Indulgences at the Point of Death

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Indulgences at the Point of Death

By Father Edward McNamara, LC

ROME, 15 October 2013 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: It was always said that a priest could impart an apostolic blessing on behalf of the pope to one who is on the point of death, thus granting the plenary indulgence. Is this correct? — T.T., Galway, Ireland.

A. Yes. This is explained in the ritual for the pastoral care of the sick and in the Handbook of Indulgences. First of all, let us say a word on indulgences themselves.

According to the Catechism, No. 1471: "The doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Church are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of penance.

"'An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints' [Indulgentarium Doctrina, Norm 1].

"'An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin' [ibid., Norm 2, see Norm 3]. Indulgences may be applied to the living or the dead."

The ritual for the pastoral care of the sick, in Nos. 195 and 201, indicates the rite followed for those approaching death.
No. 201 touches on viaticum outside of Mass, which would be the usual circumstance for this blessing. The rubric states:
"At the conclusion of the sacrament of penance or the penitential rite, the priest may give the apostolic pardon for the dying, using one of the following:

"Through the holy mysteries of our redemption, may almighty God release you from all punishments in this life and in the life to come. May he open to you the gates of paradise and welcome you to everlasting joy."

Or the following:

"By the authority which the Apostolic See has given me I grant you a full pardon and the remission of all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. R. Amen."

Should a priest be unavailable to impart the papal blessing, the Handbook of Indulgences, No. 28, offers another path. To wit:

"Priests who minister the sacraments to the Christian faithful who are in a life-and-death situation should not neglect to impart to them the apostolic blessing, with its attached indulgence. But if a priest cannot be present, holy mother Church lovingly grants such persons who are rightly disposed a plenary indulgence to be obtained in articulo mortis, at the approach of death, provided they regularly prayed in some way during their lifetime. The use of a crucifix or a cross is recommended in obtaining this plenary indulgence.

"In such a situation the three usual conditions required in order to gain a plenary indulgence are substituted for by the condition 'provided they regularly prayed in some way.'

"The Christian faithful can obtain the plenary indulgence mentioned here as death approaches (in articulo mortis) even if they had already obtained another plenary indulgence that same day."

This grant, in No. 28, is taken from the apostolic constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina, Norm 18, issued by Pope Paul VI on Jan. 1, 1967.

Unlike the sacrament of the sick, the papal blessing at the approach of death along with its attendant indulgence may be imparted only once during the same illness. Should a person recover it may be imparted again at a new threat of imminent death.

These papal blessings and indulgences were first granted to the Crusaders or to pilgrims who died while traveling to obtain the Holy Year Indulgence. Pope Clement IV (1265-1268) and Gregory XI (1370-1378) extended it to victims of the plague. The grants became ever more frequent but were still limited in time or reserved to bishops, so that relatively few people were favored by this grace. This led Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) to issue the constitution "Pia Mater" in 1747 in which he granted the faculty to all bishops, along with the possibility to subdelegate the faculty to priests.

* * *

Follow-up: Indulgences at the Point of Death [10-29-2013]

Responding to our Oct. 15 article on the plenary indulgence on the point of death, a reader from New Hampshire wrote, "In your article you don't say what specific prayer or action the person at the point of death, without a priest present, would have to do to receive the plenary indulgence."

I did not say so because, as mentioned in the Handbook of Indulgences, the usual requirements of prayer are substituted by having habitually said some prayer during one's lifetime. This generous concession is because many people at the point of death are unable to recite any specific prayers.

Another reader, from Mumbai, India, commented: "It is stated that 'an indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven.' Kindly clarify what is 'temporal punishment,' with examples. The sinners who repent and confess are fully qualified for eternal award from God. Then why this extra route? Is this compulsory for everyone? Please explain as many like me are confused."

Since the theme of indulgences was not my main point in the earlier answer, I limited my quote to No. 1471 of the Catechism. The following two numbers clarify the concept under the heading "The Punishment of Sin":

"1472. To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the 'eternal punishment' of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the 'temporal punishment' of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.

"1473. The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the 'old man' and to put on the 'new man.'"

In this the Catechism seeks to explain in human terms something that is intimately bound up with each person's relationship with God within the communion of saints (see CCC 1474ff). As the text implies, the "punishment" is not external but follows from the imperfection of love that sin entails. The purification is, in a way, a striving for perfection in loving God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves as Christ has loved us.

If we do not achieve this perfection of love in this life, then we necessarily and spontaneously desire to achieve it after death. This would enable us to come face to face with the Lord without looking away due to some imperfection of love that impedes us from meeting his loving gaze. Again, we are using images and human language. All such images are inevitably imperfect and fail to clarify the fullness of the mystery.

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