Emphasizing that God’s mercy extends to the most wounded sinners who confess and repent of their sins, Pope Francis opened the Year of Mercy by giving priests worldwide the faculties to absolve the sin of abortion.
Many American Catholics were confused by the pope’s edict because it was not commonly known that procuring or participating in an abortion cannot be absolved by priests without specific permission from their bishops. Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz swiftly issued a statement to reassure local Catholics that priests in the Archdiocese of Anchorage have always received this faculty, as have priests from their bishops all across the United States.
“The image that I like to use for this is the fountain of mercy, which we approach in the sacrament of reconciliation, and it does not run dry,” said Dominican priest Father Mark Francis Manzano of Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage, a parish that offers the sacrament of reconciliation every weekday during the lunch hour.
“There is nothing that the penitent, when he or she confesses humbly, cannot be forgiven of,” Father Manzano said. “This power that the pope has given to every priest underscores this.”
Still, Father Manzano anticipated that there would likely be some confusion about this announcement.
“I knew that the secular media would find a way to say that there was an inability to receive forgiveness for the sin of abortion before this point, which is not the case,” he said. “In my almost five years as a priest, I have never encountered a priest whose own bishop hasn’t granted him the ability to absolve abortion.”
Carol Szopa volunteers for the Project Rachel chapter in Anchorage, a national Catholic organization which ministers to those who have participated in abortion. Through meetings centering around Scripture, prayer and fellowship, Project Rachel provides a safe and healing place where the grief of abortion, often hidden and unexpressed, can be openly acknowledged and healed.
“Basically, we have a bunch of people who are walking around grieving,” Szopa explained. “They are grieving the loss of their child, and they don’t have a tool or anywhere they can go to have consolation. But we are there. That’s what we’re for.”
In Szopa experience, she has noticed that it is often shame associated with an unplanned pregnancy which leads Catholic women to choose abortion.
“Anecdotally, college is a time when abortions happen, because they are scared,” Szopa said. “They don’t know where to turn because they are afraid they’ll be rejected by their Catholic community or parents. They don’t want to disappoint people. Also, not every Catholic is brought up with the same understanding about Catholic teaching.”
Szopa added, “Most women feel coerced in one way or the other. I don’t think that’s a religious thing. It’s an experience across the board.”
She is grateful for the recent papal announcement.
“Part of Project Rachel is to recommend participants to the sacrament of reconciliation,” Szopa said. “There has to be forgiveness from God. People who participate in abortion have to be able to say they’re sorry to God.”
Father Mark Francis has first hand experience of people confessing abortion in the confessional.
“The times that I’ve had a penitent come to confession and acknowledge an abortion, it’s usually after a very long time,” he said. “I immediately think to myself, ‘God be praised that this person has responded to the grace, that nudging, however long it took, and the person is seeking God, seeking forgiveness.’”
“By ‘long time,’ I mean years,” he explained. “At least a year. I can hear the physical sigh or tears beginning. A huge weight is gone. What a grace that I get to be a part of that. It’s a very delicate confession. There are always lots of tears. Not just tears of repentance but tears of rejoicing that there is forgiveness. They didn’t have to despair. Whatever obstacle was keeping them from coming to confession for so long is gone. It’s a beautiful moment.”
Szopa observed that, even after coming to repentance and confessing the sin of abortion, many people remain entrenched in shame and guilt.
“For some, they continually confess over and over again — it’s because self-forgiveness isn’t there,” she said. “Sometimes they need a bit more. To talk about the experience, to name the child.”
Many people, Szopa said, feel judged by the church and don’t feel worthy to come to Mass, even though they’ve been to confession.
“There’s a whole other piece of healing that has to take place for people to actually recover from abortion,” she explained. “The part that needs to be there is self-forgiveness, and that’s really the hardest part. That’s what Project Rachel does.”
Szopa emphasized that Project Rachel is not just for women. Men also participate in abortion and share in the effects of the loss of a child. Project Rachel ministers to men also, providing a safe space in which to come to terms with the reality of the loss and to grieve. Everyone is welcome.
“I think people can rationalize what they’re doing at a time when there is so much stress and pressure,” Szopa observed. “Even if you’ve taken someone to get an abortion, to drop them off, to give them money. Those are wounds that have to be healed as well.”
When people come for forgiveness, Father Francis emphasizes God’s mercy and willingness to restore what sin has separated.
“I mention the state of grace, of being restored to God’s friendship to be on good terms with God,” he said. “I always say, ‘Welcome back.’ When someone receives absolution, I get to see and experience with my hand outstretched the tears, the liberation that’s happening. You can see the spiritual change unfettered. It’s humbling.”