Can plenary indulgences benefit the dead? - Catholic Courier

Can plenary indulgences benefit the dead?

Q. I understand that during the upcoming papal-declared year, we can seek plenary indulgences for the dead. Naturally, as I age, I have more and more friends who have died. What a wonderful thing if I could include them in this. Is it possible to gain multiple plenary indulgences for the deceased and, if so, how do I accomplish this? (Hull, Mass.)

A. Pope Francis has declared an extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy, which began on Dec. 8, 2015, and closes on Nov. 20, 2016. A holy year is also known as a jubilee year.

Among the privileges granted to the faithful during this Holy Year of Mercy is the opportunity to gain a plenary indulgence, which is the remission of all of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven. This indulgence can also be applied to the deceased — to whom, in the words of Pope Francis, “we are bound … by the witness of faith and charity that they have left us.”

In the past, indulgences during a holy year normally required a pilgrimage to Rome and a visit to one of the papal basilicas, but for the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy, the pope has determined that a visit to a diocesan cathedral or designated local church will suffice, together with the reception of the sacrament of penance and Communion, as well as a profession of faith and prayers for the intention of the pope.

(Pope Francis has taken care to extend the privilege to those who are precluded from visiting one of the designated churches, e.g., those who are homebound or incarcerated.)

A unique element this time is that the pope has also granted the jubilee indulgence to those who perform the traditional spiritual and corporal works of mercy (sheltering the homeless, for example, or comforting the sorrowful.)

As to your question about “multiple” beneficiaries, the jubilee indulgence may be obtained only once a day. (A single sacramental confession suffices for several plenary indulgences, but receiving Communion and praying for the intentions of the pope are required for each indulgence.)

Q. I’m curious about the fact that to mark the Year of Mercy Pope Francis will allow all priests to absolve from the sin of abortion. Why isn’t that true already? If I had committed such a sin, then went to confession and found that the priest couldn’t forgive me that would turn me off from the Catholic faith. (Quincy, Mass.)

A. Pope Francis’ announcement did prompt some questions — mainly because in the United States it doesn’t change the present practice at all.

For at least the last 30 years, bishops in the United States have granted to their priests the power to lift the automatic penalty of excommunication attached to procuring an abortion.

A key point — lost in some of the reporting — is that Catholic priests anywhere in the world already have the power to forgive the sin of abortion. The penitent walks out of the confessional forgiven and reunited to God’s grace.

The issue here is not the sin itself but the excommunication, and who can lift it. In the Code of Canon Law that power is reserved to a bishop — unless, as in the U.S., he has chosen to extend this authority to his priests.

In parts of the world where that power had not been granted, the priest would have forgiven the repentant sinner immediately and then have asked the penitent to return at a later time; during that interval the confessor would have secured his bishop’s permission to lift the canonical penalty. (Anonymity, of course, would have been honored, with the identity of the penitent never disclosed.)

In order to incur the excommunication, the penitent must have known prior to the offense that such a canonical penalty was attached to the sin — which would seem to be true only in a minority of cases.

Finally, the pope’s announcement was not intended in any way to minimize the gravity of abortion, which takes a human life, but to highlight the wideness of God’s mercy and his willingness to forgive anyone who is genuinely sorry.

Questions may be sent to Father Doyle at and 40 Hopewell St. Albany, N.Y. 12208.


Tags: Catholic Beliefs
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