VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis has extended the powers of Catholic priests to forgive abortions, making the announcement in an apostolic letter released Monday.
It continues a special dispensation granted last year for the duration of the Year of Mercy, which finished Sunday.
"I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life. In the same way, however, I can and must state that there is no sin that God's mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with the Father," the letter said.
"May every priest, therefore, be a guide, support and comfort to penitents on this journey of special reconciliation.
"I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion."
The Catholic Church has long held that abortion is a grave "moral evil," with the Church's strong position on the issue driving many Catholic pro-life groups.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says every human life "from the moment of conception until death is sacred" -- and that any Catholic who procures an abortion incurs automatic excommunication, a penalty that often only a bishop can lift.
But Pope Francis announced a shift last year when he said that priests around the world would be authorized to forgive the "sin of abortion" for the duration of the Church's Year of Mercy, which ran from Dec. 8, 2015 to Sunday.
"The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented," he said at the time, expressing sympathy for women who had been through the "agonizing and painful" decision to terminate their pregnancy.
In some regions, such as in the U.S., many priests already had the power to forgive abortion. Vatican officials described the announcement last year as "a widening of the church's mercy."
Church officials had indicated at the time that it was possible Pope Francis would opt to allow the changed policy to continue in perpetuity, as he has now done.
The Year of Mercy is a period during which believers might receive special indulgences for their sins.
Pope Francis has forged a more forgiving, merciful direction for the Church since his papacy began in March 2013, taking a more welcoming position toward groups that had previously found themselves on the margins of the Catholic establishment, such as gays and lesbians, and divorced Catholics.