Indulgences at the Point of Death

And More on Incense and Thuribles

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

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’ [Indulgentiarum 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: When Putting Incense in Thurible

Pursuant to our question regarding the use of incense (see Oct. 1), a deacon from Ohio asked, «At the conclusion of Mass, does the priest have to put incense into the thurible before the procession forms? Our priest insists that he should be the one to charge the thurible at the end of Mass.»

Actually the question is moot, for the simple reason that the thurible is not used in the exit procession, in accordance with No. 276 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.

We dealt with this topic in an earlier reply of Feb. 17, 2009.

«The usual process in most solemn Masses is that, at the conclusion of the Eucharistic Prayer, the thurifer and the torchbearers go to a suitable place outside of the sanctuary. The torches are extinguished and the thurible put away. In some cases a sacristan removes the carbons from the thurible so as to avoid them burning out in the thurible itself, which can make it difficult to clean. Having left the torches and thurible, the acolytes return to their places.

«Regarding the position of the thurifer in the final procession I defer to the description offered by Monsignor (now Bishop) Peter Elliott in his manual ‘Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite.’ In No. 412 he states:

«…The procession leaves in the same order as it entered, except that the thurifer (and boat bearer) without the thurible (and boat) follows the cross bearer and candle bearers. During the procession, a final hymn may be sung or music may be played, according to the occasion or local custom.»

The author offers further clarifications in a footnote: «The approved authors were divided as to whether a thurifer who is not carrying the thurible should lead the procession. On this minor point it seems logical that, having ceased to function, the thurifer should join the other servers behind the cross.»

* * *

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. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation