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Plenary Indulgence at Point of Death

Date: September 5, 2021
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

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: Pope Paul VI’s apostolic constitution on indulgences, Indulgentiarum Doctrina, mentions in No. 18 the plenary indulgence at the point of death. Therein he makes reference to Canon 468, paragraph 2 of the Code of Canon Law. It appears, however, that the Code he is referring to is that of 1917. My question is whether the indulgence is still in force and if any conditions for gaining it have been changed? -- G.B., Saint Venera, Malta

A: This indulgence is still in force and can be found in the ritual for the pastoral care of the sick and in the Handbook of Indulgences.

These indulgences along with the papal blessing 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.

By a decree of the Congregation of Indulgences of March 9, 1904, Pope St. Pius X granted a plenary indulgence at the moment of death to all the faithful who, on any day they may choose, will receive the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist and make this act for the love of God:

“My Lord God, even now resignedly and willingly, I accept at Thy hand, with all its anxieties, pains, and sufferings, whatever kind of death it shall please Thee to be mine.”

It was this indulgence that was later incorporated into the Code of Canon Law cited by Pope St. Paul VI.

Paul VI, in the above-mentioned document, published on January 1, 1967, simplified the terms for receiving this indulgence in norm 18.

The norms and conditions established by Paul VI are incorporated into the ritual for the pastoral care of the sick, in Nos. 195 and 201, which also indicates the rite followed for those approaching death and in the Handbook of Indulgences, No. 28.

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."

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.

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Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. 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.

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