Year-of-the-Eucharist Indulgence

And More on the Removal of Altar Rails

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ROME, FEB. 15, 2005 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: Is the special Year-of-the-Eucharist indulgence granted only for praying one of the offices of the Liturgy of the Hours, or both? The wording was not clear. The announcement also mentioned that the indulgence would be granted «each and every time they recite» the offices. Can one now receive two plenary indulgences on the same day? — B.P.M., New York

A: The new indulgence (its decree was published Jan. 14) may be obtained in two ways. First, «each time the faithful participate attentively and piously in a sacred function or a devotional exercise undertaken in honor of the Blessed Sacrament, solemnly exposed or conserved in the tabernacle.»

Second, it is granted «to the clergy, to members of institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life, and to other faithful who are by law obliged to recite the Liturgy of the Hours, as well as to those who customarily recite the Divine Office out of pure devotion, each and every time they recite — at the end of the day, in company or private — vespers and night prayers before the Lord present in the tabernacle.»

This latter norm created some confusion as even the Latin text was not perfectly clear.

One of the advantages of living in Rome is that one can pick up a phone and ask for clarifications. This process resolved several doubts.

One regarded the expressions «at the end of the day.» Did this mean that vespers (Evening Prayer) and Night Prayer had to be prayed together one after the other? Another was the doubt highlighted by our reader regarding two plenary indulgences.

The reply was that although both offices must be prayed before the Blessed Sacrament in order to gain the plenary indulgence, they may be prayed at different moments of the evening.

With this point clear, the other followed naturally: We are dealing with a single plenary indulgence that requires two distinct moments of prayer. Hence, the norm that one may obtain only one plenary indulgence a day, applicable to oneself or to a soul in purgatory, remains in force.

No. 1471 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: «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.»

No. 1479 adds: «Since the faithful departed now being purified are also members of the same communion of saints, one way we can help them is to obtain indulgences for them, so that the temporal punishment due for their sins may be remitted.»

The decree reminds the faithful that to obtain a plenary indulgence it is necessary to observe the «usual conditions»:

1. Sacramental confession, usually within a week before or after obtaining the indulgence. One sacramental confession is sufficient for several indulgences.

2. Eucharistic Communion. Unlike confession, only one indulgence may be obtained for each Communion. Although this Communion may be fulfilled several days before or after obtaining the indulgence, it is preferable that this condition be fulfilled the same day. Thus, those who practice regular confession and daily Mass may obtain a plenary indulgence practically every day.

3. Prayer in keeping with the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff. Like Communion, prayer for the Pope’s intentions must be recited for the gaining of each plenary indulgence. Although there are no prescribed prayers the condition is satisfied by reciting one Our Father and one Hail Mary.

4. Having the soul completely removed from attachment to any form of sin. This is the most difficult condition as even attachment to venial sin precludes the possibility of obtaining the indulgence. However, note that the condition is not freedom from all venial sin, but from attachment to sin; that is, that there is no sin which the soul is unwilling to renounce.

Apart from the above, here are some of the principal concessions of plenary indulgences within reach of most Catholics.

1. Remain in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at least half an hour.

2. The participation in the Adoration of the Cross, on Good Friday.

3. Spiritual exercises of at least three days.

4. Those who make their first Communion or who assist at another’s first Communion.

5. Praying at least five decades of the rosary in a church or chapel, or else in family, a religious community or a pious association. The conditions are that the five decades be prayed without interruption; meditation on the mysteries must be added to the vocal recitation; and in public recitation the mysteries must be announced according to approved local custom.

6. Celebrating or assisting at a priest’s first solemn Mass, or at his 25th, 50th or 60th anniversary Mass. The priest should also renew before God his proposal to faithfully fulfill the obligations of his vocation.

7. Visiting a church or altar on the day of its dedication and praying an Our Father and a Creed.

8. Renewing one’s baptismal promises during the Easter Vigil or on the anniversary of one’s baptism.

9. Reading sacred Scripture as spiritual reading with the devotion due to God’s Word for at least a half-hour.

10. Making the pious exercise of the Way of the Cross. This must be done at legitimately erected stations, which require 14 crosses to which other images or statues may be added.

The Way of the Cross usually consists of 14 sacred readings, to which some vocal prayers may be added.

However, to fulfill the pious exercise it is enough to meditate on the Lord’s passion and death, with no need to make a particular consideration regarding each individual station. Thus, one may also meditate on episodes of the Passion that differ from the traditional 14 stations.

It is also necessary to move from one station to the next, although, if during a public celebration the whole group cannot easily move, it is sufficient that the person who guides the stations move from one station to the next.

If someone is legitimately impeded from doing the stations, he or she may obtain the same indulgence through pious reading and meditation on the Lord’s passion and death for about 15 minutes or so.

11. Devoutly receiving a papal blessing including those imparted «urbi et orbi» (to the city of Rome and the world) such as is customary at Easter and Christmas, and received through live transmission by radio, television or Internet.

The local bishop may also impart the apostolic blessing three times a year on dates of their choosing, at the end of a specially solemn Mass.

12. Each Friday of Lent a plenary indulgence is granted to those who piously recite the prayer «Look down Upon Me, Good and Gentle Jesus» after Communion, before an image of Christ crucified. This prayer is among those offered in the missal for thanksgiving after Communion.

13. «To the faithful in danger of death, who cannot be assisted by a priest to bring them the sacraments and impart the Apostolic Blessing with its plenary indulgence, Holy Mother Church nevertheless grants a plenary indulgence to be acquired at the point of death, provided they are properly disposed and have been in the habit of reciting some prayers during their lifetime. The use of a crucifix or a cross to gain this indulgence is praiseworthy.

«The condition, provided they have been in the habit of reciting some prayers during their lifetime, supplies in such cases for the three usual conditions required for the gaining of a plenary indulgence.

«The plenary indulgence at the point of death can be acquired by the f
aithful, even if they have already obtained another plenary indulgence on the same day.» (Enchiridion of Indulgences)

Apart from the plenary indulgences, Catholics do well to be aware that most of their habitual prayers, sacrifices and habitual service to others, from the sign of the cross to the Hail Mary, are endowed with partial indulgences which increase their weight before God and give them an opportunity to exercise selfless charity in offering their prayers in benefit of the souls in purgatory.

* * *

Follow-up: Removal of Altar Rails

Pursuant to our reflections on the removal of altar rails (Feb. 1) some readers asked for more information about the changes made on the reception of Communion.

Specifically, they asked about the change regarding kneeling and standing, and when Communion in the hand was allowed.

Regarding the first point, there is a distinction to be made: One thing is the mode of approaching the sanctuary in procession, another is the mode of receiving Communion.

The practice of approaching the sanctuary to receive Communion in a loose (not formally organized) procession was already a custom before the introduction of the reformed rite of Mass. But instead of the priest staying in one place, the faithful would line up and kneel at the Communion rail.

The official norms regarding the approach to and reception of Communion are contained in No. 160 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which, in a literal translation, reads:

«The priest then takes the paten or ciborium and goes to the communicants, who, as a rule, approach in a procession. The faithful are not permitted to take the consecrated bread or the sacred chalice by themselves and, still less, to hand them from one to another. The faithful receive Holy Communion either kneeling or standing, as established by the Episcopal Conference. When receiving Holy Communion standing, however, it is recommended that the communicant make a gesture of reverence before receiving the Sacrament, as established by the aforementioned norms.»

This text basically repeats norms already issued in the 1967 instruction «Eucharisticum Mysterium.»

The text of GIRM No. 160 approved by the Holy See for the United States contains some variations:

«The norm for reception of Holy Communion in the dioceses of the United States is standing. Communicants should not be denied Holy Communion because they kneel. Rather, such instances should be addressed pastorally, by providing the faithful with proper catechesis on the reasons for this norm.

«When receiving Holy Communion, the communicant bows his or her head before the Sacrament as a gesture of reverence and receives the Body of the Lord from the minister. The consecrated host may be received either on the tongue or in the hand, at the discretion of each communicant. When Holy Communion is received under both kinds, the sign of reverence is also made before receiving the Precious Blood.»

From these norms we can deduce that the general liturgical norms consider this a question of practicality and personal devotion and do not show any particular preference for either kneeling or standing to receive Communion.

The controversy following the application of the U.S. norms (that Communion be received standing) have shown that in this case the norm issued by the bishops’ conference is more an indication of prevalent custom than a strict legal obligation. Thus, a member of the faithful may still kneel if moved to do so by personal devotion.

Such a person, however, must be wary against judging those who follow the general custom as being somehow less reverent.

The abandonment of the altar rail seems to be a practical consequence of the permission to receive Communion standing and, later, from the indult allowing Communion in the hand and a wider use of the Blessed Sacrament under both species.

This change was never mandated in law. Indeed, there are still places where the custom of kneeling at the rail has been preserved, above all in countries where Communion in the hand is not yet permitted.

The indult allowing Communion in the hand was first issued in an instruction, «Memoriale Domini,» published May 29 1969.

This document allowed the bishops’ conference to solicit an indult from the Holy See in order to permit the reception of Communion in the hand.

Not all bishops’ conferences have requested this permission, and the traveling Catholic should be ready to adapt to local customs with respect to posture and mode of receiving Communion.

Even when the bishops’ conference permits receiving in the hand, the faithful always retain the right to receive on the tongue if they so wish.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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