Pope Francis has extended the permission granted to Roman Catholic priests to forgive the “grave sin” of abortion to beyond the conclusion of the Year of Mercy observed by the church, AP reported. “There is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled,” he said, though he maintains that abortion is a “grave sin that puts an end to an innocent life”, according to a statement from the Vatican.

The Roman Catholic Church, which has opposed the practice of abortion for years, had delegated the duty of “forgiving” the sin to a bishop, who could either hear a woman’s confession or assign the task to a priest considered an expert in the matter. In 2015, the Pope had permitted all priests to forgive abortion during the declared Holy Year of Mercy, which ran from December 8, 2015, to November 20, 2016.

In an Apostolic Letter, the pontiff wrote, “Lest any obstacle arise between the request for reconciliation and God’s forgiveness, 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 highly-debated practice of abortion also found space in the recently-concluded United States presidential election, where religious leaders had advised their congregations on supporting a candidate that stood for the “sacredness of life”, AP reported. US president-elect Donald Trump had expressed his opposition to the termination of a pregnancy, while his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton had said she supported women’s right to opt for an abortion.

Within the Catholic Church, holy years are normally observed every 25 years, unless a Pope announces a special one to draw attention to a particular subject, like the Year of Mercy. While the next holy year was supposed to be observed in 2025, the pontiff decreed the Year of Mercy after expressing concerns about divisiveness and conflict across the globe. He had urged people to forgive each other and asked world leaders to increase peacemaking efforts, according to Reuters.

The Church has been criticised for its stance against abortions and its ban on women becoming priests, among other matters.