Pope extends special Year of Mercy provisions on confession

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Acknowledging and sharing God’s
mercy is a permanent part of the Christian life, so initiatives undertaken
during the special Year of Mercy must continue, Pope Francis said.

“Mercy cannot become a mere parenthesis in the life
of the church,” the pope wrote in an apostolic letter, “Misericordia
et Misera,” (“Mercy and Misery”), which he signed Nov. 20 at the
end of the Year of Mercy. The Vatican released the text the next day.

The Catholic Church’s focus on God’s mercy must continue
with individual acts of kindness, assistance to the poor and, particularly,
with encouraging Catholics to participate in the sacrament of reconciliation
and making it easier for them to do so, the pope wrote.

In his letter, Pope Francis said he formally was giving
all priests permanent permission to grant absolution to those who confess to
having procured an abortion. While many bishops around the world, and almost
all bishops in the United States, routinely grant that faculty to all their
priests, Pope Francis had made it universal during the Holy Year.

According to canon law, procuring an abortion brings
automatic excommunication to those who know of the penalty, but procure the
abortion anyway. Without formal permission, priests had been required to refer
the case to their bishops before the excommunication could be lifted and sacramental
absolution could be granted to a woman who had an abortion or those directly
involved in the procedure.

“I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion
is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life,” the pope wrote.
“In the same way, however, I can and must state 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.”

to reporters during a Vatican news conference Nov. 21, Archbishop Rino
Fisichella said procuring an abortion still results in automatic
excommunication the very moment the procedure is carried out.

absolution, therefore, is not just forgiving the sin of abortion, but also
means “the excommunication is removed,” he said.

that all priests have been given the faculty to lift the excommunication and
grant absolution, the Code of Canon Law will have to be updated, said the
archbishop, who is president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New
Evangelization, the office that organized events for the Year of Mercy.

The pope also formally extended the provision he made
during the Year of Mercy of recognizing as valid the sacramental absolution
received by “those faithful who, for various reasons, attend churches
officiated by the priests of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X,” the
traditionalist society founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

Although the Vatican and the society continue talks aimed
at formally restoring the society’s full communion with the church, Pope
Francis said he was extending the pastoral provision “lest anyone ever be
deprived of the sacramental sign of reconciliation through the church’s

The title of the document is taken from a sermon by St.
Augustine about Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery. After those
who wanted to stone her slinked away, only Jesus and the woman — mercy and
misery — remained.

In the Gospel story, the pope wrote, and in the
sacraments of the church, particularly confession and the anointing of the
sick, “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,” as it
did with the woman caught in adultery.

“This is a fundamental element of our faith,”
Pope Francis wrote.

“Even before the revelation of sin, there is the
revelation of the love by which God created the world and human beings,”
he wrote. “His love always precedes us, accompanies us and remains with
us, despite our sin.”

In celebrating and welcoming God’s love and mercy, he
said, a special place in the church must be given to families, especially at a
time when the very meaning of family is in crisis.

“The beauty of the family endures unchanged, despite
so many problems and alternative proposals,” he said. “The grace of
the sacrament of marriage not only strengthens the family to be a privileged
place for practicing mercy, but also commits the Christian community and all
its pastoral activity to uphold the great positive value of the family.”

Still, he wrote, “the experience of mercy enables us
to regard all human problems from the standpoint of God’s love, which never
tires of welcoming and accompanying,” even in situations marked by failure
or sin.

“Our life, with its joys and sorrows, is something
unique and unrepeatable that takes place under the merciful gaze of God,”
he said. In counseling couples priests must use “a careful, profound and
far-sighted spiritual discernment, so that everyone, none excluded, can feel accepted
by God, participate actively in the life of the community and be part of that
People of God which journeys tirelessly toward the fullness of his kingdom of
justice, love, forgiveness and mercy.”

“Nothing of what a repentant sinner places before
God’s mercy can be excluded from the embrace of his forgiveness,” the pope
wrote. “For this reason, none of us has the right to make forgiveness

In the letter, Pope Francis also asked dioceses that have
not yet done so to consider joining the “24 Hours for the Lord”
initiative. Near the fourth Sunday of Lent, dioceses choose a church or
churches to stay open for 24 hours to offer the sacrament of reconciliation and
eucharistic adoration. The pope opens the Rome celebration with a penance service
in St. Peter’s Basilica.

After his Year of Mercy celebration Nov. 13 with the
homeless and other people who are “socially excluded,” the pope wrote
that he would like a similar celebration to be held annually in every diocese.

“The entire church might celebrate, on the 33rd
Sunday of Ordinary Time, the World Day of the Poor,” he said. The
celebration, a week before the feast of Christ the King, would be “the
worthiest way to prepare” to acknowledge the kingship of Christ, “who
identified with the little ones and the poor and who will judge us on our works
of mercy.”

“It would be a day to help communities and each of
the baptized 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,” he said.

Calling the Bible “the great story of the marvels of
God’s mercy,” Pope Francis also asked every Catholic parish in the world
to set aside at least one Sunday a year to promote reading, studying and
praying with the Scriptures.

Teaching people “lectio divina,” the prayerful
reading of the Bible, especially when focused on texts that speak of God’s
mercy and love, will help “give rise to concrete gestures and works of
charity,” he wrote.

In another continuation of a Year of Mercy project, Pope
Francis asked the more than 1,100 priests he commissioned as “missionaries
of mercy” to continue leading retreats, missions, prayer services and
offering confession in dioceses around the world.

“Their pastoral activity sought to emphasize that
God places no roadblocks in the way of those who seek him with a contrite
heart, because he goes out to meet everyone like a father,” the pope said.

While he said he did not have specifics about how the
missionaries’ work should continue, Pope Francis said the Pontifical Council
for the Promotion of the New Evangelization “will supervise them and find
the most suitable forms for the exercise of this valuable ministry.”

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Contributing to this story was Carol Glatz at the Vatican.

Follow on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden and @CarolGlatz.

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