Earlier this week, the Holy Father, in a letter to the Archbishop President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, announced the Jubilee Indulgence for the forthcoming Extraordinary Jubilee year, the Holy Year of Mercy. The celebration of God’s grace and mercy is, of course, central to the celebration of every Jubilee. And so a key component of the ritual of a Holy Year is that one goes on pilgrimage and passes through the Holy Doors of the papal basilicas – either actually or equivalently – and receives the favor of the Jubilee Indulgence. The Pope provides in his letter for those able to make this traditional pilgrimage - and also, as was likewise the case during the last Jubilee Year, for those who make their pilgrimage closer to home at the local cathedral or some other specially designated church. Pope Francis also makes appropriate provision not only for “the sick and people who are elderly and alone, often confined to the home,” but also for “those incarcerated, whose freedom is limited” and whom he will allow to “obtain the Indulgence in the chapels of the prisons.“ For Jubilees, the Pope reminds us, have “always constituted an opportunity for great amnesty, which is intended to include the many people who, despite deserving punishment, have become conscious of the injustice they worked and sincerely wish to re-enter society and make their honest contribution to it.” Now that’s a message of mercy that seems especially apt for our obsessively incarceration-oriented American society!
But what has attracted the most attention is not the traditional provisions for the indulgence nor his moving invitation to heighten the practice of the works of mercy during the Holy Year, but two other issues the Pope addressed in his letter. The first concerns those involved in the sin of abortion, his treatment of which reveals a lot about Pope Francis' particularly personal approach and so deserves more complete quotation.
“One of the serious problems of our time is clearly the changed relationship with respect to life. A widespread and insensitive mentality has led to the loss of the proper personal and social sensitivity to welcome new life. The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails. Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe they they have no other option. I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision. What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope. The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the Sacrament of Confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father. For this reason too, I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.”
Of course in a world in which the media (and many Catholics) are clueless about such matters, this has been presented as some radical novelty. In fact, while church law does indeed attach an automatic penalty of excommunication to abortion (provided certain stringent conditions are met) and generally reserves the removal that penalty to the local bishop, it is quite common here in the United States for bishops to grant the faculty to do so to all priests. If this is not also the case in some other jurisdictions, then the Pope’s action will universalize this possibility for everyone, everywhere, at least during the Holy Year. That is certainly a tangible benefit. That said, the more practical import of this in the United States, I think, is in how it shifts the focus of attention from the public policy battle about abortion to the painful and difficult circumstances and pressures which so often surround the decision for abortion and so emphasizes the Church’s commitment to meet people who suffer from their involvement in this evil.
The other thing the Pope did in this letter that has gotten banner headlines (at least in certain circles) was his decision – in one sense more radical than his action about abortion - to extend the faculty to hear confessions to priests of the schismatic Lefebvrist Society of Saint Pius X. The prospects for their ultimate reconciliation with the Church have long been bogged down in theological disputation. Meanwhile, as the Pope notes in his letter, “an uneasy situation from the pastoral standpoint” has been created for those who sincerely seek the sacraments from priests of that society. The theological issues which are at issue in that society’s irregular situation and in the choice of some to seek the sacraments in that environment are not insignificant. But the Pope is again reminding us that “mercy excludes no one,” and that the good of souls must always be the Church’s priority in the policies it adopts.
And who knows if this bold move may be yet another step in healing the wounds so tragically opened in the Church by post-conciliar factionalism? A Church that thinks of itself as - to use Pope Francis' favorite image (inspired very likely by Alessandro Manzoni's novel I Promessi Sposi) - of the Church as a "field hospital," will want to find ways to get everyone inside and keep them there.