home.’”
Pope Francis said in his letter that women should be given an opportunity to repent.
“I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision,” he said.
But in the U.S. and Canada, priests already have the authority — or faculty, described by the Pope — said David Hains, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte.
“In the Catholic Church, a person who has an abortion or participates in an abortion commits this very serious, very grave sin,” Hains said. “During the Holy Year of Mercy, all priests will have the authority to absolve someone who comes to them and confesses to this sin.”
He said the Catholic Church revised Canonical law in 1983 to give priests the authority to absolve higher-order sins, including abortion. Before 1983, this faculty was within bishops’ jurisdiction, though they could grant priests the power to absolve sin in their name.
But many priests and bishops trained in pre-1983 Catholicism still think “in the old way,” said Evyatar Marienberg, UNC religious studies professor.
He said for them, the Pope’s announcement will have a greater effect.
“Legally speaking, his statement changes little. But for people’s mentality, it makes a difference,” Marienberg said. “His statement has a pastoral flavor, or a moral flavor, rather than a legal flavor.”
But Lasky said laws are necessary to guide the church, regardless of any distinction between morality and legality.
“Law is meant to create space and freedom,” he said. “It’s meant to create creativity and grace — and what (Pope Francis) is trying to do is open the floodgates of all of that by extending this faculty to all priests around the world.”