Archbishop Charles Scicluna has praised Pope Francis’ decision to allow priests to forgive abortion during the Catholic Church’s forthcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy.

“It is welcome news which brings the mercy of the Lord very close to people who are going through great suffering,” Mgr Scicluna told the Times of Malta.

“It reiterates the fact that abortion is evil but that no person is excluded from the embrace of the Lord, and emphasises in a very positive way the healing effects of God’s mercy.”

Abortion is considered by the church to be a grave sin, and those who procure or perform it incur an automatic excommunication, which can only be lifted by a senior church official.

In a letter published by the Vatican on Tuesday, however, the Pope extended the permission to absolve women who have had an abortion to all priests for the duration of the upcoming ecclesiastical year. The Pope described the “existential and moral ordeal” faced by women who have terminated pregnancies and said he had “met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision”.

It reiterates the fact that abortion is evil but that no person is excluded from the embrace of the Lord

Mgr Scicluna said the move confirmed a “well-established custom” whereby the Bishops in Malta authorise priests to absolve excommunications linked to abortion every Lent.

He also pointed out that priests working in Rome had the same authorisation for the duration of their work, and that he himself had this authorisation for 17 years while he worked in Rome.

“This is something that happens in the Diocese of Malta and Gozo every year, but it is quite a special thing that it is now coming from the Pope himself.”

Asked why the prerogative should not be extended to all priests year-round, Mgr Scicluna said only that the move marked the year as “a special moment of compassion, a new beginning”.

Meanwhile, Gift of Life president Paul Vincenti played down the significance of the gesture.

“If a person is religiously inclined, then it would be helpful, but for many people it’s not much consolation,” he said.

“I get the forgiveness aspect, but it’s not as simple as that; usually there are quite deep psychological issues that need to be addressed. Mr Vincenti also said the gesture might “hit the wrong note” for non-practising Catholics, suggesting that only the Church had the power to forgive.

However, he said he was not concerned that the decision might be interpreted as a softening of the Church’s position on abortion.

“I never look at it from a religious point of view. Obviously the Church has an influence, but nobody is going to become more pro-abortion because the Church has forgiven some of its members.”

The Jubilee year starts on December 8, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and ends on November 20, the feast of Christ the King, in 2016.

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