Pope Francis will send out "missionaries of mercy" to forgive sins all over the world next year, including transgressions such as abortion, which is usually reserved for high-ranking officials to absolve.
The Catholic Church opposes all forms of abortion according to its Canon law, and undergoing the procedure can result in automatic excommunication. Usually, it can only be forgiven by bishops or the Pope, but as part of Francis' Holy Year of Mercy beginning in December, women who have had abortions and doctors that have performed them may seek absolution from specially designated priests.
"The missionaries of mercy are priests sent out by the Holy Father at the beginning of Lent. The Pope is sending them out [to dioceses and parishes] as a concrete sign of how a priest should be a man of pardon, close to everyone," Archbishop Rino Fisichella, the president of the Pontifical Council organising Holy Year events, told reporters at the Vatican on Tuesday.
Fisichella added that those priests chosen for the task will be patient, good at taking confession and have "an understanding of human fragility".
The motto of the Holy Year is 'Merciful like the Father' and its logo, unveiled by Fisichella, shows Jesus carrying a man over his shoulders. This "serves as an invitation to follow the merciful example of the Father who asks us not to judge or condemn but to forgive and to give love and forgiveness without measure," the archbishop said.
In his Bull of Indiction, a document explaining the purpose and intention of the Holy Year, Pope Francis implored the Church to show more grace. "Wherever there are Christians, everyone should find an oasis of mercy," he said.
"Mercy is the very foundation of the Church's life. The Church's very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love."
It was in this document that Francis first outlined his plan to send out the Missionaries of Mercy. "They will be a sign of the Church's maternal solicitude for the People of God, enabling them to enter the profound richness of this mystery so fundamental to the faith," he explained.
"There will be priests to whom I will grant the authority to pardon even those sins reserved to the Holy See, so that the breadth of their mandate as confessors will be even clearer. They will be, above all, living signs of the Father's readiness to welcome those in search of his pardon."
The initiative has been welcomed by many as a sign of Francis' determination to change the Church's judgemental reputation. Some have appeared concerned that the move indicates leniency on abortion.
"Regardless of this decision by the Pope, the Church will continue to consider abortion a sin. I hope it does not cause confusion," Cardinal Velasio De Paolis told Italian newspaper La Nazione.
'He is the Pope of mercy and wants to show the benevolence of the Church towards sinners. This does not cancel the sin of abortion.'