Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: A priest I watch online has said that in all Catholic Bibles it says that a plenary indulgence is received for reading the Bible for a minimum of 30 minutes. And I presume this must accompany confession, Holy Communion and praying for our Pope. I recently came across a document entitled “The Enchiridion of Indulgences.” There I found the following example of receiving a plenary indulgence: “devout reading of the Sacred Scriptures for at least one half an hour” (No. 50). But this document also speaks of the following: “24. §1. A plenary indulgence can be acquired once only in the course of a day. §2. But one can obtain the plenary indulgence for the moment of death, even if another plenary indulgence had already been acquired on the same day.” I don’t understand. Would one be obliged to go to confession daily to receive a plenary indulgence daily? And a quick browse of this document just about brought tears to my eyes when it said that a partial indulgence can be obtained even when we make the sign of the cross. Please comment on this document to resolve any confusion on my part. – T.B., Courtenay, British Columbia
A: 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”:
- Sacramental confession, usually within 20 days before or after obtaining the indulgence. One sacramental confession is sufficient for several indulgences.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. An attachment is an objective disorder, a refusal to amend a situation, and the person involved is aware of it. Thus it is not confused with normal human weakness or the fact that many, perhaps most, of us tend to repeat the same failings many times before overcoming them. If this were the case, it would certainly be almost impossible to gain any indulgences.
Another question regarded the need for an intention of receiving an indulgence before carrying out the practice. Norm 20.2 of the Enchiridion of indulgences states one must have, at least, a general intention of gaining an indulgence beforehand. If, throughout the day, one carries out several practices united to partial indulgences, it suffices to formulate a single general intention.
Here are some of the principal concessions of plenary indulgences within reach of most Catholics.
- Remain in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at least a half-hour.
- The participation in the Adoration of the Cross, on Good Friday.
- Spiritual exercises of at least three days.
- Those who make their first Communion or who assist at another’s first Communion.
- 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.
- 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.
- Visiting a church or altar on the day of its dedication and praying an Our Father and a Creed.
- Renewing one’s baptismal promises during the Easter Vigil or on the anniversary of one’s baptism.
- Reading sacred Scripture as spiritual reading with the devotion due to God’s Word for at least a half-hour.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- “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 faithful, 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.
For the many opportunities of obtaining partial indulgences the Enchiridion contains a collection of prayers and practices that include many common practices of pious Catholics.
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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. 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.