Pope Francis told priests Tuesday that they should treat women who have undergone abortion with forgiveness and compassion during the church's "Holy Year of Mercy," a gesture widely praised by Boston Catholics.
The pontiff's call — which says "the forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented" — signals that the Catholic Church is making strides to reach a group that has long felt alienated from the church, some parishioners, priests, and activists said.
"Women who go into abortion don't feel they are worthy or can receive the word of God," said 21-year-old Julie Tamayo, of Brookline, who had just finished praying at the St. Anthony Shrine and Ministry Center in Downtown Crossing.
"It welcomes women again," said Tamayo, who knows a woman who had an abortion.
The church regards abortion as a sin and has been at the forefront of opposition to abortion rights.
While the pope's pronouncement reflected a significant change in tone from the Vatican, US dioceses, including Boston, have given their priests authority to grant forgiveness for abortions for many years, said Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, leader of the Archdiocese of Boston. O'Malley said in a statement the decision to allow all priests to extend the power of forgiveness "has given the church and the world a great gift."
"My hope and prayer is that all those carrying the burden of an experience of abortion would turn to the church and her sacraments and experience the Lord's mercy and love," he said.
At St. Anthony Shrine, the Rev. Richard C. Flaherty said the pope's message would show that the doors of the church are open to all.
"When a person comes in and they're ready to reconcile themselves, you don't want to make it harder," Flaherty said. "It should be forgiven . . . Christ would do it."
Flaherty said St. Anthony Shrine offers outreach and counseling to women and men following abortions through a program of the archdiocese called Project Rachel.
"Who are we to judge?" he said. "Only God can judge us."
Francis's call to act with compassion toward women who have undergone abortions comes a month after he issued a similar plea regarding divorced Catholics who remarry. And early in his tenure as pope, the Argentine prelate had said, "Who am I to judge?" in vowing not to judge the sexual orientation of priests.
Shirley Barosy, 45, of Dedham, said that given Francis's attitude on other issues, she was not surprised by his remarks Tuesday on abortion.
"It's a personal decision," said Barosy, who had come to St. Anthony for a midday service. "No one is perfect. You never know the circumstances under which she had to have [an abortion]. We need a lot more forgiveness in the world today."
Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, praised the pope for taking more of a pastoral position on abortion, rather than a political stance.
"Bishops have waged wars over the bodies and lives of women . . . his message on how he thinks is an example of how he wants to bring people into the church rather closing them out," said O'Brien, whose organization challenges Catholic dogma.
Catholic Action League executive director C. J. Doyle said the pope's announcement was "more symbolic than substantive," but still was welcome.
Doyle said it was important not to confuse the pope's announcement for a change in "either Catholic moral prohibitions against abortion, or, effectively, in pastoral practice regarding women who have procured abortions."
Sara Loy said she is very much like the women her organization, Boston Center for Pregnancy Choices, helps. The faith-based nonprofit provides support to women and men during unplanned pregnancies and assistance following an abortion.
Loy had an abortion at the age of 19 — a decision she struggled with years after the abortion.
"It wasn't something I wanted to share with anyone," Loy said. "You just want to block it out and not think about it."
In grappling with the decision, Loy said her Christian faith deepened.
She declined to weigh in on Francis's call but said, "in going through very difficult circumstances, some people experience God deeply . . . that helped me see, feel, and believe that it's real."
Deciding to have an abortion can provoke deep emotions and that's when the Catholic Church may be needed the most, said the Rev. Chip Hines, pastor of Blessed Sacrament and St. Mary's, both in Walpole.
"There's a sense of guilt . . . They know that was a life and they feel a certain need of forgiveness from the child," Hines said. "It's a complex and complicated thing."
He said the pope sent a forceful message Tuesday that "God is about mercy and you should seek it at all times even with the things that may be painful."
While calling the pontiff's announcement "a step in the right direction," Eric Ferrero, vice president of communications for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said abortion is not something a woman should be ashamed of or have to seek forgiveness for.
Ferrero said three in 10 women in the country have an abortion by the age of 45.