Apostolic Indulgences

Author: Catholic Encyclopedia


W.H. Kent

The indulgences known as Apostolic or Apostolical are those which the Roman pontiff, the successor of the Prince of the Apostles, attaches to the crosses, crucifixes, chaplets, rosaries, images, and medals which he blesses, either with his own hand or by those to whom he has delegated this faculty. The principles set forth in the general article on indulgences apply here also. But since these Apostolic indulgences are among the most frequent and abundant of those now in use throughout the Church, they seem to require a separate and more detailed treatment. As the name implies, they are indulgences granted by the pope himself. Some of them are plenary, and others are partial indulgences. It may be observed that, the possession of the cross or medal or other indulgenced object is not the sole or immediate condition for gaining the indulgences attached thereto by the blessing of the Holy Father or his delegate. But the possession enables the recipient to gain the various indulgences on the performance of certain prescribed good works or acts of piety. In this respect the possession of the object may be regarded as analogous to the local or personal limitation of other indulgences. For in blessing the objects presented to him, the Holy Father thereby grants the indulgences, not to all the faithful indiscriminately, but to certain persons, to wit the actual or prospective possessors of these crosses, medals, etc., which. may thus be regarded as the marks or tokens distinguishing those persons to whom this special privilege is given. At the same time, since it is open to all the faithful to obtain such blessed objects, especially now, when the faculty for giving this blessing is so readily granted to the clergy throughout the world, the Apostotic indulgences can hardly be reckoned with those that are merely local or personal.

Although the popes have been in the habit of granting indulgences from a much earlier date, some of them having an analogous limitation or connection with the holding or wearing of a blessed object, the Apostolic indulgences, as we now know them, date only from the year 1587—just a lifetime after the publication of Luther's famous theses against indulgences. And a curious interest attaches to the first origin of this familiar practice. Before that date popes had simply blessed medals or other objects presented to them for that purpose. But as Pope Sixtus V sets forth in his Bull "Laudemus viros gloriosos" (1 December, 1587), the workmen engaged in his restoration and adornment of the Lateran Basilica, in pulling down some very old walls, had accidentally brought to light a number of ancient coins bearing on one side a cross and on the other the likeness of one or other of the early Christian emperors. This remarkable discovery led the pontiff, in accordance with the opening words of his Bull, to sing the praises of those old rulers of Christendom, such as Constantine, Theodosius, and Marcianus. And, by a happy thought, he made their old coins again pass current, though bearing, as be fitted their new life, not an earthly but a heavenly and spiritual value. In other words, he granted a number of indulgences, on the performance of certain pious works, to all who became possessors of the old coins enriched with this new blessing. The list of special indulgences set forth in this Bull as thus attached to those coins of the Christian emperors is the first instance of the Apostolic indulgences which the popes now attach to the medals, etc. presented for their benediction. It must not be supposed, however, that the Apostolical indulgences, now so generally given in this familiar manner, are in all respects the same as those granted on this special occasion by Pope Sixtus V. A comparison of the aforesaid Bull "Laudemus viros gloriosos" with the list in the instruction annexed to the customary faculty for blessing rosaries etc., attaching indulgences thereto, will show many points of difference, both in the extent of the indulgences and in the good works prescribed as conditions for gaining them. And it will be found, as might have been anticipated, that in some cases the indulgences given in the Sixtine Bull are more abundant than the others. In at least one important point both lists are in agreement. Thus it will be seen that in both cases a plenary indulgence may be gained by those who devoutly invoke the Holy Name of Jesus at the hour of death (in mortis articulo). But, on the other hand, the plenary indulgence for confession and Communion which the possessors of the Lateran coins could apparently gain on any day can only be gained by holders of ordinary indulgenced objects on certain great festivals, and that on the fixed condition of reciting certain prayers.

W.H. Kent
Transcribed by Charles Sweeney, S.J.

From the Catholic Encyclopedia, copyright © 1913 by the Encyclopedia Press, Inc. Electronic version copyright © 1996 by New Advent, Inc.
Taken from the New Advent Web Page (www.knight.org/advent).