ROME — With just over three weeks until Pope Francis visits New York, most recent news related to the pontiff has centered on his inaugural trip to the U.S. That changed Tuesday, when the pope issued a letter from the Vatican calling for priests to formally and officially forgive Catholic women who'd had abortions that they had regretted.
The order has restrictions and came as such a surprise to many Catholics and Catholic organizations worldwide that the Vatican had to issue a clarification an hour after the letter was released, making clear that the Roman Catholic church still condemns abortion, but that it wants forgiveness for women who've chosen to terminate a pregnancy.
Pope Francis's letter had been released at the start of the business day in New York, but even after mid-day mass on Tuesday, most self-described observant Catholics who PIX11 encountered still didn't know about it.
But once PIX11 informed them, reactions varied.
"I think it's personal," said a lunchtime worshiper at St. Agnes Church near Grand Central Terminal, who wanted only her first name, Kathy, to be used. "Somebody has to feel it inside themselves if that's what they need to do," she said.
By contrast, Juana Carmen Rosario, another parishioner, was adamant. "I don't agree with abortion," she said. "I think that babies should live."
Pete Pharaoh, who had also spent his lunch break at mass at St. Agnes, agreed, to an extent, albeit a great one. "I believe abortion is wrong," he told PIX11 News. "It's against the views of the Catholic Church, but if the Holy Father says forgiveness, then forgiveness shall be granted, absolutely."
That ended up becoming a theme on the subject, at a variety of Roman Catholic parishes throughout New York, and even at the proudly conservative Catholic League of New York.
It issued a statement that said, in part, "'Since the first century,'" the Catholic Catechism says, 'the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable.' Nothing that Pope Francis said today changes that reality. Indeed, he refers to abortion as a 'profoundly unjust' act. But he emphasizes that forgiveness awaits those who repent; he only seeks to make this process more accommodating."
The pontiff said that the formal forgiveness should be made during the church's Jubilee Year of Mercy, which begins on December 8th and runs through November 20th of next year.
With forgiveness bring the operative theme of the pope's letter, PIX11 found that a wide array of Catholics from the most ardent pro-life advocates, to more moderate parishioners, had similar reactions.
"The pope being the figure that represents closest to God for us Catholics," said Ramon Gil as he came out from midday mass, "we don't [need] to judge. We should follow Jesus Christ's word [that] was in the Bible, and whoever's free of sin, throw the first rock."
Even Juana Carmen Rosario, the self-described opponent of abortion, said that the issue goes far beyond choosing to terminate a pregnancy, now that Pope Francis has been clear on the issue. "I highly believe personally," said Rosario, "that if they did it from the bottom of their heart, and they ask for forgiveness, that's a good step, because we should ask for forgiveness, because we are not perfect."
Not every Catholic is in lock step with the pope's directive, however. One lunchtime parishioner told PIX11 News that he was choosing not to make his views known because they were not fit to air publicly.
It's not clear whether or not Pope Francis will elaborate on his letter when he visits the U.S. later this month. One thing is clear: he wants Catholic women who, in his words, feel "contrite" about their choice of having an abortion to no longer feel alienated from the church.
Pope Francis arrives in New York September 24th for a two-day visit.