Pope Francis will allow Roman Catholic priests to absolve women who have had abortions if they seek forgiveness during the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy, the Vatican announced Tuesday.
The pontiff said he will allow priests "discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it" during the special year, beginning December 8.
"I am well aware of the pressure that has led [women] to this decision," he wrote in the announcement. "I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal."
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Abortion is considered a grave sin by the Catholic church, and those who seek it are usually excommunicated. In normal circumstances, forgiveness can only be granted by senior church figures.
Pope Francis announced in March that the holy year, which runs until Nov. 20, 2016, was a way to promote inclusiveness, saying the church could "make more evident its mission to be a witness of mercy."
In a letter published online on Tuesday, he said: "The experience of mercy, indeed, becomes visible in the witness of concrete signs as Jesus himself taught us."
He implored priests who offered forgiveness for abortion to "fulfil 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."
This story originally appeared on NBCNews.com