June 16, 2020. Precedents Already Allowed. Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Regarding the decree of the Apostolic Penitentiary broadening the conditions to receive plenary indulgences, even without confession and Communion (until these two conditions may be fulfilled when physically possible), has this broadening ever been done before? The beauty of this privilege is that we can daily pray the rosary, pray for an end to this pandemic, and pray for our Holy Father and gain a plenary indulgence. I wish the whole world knew this and would use this time to be a greater help for the souls in purgatory. And who knows, our gracious Lord just might keep one of these plenary indulgences in the bank for us when we might need it! — T.B., Courtenay, British Columbia
A: First, we must present the text of the aforementioned decree:
“The gift of Special Indulgences is granted to the faithful suffering from Covid-19 disease, commonly known as Coronavirus, as well as to health-care workers, family members, and all those who in any capacity, including through prayer, care for them.
“‘Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer’ (Rom 12:12). The words written by Saint Paul to the Church of Rome resonate throughout the entire history of the Church and guide the judgment of the faithful in the face of all suffering, sickness, and calamity.
“The present moment in which the whole humanity, threatened by the invisible and insidious disease that has become part of our lives for some time now, is marked day after day by anguished fears, new uncertainties and, above all, by widespread physical and moral suffering.
“Following the example of her Divine Master, the Church has always had the care of the sick at heart. As Saint John Paul II pointed out, the value of human suffering is twofold: ‘It is supernatural because it is rooted in the divine mystery of the Redemption of the world, and it is likewise deeply human because, in it, the person discovers himself, his own humanity, his own dignity, his own mission’ (Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris, n. 31).
“Pope Francis, too, in these recent days, has shown his paternal closeness and renewed his invitation to pray incessantly for those who are sick with the Coronavirus.
“So that all those who suffer due to Covid-19, may rediscover ‘the same redemptive suffering of Christ’ (ibid., 30) in the very mystery of their suffering, this Apostolic Penitentiary, ex auctoritate Summi Pontificis, trusting in the word of Christ the Lord and considering with a faithful spirit the current epidemic, to be lived in a spirit of personal conversion, grants the gift of Indulgences in accord with the following disposition.
“The Plenary Indulgence is granted to the faithful suffering from Coronavirus, who are subject to quarantine by order of the health authority in hospitals or in their own homes, if, with a spirit detached from any sin, they will join spiritually via the media in the celebration of Holy Mass, the recitation of the Holy Rosary, the pious practice of the Via Crucis or other forms of devotion, or if they will at least recite the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and a pious invocation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, offering this trial in a spirit of faith in God and charity towards their brothers and sisters, with the willingness to fulfill the usual conditions (sacramental confession, Eucharistic Communion and prayer according to the Holy Father’s intentions), as soon as possible.
“Health-care workers, family members and all those who, following the example of the Good Samaritan, expose themselves to the risk of contagion to care for the sick of Coronavirus according to the words of the divine Redeemer: ‘Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (Jn 15:13), will obtain the same gift of the Plenary Indulgence under the same conditions.
“Moreover, this Apostolic Penitentiary willingly grants a Plenary Indulgence under the same conditions on the occasion of the current world epidemic, also to the faithful who offer a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, or Eucharistic Adoration, or the reading of the Holy Scriptures for at least half an hour, or the recitation of the Holy Rosary, or the pious exercise of the Way of the Cross, or the recitation of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, to implore from Almighty God the end of the epidemic, relief to those who are afflicted and eternal salvation to those the Lord has called to Himself.
“The Church prays for those who are unable to receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and of the Viaticum, entrusting each and every one to Divine Mercy by virtue of the communion of saints and granting the faithful a Plenary Indulgence on the point of death, provided that they are duly disposed and have recited a few prayers during their lifetime (in this case the Church makes up for the three usual conditions required). For the attainment of this indulgence, the use of the Crucifix or the cross is recommended (cf. Enchiridion indulgentiarum, n. 12).
“May the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and of the Church, Health of the Sick and Help of Christians, our Advocate, help suffering humanity, save us from the evil of this pandemic and obtain for us every good necessary for our salvation and sanctification.
“The present Decree is valid notwithstanding any provision to the contrary. Given in Rome, from the seat of the Apostolic Penitentiary, on 19 March 2020.”
Our reader asks if the broadening of the conditions to receive plenary indulgences, regarding confession and Communion, has been done before.
Normally, to receive a plenary indulgence, one must receive Communion the same day as the indulgenced act and confess about 20 days before or after. In this case, these conditions may be postponed until physically possible.
Although not specified, it would appear logical in the concession that it is possible to obtain one plenary indulgence a day during the pandemic and that the conditions will be fulfilled by a single confession and Communion when this becomes physically possible.
The indulgence may be applied to oneself, especially if in danger of death, or to a soul in purgatory. Although not a condition, it would appear apt to apply the indulgence to those who have perished from the disease.
Although the articulation of the present broadening is new and adapted to current conditions, it is not unprecedented. In a way, it is implied in the abovementioned plenary indulgence on the point of death which, in the absence of a priest, the Church grants the faithful, “provided that they are duly disposed and have recited a few prayers during their lifetime (Handbook of Indulgences, No. 28).”
This indulgence is the only case when a plenary indulgence may be obtained twice in one day: “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 January 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.