Friday, March 26, 2010

Loss of Graces: Private Masses vs. Concelebration

Peter A. Kwasniewski

Sitting at my desk one evening about ten years ago, I wrote excitedly in my journal about an overwhelming experience that morning.
“August 12th. The feast of Saint Clare. Thanks be to God, the greatest and best. This morning, by His unspeakable mercy, I was given the chance to attend a private old-rite Mass and receive the Lord: a gift worth more than all gifts. But without my having the slightest idea it would happen, He also granted me the privilege of serving this Mass, which was offered by the holy Abbot of Fontgombault. There is some sort of Benedictine retreat going on here at the Kartause for a week, with oblates from all over Europe in attendance, and three French abbots and many monks too, and there will be bishops visiting, etc. It’s all rather splendid. Yesterday I’d heard that a monk was going to say the old rite at 6:00, so I got up and came down for it, heading into the sacristy. I found out that the Abbot himself, taking precedence, was going to offer the day’s first Mass before other monks did, and, as I knew how to serve, he asked me if I would serve it. Laus Deo! It was the most peaceful Mass I have ever attended. The Abbot lingered over every phrase, and I honestly thought he was in an ecstasy during the Canon. I felt there were hundreds of souls and spirits in the chapel with us. I am speechless. Glory be to God.”
That is the kind of thing you really can’t forget, but even better, it’s the kind of thing you really can’t plan, either. The lack of planning is part of the gift. It comes like a thief in the night. You know you don’t deserve it, and it comes to you anyway, because the Lord is so good to us sinners.

The daily offering

The reason I’m recounting this story isn’t to focus on the experience itself, but rather on what it helped me to see about one important facet of our Catholic tradition, in a lesson that mingled pain with joy. This monk’s offering of the holy sacrifice for his own sins and for the sins of the world embodied in its very prayerfulness, by its God-focused intensity, an irrefutable justification for the long-standing custom of private Masses1 offered by individual monks prior to their conventual Mass, or, for that matter, by any priest who has the possibility of celebrating a daily Mass. I envisioned in my mind’s eye all of these monks quietly beseeching the divine mercy all over the world: a small army of Abraham’s “just men,” placating divine wrath and winning grace for sinners.

As most readers of this journal will know, up until the liturgical rupture it was customary for each priest who lived in a monastery or other religious community both to celebrate his own private Mass each morning and to assist at a communal or conventual Mass. The rationale was obvious: the Mass is the foremost act of religion, devotion, prayer, adoration, thanksgiving, and praise that any ministerial priest can offer, since it is none other than the immolation of the High Priest Himself. As Venerable Pope Pius XII explained: “It cannot be overemphasized that the Eucharistic sacrifice of its very nature is the unbloody immolation of the divine Victim, which is made manifest in a mystical manner by the separation of the sacred species and by their oblation to the eternal Father.”2 Each and every Mass pours forth the fruits of the sacrifice of Calvary into the Church, for the inestimable benefit of all the faithful—for the release of souls in purgatory, for the honor of the saints in heaven, and for the perseverance of souls on earth—and ultimately for the salvation of the entire world.3 Therefore, objectively speaking, the more Masses celebrated, the better off the world is.

In the maelstrom of postconciliar changes, the private Mass fell under a shadow of suspicion, even contempt. With rare exceptions, individual monks no longer celebrate private Masses. If there are several priests living in one place with one publicly scheduled Mass, they will generally concelebrate it. Surely there is something amiss here. The profound sacramental theology we inherit from the Middle Ages and the Council of Trent teaches us that each Mass—or to be more specific, each enactment of the mystical oblation on the altar—is a renewal and application of the saving event of the Cross, and as such, wins further pardon and actual graces for the human race. How, then, can this shift towards the communal be justified? Would not a denial that each priest should celebrate his own Mass each day imply at some level a repudiation of this theology, and with it, a downplaying of the Mass as a true propitiatory sacrifice? I am not speaking of a formal repudiation, such as Luther’s or Calvin’s, whereby the Mass is denied to be a sacramental representation of the sacrifice of Calvary. I mean a repudiation of the truth that each and every Mass advances the salvation of the world. If the practice of individual Masses is abandoned, it appears that personnel in the Church have made a decision that affects, nay retards, the salvation of sinners. A monastery in which twelve monks daily offered hoc sacrificium laudis is responsible for pouring out the grace of Calvary twelve times upon this timebound and ever-needy world of ours. The one all-sufficient sacrifice with its intrinsically infinite merit was applied concretely to us, to the world of sinners, a dozen times.4

Colossal difference

Priest extending arms after the consecration (Carmelite Rite)

Let’s examine a scenario more closely, to see if mystical theology and common sense can shake hands. Say you have eleven of these monks celebrating Mass at separate side altars each morning, followed later by the conventual Mass that the twelfth monk offers. You have twelve re-presentations of the Sacrifice of Calvary taking place. It is as if the veil separating earth from heaven was pierced twelve times to let the dew of grace fall through, that it might soak into the soil of our souls. Since the Eucharist as a sacrifice is propitiatory, it accomplishes what it represents: each time the Mass is offered, the fruits of the redemption are extended to souls throughout the world. As Pope Leo XIII stated: “Christ has willed that the whole power of His death, alike for expiation and impetration, should abide in the Eucharist, which is no mere empty commemoration thereof, but a true and wonderful though bloodless and mystical renewal of it.”5
Now, let’s say those twelve monks decide to stop celebrating their individual Masses and come together around the altar for one Mass — a single Mass, a single sacramental sacrifice. Certainly there may be several Mass intentions; each priest can bring his own intention and even accept a stipend for it. Nevertheless, when it comes to the immolation of the holy Victim, this Victim is made really present only once, and so the salvific offering of that Victim is made present only once. Extrapolate over the course of the year. At a more traditional monastery of twelve ordained monks, if we count not only the private Missae recitatae (recited or low Masses) but also the community Missae cantatae (chanted or high Masses), what do we find? The living symbols of the Lord’s Passion, the full dynamism of that mystery, will have been made present upon the altar about 4,800 times each year within the walls of their most fortunate church. At a monastery where the twelve scrapped their personal Masses for concelebrated ones, the number drops drastically, to, let’s say, 400 Masses a year. We are looking at a colossal difference in sacramental mediation, priestly intercession, the irruption into the world of the Precious Blood that washes away our sins. I don’t know about you, but it strikes me that several thousand applications of the saving Passion of Christ to a world drowning in sin and suffocating with guilt is a much better prospect for the salvation of men and societies than a few hundred. But that’s just the beginning; I limited myself to one small community of monks. Imagine the difference if we multiplied these figures for all Catholic priests across the face of the earth! By the singular privilege of their ordination and its sacred character, each of them is able to offer every day the one saving Sacrifice of Calvary, but so many, in the past forty years, have chosen instead to limit themselves to a single Mass celebrated en masse.6

The problem with concelebration

If one denies that the number has any significance, is he not on the way to denying the truth of secondary causality, the truth of the historicity or temporality of grace, the truth of the ministerial priesthood, the truth that God cares for creatures—He cares so much for them that it makes a difference to him whether there are still one or two or five just men in a city of criminals? In the Catholic theology of the Mass, each priest, as alter Christus acting in persona Christi, renews the one sacrifice of Calvary, in such a way that both sides of the mystery are safeguarded: (1) there is no other and no further sacrifice than that of Christ, which in itself and with nothing else supposed suffices for the salvation of the whole of creation; and (2) there are ordained priests conformed to and participating in the unique office of the High Priest, such that there are temporally distinct makings-present or presencings of Calvary, pouring the grace and merit of the High Priest into the hearts of men here and now. If you get rid of (2), you are a classical Protestant; if you get rid of (1), you are a liberal Protestant. If you retain both and see them as mutually reinforcing, you are a Catholic. To separate one from the other destroys the sacramental economy and the truth of the Incarnation no less than if one were to separate the natures and persons in Christ, as Nestorius did.7

The abandonment of private Masses in favor of conventual Masses, the sidelining of one-priest celebration in favor of many-priest concelebration, implicitly undermines the latter truth, namely, that there are temporally distinct presencings of Calvary which are in themselves really and truly channels of grace for the world. This confirms from yet another angle that the direction of the liturgical reform, as Michael Davies and others have long maintained, has an essentially classical Protestant trajectory.

Saint Thomas Aquinas was not unaware of the custom of concelebration used on rare occasions. An article of the Summa asks “Whether many priests can consecrate one and the same host?”8 As an argument in the affirmative he brings forward a fact: “according to the custom of certain [local] churches, priests, when they are newly ordained, concelebrate with the bishop who ordained them.”9 The body of the article mentions the same custom, comparing it to the Apostles supping together with Christ at the Last Supper, and notes that when there are many priests, all direct their several intentions to one and the same instant of consecration, so that they share but one intention. Replying to an objection, Saint Thomas goes so far as to say: “Since a priest consecrates only in the person of Christ, and the many are one in Christ, for this reason it makes no difference whether this sacrament is consecrated by one or by many, except that it is necessary to observe the rite of the Church.”10 In other words, concelebration involves many priests acting as one because they have a single intention to consecrate the Eucharist. There is, then, only one sacrifice taking place when many speak the words of consecration. But precisely for this reason, the Angelic Doctor sustains the common sense view mentioned above, for as he writes elsewhere in the Summa: “In many Masses, the offering of the sacrifice is multiplied, and therefore the effect of the sacrifice and of the sacrament is also multiplied.”11 So the next time someone says “There’s nothing the matter with concelebration,” you might counter: “Sure, it’s not morally wrong, but it robs the Church and the world of so many other Masses that could have been celebrated individually by those priests, and so it deprives us of many effects that might have been obtained.”

The Popes weigh in

Is this a view sustained by the papal Magisterium? Although understandably Pope Paul VI is no hero among lovers of liturgical tradition, we should not be especially surprised to find him upholding the custom of private Masses:
We should also mention “the public and social nature of every Mass,” a conclusion which clearly follows from the doctrine we have been discussing. For even though a priest should offer Mass in private, that Mass is not something private; it is an act of Christ and of the Church. In offering this Sacrifice, the Church learns to offer herself as a sacrifice for all. Moreover, for the salvation of the entire world she applies the single, boundless, redemptive power of the Sacrifice of the Cross. For every Mass is offered not for the salvation of ourselves alone, but also for that of the whole world. Hence, although the very nature of the action renders most appropriate the active participation of many of the faithful in the celebration of the Mass, nevertheless, that Mass is to be fully approved which, in conformity with the prescriptions and lawful traditions of the Church, a priest for a sufficient reason offers in private, that is, in the presence of no one except his server. From such a Mass an abundant treasure of special salutary graces enriches the celebrant, the faithful, the whole Church, and the entire world—graces which are not imparted in the same abundance by the mere reception of Holy Communion.12
This passage is from Paul VI’s encyclical Mysterium Fidei, promulgated in 1965, after the promulgation of the star-crossed Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium.13 In it we see reproduced with utter fidelity the doctrine of Pope Pius XII, who treated of the subject at some length in his majestic encyclical Mediator Dei of 1947. Two paragraphs in particular come to mind:

Some in fact disapprove altogether of those Masses which are offered privately and without any congregation, on the ground that they are a departure from the ancient way of offering the sacrifice; moreover, there are some who assert that priests cannot offer Mass at different altars at the same time, because, by doing so, they separate the community of the faithful and imperil its unity; while some go so far as to hold that the people must confirm and ratify the sacrifice if it is to have its proper force and value.

They are mistaken in appealing in this matter to the social character of the Eucharistic sacrifice, for as often as a priest repeats what the divine Redeemer did at the Last Supper, the sacrifice is really completed. Moreover, this sacrifice, necessarily and of its very nature, has always and everywhere the character of a public and social act, inasmuch as he who offers it acts in the name of Christ and of the faithful, whose Head is the divine Redeemer, and he offers it to God for the holy Catholic Church, and for the living and the dead. This is undoubtedly so, whether the faithful are present—as we desire and commend them to be in great numbers and with devotion—or are not present, since it is in no wise required that the people ratify what the sacred minister has done.14

It would be comparatively easy to assemble reams of testimonies from Tradition and tight theological argumentation in defense of what the Popes are teaching here. That being said, there is something more that we must not forget. When it comes to mysteries beyond the reach of reason, the truth is as much a matter of that mysterious center of the person we call the “heart” as it is of the mind—a matter of whether our spiritual instincts are right, our intuitions sound, and our inmost feelings harmonious with reality. Modernism, though it claims to be from and for our feelings, exudes the lifeless chill of rationalism and freezes whatever it touches. In contrast, the dogmas and practices of traditional Catholicism, though they have at their disposal armies of ironclad scholastic proofs, breathe and sing and sigh like the living presence they mediate to us in flesh and blood.

A stream of sacrifice poured up

With this in mind, let me return, in the end, to the beginning. In one of Robert Hugh Benson’s finest novels, The King’s Achievement (1904), there is a passage that deeply resonated with me when I first read it a few years ago, as it called back to mind the short but precious time I spent with the monks of Le Barroux as well as that early morning Mass with the Abbot of Fontgombault.15 At this point in Benson’s tale, the character Christopher Torridon, a young monk at Lewes Priory, is reflecting on the daily monastic routine’s all-encompassing goal: “the uttering of praises to Him who had made and was sustaining and would receive again all things to Himself.”
They [the monks] rose at midnight for the night-office, that the sleeping world might not be wholly dumb to God; went to rest again; rose once more with the world, and set about a yet sublimer worship. A stream of sacrifice poured up to the Throne through the mellow summer morning, or the cold winter darkness and gloom, from altar after altar in the great church. Christopher remembered pleasantly a morning soon after the beginning of his novitiate when he had been in the church as a set of priests came in and began Mass simultaneously. The mystical fancy suggested itself as the hum of voices began that he was in a garden, warm and bright with grace, and that bees about him were making honey—that fragrant sweetness of which it had been said long ago that God should eat—and as the tinkle of the Elevation sounded out here and there, it seemed to him as a signal that the mysterious confection was done, and that every altar sprang into perfume from those silver vessels set with jewel and crystal.16
Now, I know there are lots of scholarly studies and popular pamphlets (especially from the 1960s and 1970s) questioning or rejecting private Masses and defending concelebration. Earlier still, Karl Rahner had sown seeds of doubt with his characteristically dense and subtle speculations. The shelves of seminary libraries groan with such materials. After slogging through page after page of effete archaeologism and voodoo sociology, however, what I always want to know is this: Why is it so hard for these people to see what Christopher Torridon (that is, Robert Hugh Benson), and generations of simple believers over the centuries have seen? It consoles me to know that every day, every year that passes, slowly but surely, the Eternal High Priest is drawing the hearts of His ministers back to the altar of God, for the service of which they were ordained; that He is calling them to “worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23). Introibo ad altare Dei, ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam. As our Holy Father said in his homily for Midnight Mass this past Christmas: “The Liturgy is the first priority. Everything else comes later.”+


  1. Editor's Note: Given the confusion surrounding this topic, it is important to define the term "private Mass." Joseph Jungmann's seminal work on the liturgy has this to say about the subject: "From these Masses said in private homes, or on an estate or at a graveside where at least a group of people, however small, attends the sservice, we must carefully distinguish the private Mass strictly so called. This we understand as a Mass celebrated for its own sake, with no thought of anyone participating, a Mass where only the prescribed server is in attendance, or even where no one is present, as was once the case in the so-called Missa solitaria. These are Masses -- contrasted to the conventual Mass and the parochial Mass -- which are most generally referred to in medieval documents as missae privatae or speciales or peculiares (J. Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite [Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1986], I:215). [back]

  2. Pius XII, Mediator Dei (1947), n. 115; cf. nn. 68-70. [back]

  3. Ibid., nn. 71-75. [back]

  4. Note that if there are twelve Priests in the community, one of them would not celebrate a private Mass that day in order to be the Priest who offers the conventual Mass in the midst of his brethren. No Priest celebrates twice a day (bination) unless pastoral need requires it, which would not be the case in such a community. [back]

  5. Leo XIII, Mirae Caritatis (1902), n. 18. [back]

  6. Some have objected that this kind of language "quantifies" grace. It does not. Rather, we must guard against "transcendentalizing" grace so that it ceases to be connected to space and time. [back]

  7. Nestorianism is "one of the great heresies of the fifth century, which broke the personal unity of Christ by positing in him two subjects [i.e., persons], one Divine and one human" (Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology [Milwaukee: Bruce, 1951], 199). In reality there is only one Person in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who assumed human nature when "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." [back]

  8. Summa theologiae III, q. 82, a. 2. [back]

  9. Ibid., sed contra. [back]

  10. Ibid., ad. 2. [back]

  11. Summa theologiae III, q. 79, ad 3: "In pluribus vero Missis multiplicatur sacrificii oblatio, et ideo multiplicatur effectus sacrificii et sacramenti." In this context St. Thomas is explaining why receiving many hosts at the same Mass does not increase the effect of the sacrament, whereas many Masses does redound to greater good. [back]

  12. Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei (1965), n. 17. [back]

  13. In fact, the Pope is quoting from that constitution in the first sentence of the excerpt, which echoes a similar phrase from Pius XII. [back]

  14. Mediator Dei, nn. 95-96. [back]

  15. My experience with the monks at Le Barroux is recounted in my article "Contemplation of Unchanging Truth," The Latin Mass vol. 17, n. 5 (Advent/Christmas 2008). [back]

  16. Robert Hugh Benson, The King's Achievement, ed. with a foreword by Francis X. Connolly (New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1957), 86. [back]

[Dr. Peter A. Kwasniewski is Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming. The present article, "Loss of Graces: Private Masses vs. Concelebration," was originally published in The Latin Mass: A Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Winter 2010), pp. 6-9, and is reprinted here by kind permission of Latin Mass Magazine, 391 E. Virginia Terrace, Santa Paula, CA 93060, and the author.]

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Indulgences: Taking Advantage of God's Mercy

by Michael P. Foley

Lent is upon us, and with it a greater opportunity for obtaining indulgences. Most Catholics are unaware of this treasure at their disposal: they view indulgences as an embarrassing relic of a corrupt medieval past, one from which the Church since Vatican II has wisely distanced herself. Their ignorance and suspicion is in turn shared by other Christians, not only anti-intellectual fundamentalists but even the well-educated. Last March, several representatives of Reformation communities visited Rome for the Pauline year and waxed critical of a recent indulgence granted to those who went on pilgrimage to the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. Their reaction prompted a helpful clarification from Walter Cardinal Kasper.1


One of the problems about discussing indulgences, the Cardinal pointed out, is that we must first grasp the deeper Catholic understanding of grace and sin. That understanding emanates from one conviction: that every sinner can become a saint. “Justification” for a Catholic does not simply mean believing that Jesus Christ is one’s personal Lord and Savior; it means becoming a living icon of Christ inside and out, a luminous reflection of the glory of God, a full restoration of the divine image and likeness in which we are made.

In the words of Dietrich von Hildebrand, “We should not forget that the Church’s doctrine of justification insists on the possibility of men being fully transformed in Christ, of their becoming saints. It is here that the deepest differences between the Catholic Church and Luther’s doctrine of sola fides is to be found.”2
Catholics believe that the grace bought for us through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ does not simply “impute” the divine charges against us in an external, forensic, or legalist manner so that we can slip into heaven without being internally changed, like a letter processed in the mail. Rather, grace not only forgives but washes away, heals, restores, and transforms.

Further, Catholics understand sin to be not just a transgression against God but a self-laceration or self-mutilation. Saint Augustine said it best: “For so you have ordained it, O Lord, and so it is: that every disorder of the soul is its own punishment.”3 Every sin is a disorder of the soul, and every disorder reaps an effect, both on myself and on others around me. Specifically, my sins pollute and corrupt myself and the rest of the world.

Consequently, the complete triumph over sin requires not only forgiveness but a healing of the wounds that sin has inflicted. Note that there is a difference between forgiveness and healing, just as there is a difference between your being saved on the operating table (which the surgeon wrought without your cooperation) and then spending the next several weeks in rehab, cooperating with the physician in your recovery. Forgiveness removes the bullet of sin, but the effects of this spiritual gunshot wound are still there and still in need of healing. This is why in the sacrament of Confession our sins our completely forgiven, but we are still given penance by the priest. Penance does not “ratify” our being forgiven or substitute for forgiveness or forgive us a second or third time; it is there to aid in the healing process, to remedy the effects of sin after the sin itself has been removed.


This brings us to indulgences. Like the penance we do after receiving absolution in Confession, indulgences are there to help us remedy the effects that our sins have had on our souls. According to Canon Law, 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 (992).
This is a fulsome definition which requires some explanation. First, “an indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven.” As we have explained, indulgences concern healing, not forgiving. The wounds of sin are their own punishment, yet even this punishment, when it is temporal rather than eternal, is remedial, ordered towards our healing and recovery. An indulgence, then, is the substitution of one form of God’s healing (remedial punishment) with another that is less painful.

Second, a Christian gains an indulgence “through the action of the Church.” Spiritual healing does not happen simply by dint of our own efforts: it is dependent on the store of graces that Christ’s victory and the merits of the saints make available. This store is called the thesaurus Ecclesiae, the treasury of the Church, and by the authority of Saint Peter’s successor, who has been given the keys to this treasure trove (Matthew 16:19), the Church dispenses it through indulgences. By doing indulgenced acts or reciting indulgenced prayers, we cooperate with the Divine Physician in accelerating the healing process of our souls. A “plenary” indulgence grants complete healing or full remission of temporal punishment, whereas a “partial” indulgence remits only some temporal punishment and confers only partial healing.

Third, a Christian must be “duly disposed” and fulfill “certain prescribed conditions.” Such qualifications remind us that indulgences are not a “Get Out of Purgatory Free” card, where the lucky winner gets into Heaven on a technicality while remaining the same warped and deviant sinner. Their purpose is the same as that of the Christian life in general: the complete transformation of the believer into a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. That is why Canon Law speaks of the believer needing to be duly disposed and fulfilling certain conditions. To obtain a plenary indulgence, for example, four conditions must be met:
  1. The sacrament of confession (a single confession may suffice for several plenary indulgences; one may go to confession within a period of about twenty days before or after doing the indulgenced act);
  2. Holy Communion (a separate Holy Communion is required for each plenary indulgence; the Church recommends but does not require that this be done on the same day as the indulgenced act);
  3. Prayer for the intentions of the Holy Father (usually by means of an Our Father and a Hail Mary; a separate act of praying for the Holy Father is required for each plenary indulgence, and it is likewise recommended that this be done on the same day);
  4. The interior disposition of complete detachment from sin, even venial sin.
Note the pervasive focus on transformation. Confession and Communion are healing sacraments, meant to aid in our spiritual conversion, to increase our charity and our unity with Christ. Similarly, for an indulgence to be plenary, the penitent must not only be free from sin but free from any attachment to sin. This is a tall order: Saint Philip Neri (d. 1595) was once granted a vision in a crowded church that revealed who was receiving the plenary indulgence being offered. There were only two: himself and an old charwoman! Fortunately, one can still receive a partial indulgence if one falls short of a plenary.

It is not necessary to fulfill these conditions for a partial indulgence. To obtain any kind of indulgence, however, one must have a general intention to do so. Consequently, many “Morning Offerings” include statements such as, “I have the intention to gain all the indulgences attached to the prayers I shall say and to the good works I shall perform this day,” and “I resolve to gain all the indulgences I can in favor of the souls in Purgatory.”4

Further, as this second statement implies, an indulgence may not be applied to another living person, but it can be applied to the deceased. Applying an indulgence to the souls in Purgatory makes sense because they are in the process of being purged or healed of the effects of their sins that have been forgiven; like us, they are undergoing temporal punishment which indulgences have the power to remit. And the fact that indulgences can be applied to the departed is a beautiful illustration of a central Christian teaching, that death has no sway over the mystical Body of Christ. After the Resurrection, Christ’s Body is never to be sundered again, and that Body includes us, His baptized faithful. The Church on earth therefore has the capacity to help the faithful in Purgatory every bit as much as she can help the faithful on earth, for death is nothing to those who live in Christ.

Dante in Purgatory by Gustave Doré

Finally, one may gain several partial indulgences in the course of a day but only one plenary indulgence. Putting all of these facts together, it is theoretically possible to receive a plenary indulgence, either for oneself or for the dead, once a day if one is a daily communicant who goes to Confession every two or three weeks.

The Enduring Myth

There are several myths about indulgences, the most enduring of which is the notion that the Church used to sell indulgences and that this corrupt practice was one of the causes of the Protestant Reformation. This claim, solemnly reported in secular history books, is a distortion of the facts.

The Church has never sold spiritual graces for money; what it did allow in the Middle Ages was an indulgence to be attached to charitable donations. There is obviously nothing wrong with donating to a charity or church. In the late Middle Ages, however, this practice was scandalously abused for clerical profit, especially in Luther’s Germany where a real-life monk named John Tetzel rivaled in odiousness Chaucer’s fictional Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales. It was because the theoretically sound practice of indulgencing charitable donations was so vulnerable to abuse that the Council of Trent decided that it was best to discontinue it. But it is inaccurate to say that the Church “stopped selling indulgences,” for it never sold them to begin with.


Another myth is that the Church “dropped” indulgences after Vatican II. The New York Times, with its typical grasp of Catholic subtleties, ran an article last year under the title “For Catholics, a Door to Absolution Is Reopened.” The internet version has an additional title: “Indulgences Return, and Heaven Moves a Step Closer for Catholics.”5 Note the numerous flaws in the titles alone: no door was re-opened, nothing returned, and indulgences, as we have already seen, are not a form of absolution. The NYT’s mélange of facts and falsehoods went on to inspire a number of shrill editorial harrumphing across the country about the Church’s alleged slide back into the “Dark Ages.”

The truth is that in 1968 Pope Paul VI issued a new Enchiridion of Indulgences.6 This marked a change for the Church, for it replaced the Raccolta or Manual of Indulgences familiar still to many traditional Catholics.7 The Raccolta is a gem, containing over 600 pages of prayers and invocations for virtually every occasion or devotion. Though the indulgences attached to it are now outdated, it is still a must-have for every traditional family.

Two changes in Paul VI’s Enchiridion are immediately noticeable. First, it omits any temporal reference to partial indulgences. Under the older arrangement, one would see statements such as “300 days” or “five years” attached to a partial indulgence. These figures, based on the stringent penitential sentences of the early Church, were used to provide some measurement of the efficacy of a partial indulgence. Unfortunately, however, many took the numbers to indicate how much one’s stay in Purgatory was being shortened, a misconception not only about indulgences but about Purgatory, which as a reality outside of time has no days or years. Though the loss of some sort of ruler is lamentable, one can understand the Pope’s desire to avoid such confusion.

Second, the new Enchiridion is far shorter: the 781 previously indulgenced prayers and works were reduced to 73. The disadvantage of this change is that many beautiful prayers have essentially been forgotten, but this does not necessarily mean that Paul VI was an enemy of these prayers or of indulgences as a whole. This can be seen in the Enchiridion’s unprecedented three “general grants” preceding the seventy particular indulgences. The first grants a partial indulgence to those who “in the performance of their duties and bearing the trials of life, raise their mind with humble confidence to God, adding, even if only mentally, some pious invocation.”8 The second grants a partial indulgence to those who “in a spirit of faith and mercy, give of themselves or of their goods to serve their brothers in need.”9 The third grants a partial indulgence to those who “in a spirit of penance, voluntarily deprive themselves of what is licit and pleasing to them.”10

The significance of these additions cannot be underestimated. Rather than limit indulgences, the pope expanded them through these general grants to virtually any prayer, good work, or abstinence, including those in the old Raccolta.11 Contrary to the widespread impression that the Church after Vatican II wished to “get away” from indulgences, she actually increased their availability.

Lenten Indulgences

There are several indulgences available during the holy season of Lent. These include the following:

A plenary indulgence for reciting the prayer “Look down upon me, good and gentle Jesus” on every Friday in Lent and Passiontide when recited after Holy Communion before an image of Christ crucified. On any other day the indulgence is partial (no. 22).

A plenary indulgence for those who piously make the Way of the Cross. There must be fourteen stations and movement from one station to the next, unless the stations are made publicly and it is not possible for everyone taking part to go from station to station except the one conducting the exercise (63).

A plenary indulgence for those who recite the Tantum ergo on Holy Thursday (59).

A plenary indulgence for devoutly assisting in the adoration of the Cross and kissing it during a Good Friday liturgical service (17).
And as we mentioned above with the second general grant, a partial indulgence is attached to any voluntary act of fasting or abstinence. Since the Lenten fast is no longer obligatory (except on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday), any Catholic who observes the traditional forty-day fast can obtain thirty-eight partial indulgences.12

Indulgences Per Annum

In addition to these seasonal indulgences, it is also helpful to recall that throughout the year one can obtain a partial indulgence for reciting the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed (16), the litanies of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, Most Precious Blood of Jesus, Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, and all Saints (29, the Magnificat (30), Memorare (32), and Miserere Mei, that is, Psalm 50 (33), the Collect of the saint whose feast day it is (54), and for using any article of devotion (crucifix, cross, rosary, scapular, etc.) properly blessed by a priest (35). There is even a partial indulgence for making the sign of the cross (55).

There are plenary indulgences, on the other hand, for a family recitation of the rosary (48), a public recitation of the rosary in a church (48), and a visit to the Blessed Sacrament or a private reading of Sacred Scripture for at least half an hour (3, 50, resp.).


We began with the observation that Catholics believe that every sinner, no matter how depraved, can become a saint. We also intimated that the transformation from one to another is a fairly extensive endeavor, which is why we should be grateful for spiritual salves like indulgences that the Church continues to make abundantly available. Indulgences are outstanding instances of God’s great generosity, a special means by which we can cooperate with our Lord in the emotional, psychological, and spiritual reformation of our souls. Catholics should not hesitate to be positively avaricious in their desire to take advantage of this gracious cure.+


  1. See "Explain Indulgences to Help Ecumenism,", 2/10/09. For a good explanation of the theology of indulgences, see Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Constitution Enchiridion of Indulgences (1968) and the 2000 document Gift of the Indulgence from the Apostolic Penitentiary, the branch of the Vatican that deals with indulgences. The FSSP also has a nice summary in their 2010 Liturgical Ordo. [back]

  2. Trojan Horse in the City of God(Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Press, 1993), p. 259. [back]

  3. Saint Augustine's Confessions 2/12/1919, trans. Frank Sheed, ed. Michael P. Foley (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett, 2005). [back]

  4. Taken from Rev. F.X. Lasance, My Prayer-Book: Happiness in Goodness (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1908), 209. [back]

  5. By Paul Vitello, 2/10/09. Cf. [back]

  6. Copies of this are easy to obtain. A word search of "Enchiridion of Indulgences" can find versions of it online (the Vatican website has it in Latin only); it can also be purchased in book form unter the titles Manual of Indulgences (USCCB and Apostolic Penitentiary, 2006) or Handbook of Indulgences (Catholic Book Publishing, 1992). [back]

  7. The last English edition was published by Benziger Bros. in 1957. It has been since reprinted by Marian House. [back]

  8. This grant is intended to "serve as an incentive to the faithful to practice the commandment of Christ that 'they must always pray and not lose heart' (Luke 18:1)." [back]

  9. This grant is intended to "seve as an incentive to the faithful to perform more frequent acts of charity and mercy" (John 13:15; Acts 10:38). [back]

  10. This grant is intended to "the faithful to bridle their passions and thus to bring their bodies into subjection and to conform themselves to Christ in his poverty and suffering" (Matthew 8:20, Matthew 16:24). [back]

  11. This is also confirmed in Indulgence no. 28: "A partial indulgence [is granted] to those who spend some time in pious mental prayer." [back]

  12. Those living in or visiting Rome should also know that a partial indulgence is granted to those who on the day indicated in the Roman Missal devoutly visit the stational Church of the day; if they also assist at the sacred functions celebrated in the morning or evening, a plenary indulgence is granted (56). [back]

[Michael P. Foley is associate professor of patristics at Baylor University. He is author of Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday?: The Catholic Origin to Just About Everything(Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) and Wedding Rites: A Complete Guide to Traditional Vows, Music, Ceremonies, Blessings, and Interfaith Services(Eerdmans, 2008). Dr. Foley's article, "Indulgences: Taking Advantage of God's Mercy," Latin Mass: The Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition Vol. 19, No. 1 (Winter 2010), pp. 44-47, is reproduced here by kind permission of Latin Mass, 391 E. Virginia Terrace, Santa Paula, CA 93060, and the author.]