Pope Francis authorizes plenary indulgences and general absolution as coronavirus crisis escalates

Pope Francis delivers the homily as he celebrates morning Mass March 20, 2020, in the chapel of his Vatican residence, the Domus Sanctae Marthae. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)Pope Francis delivers the homily as he celebrates morning Mass March 20, 2020, in the chapel of his Vatican residence, the Domus Sanctae Marthae. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Seeking to bring God’s mercy and consolation to people everywhere during the coronavirus pandemic, Pope Francis has authorized the granting of a plenary indulgence under specific conditions to all the faithful who are victims of coronavirus, as well as to their family members, health workers, and all others who care for them, including those who simply pray for them.

He has also reminded bishops and other pastors throughout the world of the possibility of granting “general absolution” to the faithful, “without prior individual confession,” in situations such as the present emergency, especially in zones most badly hit by the crisis.

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The Vatican announced these advisories on March 20, publishing two texts from the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Roman Curia office that dates back to the 12th century which deals with matters of the “internal forum”—how individuals come to personal moral decision-making—the granting of indulgences and other questions.

The decree states that the faithful can gain this plenary indulgence in a variety of ways while the pandemic lasts, such as by praying before the Blessed Sacrament, making Eucharistic Adoration or reading the Sacred Scriptures for a half an hour or more.

[Explore all of America’s in-depth coverage of the coronavirus pandemic]

The first text from the Apostolic Penitentiary is a decree on special indulgences issued “with the authority of the Roman Pontiff” and signed by the church’s major penitentiary (confessor), Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, and the regent of that office, Monsignor Krzysztof Nykiel. It is valid for as long as the pandemic lasts.

The second text from the Apostolic Penitentiary consists of an important note explaining the administration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation during the coronavirus pandemic, including the possibility of general absolution without the need for the penitent to first make an individual confession.

The Apostolic Penitentiary’s decree on the indulgences recalls that “the church has always at heart the assistance to the sick” especially at “this present moment in which the whole of humanity, threatened by an invisible and insidious virus that has already entered powerfully to become a part of the daily life of everyone, is hit day by day by anguished fears, new uncertainties and above all physical and moral suffering.”

It explains how the faithful who are afflicted by the coronavirus, including those on their death beds and unable to receive the Anointing of the Sick or those who are hospitalized, in quarantine or confined to their homes, can obtain the plenary indulgence. It asks that in their hearts they detach themselves from all sin and unite themselves spiritually through the means of social communication with Mass, the recital of the rosary or the Stations of the Cross or that they simply recite the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and say any prayer to Our Lady. In other words, by praying in some way or other.

The decree extends this possibility to all health workers who are caring for the stricken at risk to their own health, including doctors, nurses, other hospital staff and volunteers, as well as family members and others who may care for Covid-19 victims in any way, also by simply praying for them.

Pope Francis reminded bishops of the possibility of granting “general absolution” to the faithful in situations such as the present emergency, especially in zones most badly hit by the crisis.

They can obtain the indulgence in the same way, also by simply reciting the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and saying any prayer to Our Lady. It says they should have the intention of going to confession and receiving the Eucharist and praying for the pope’s intentions once this is possible after the pandemic ends.

The decree also states that other members of the faithful can gain this plenary indulgence in a variety of ways while the pandemic lasts, such as by praying before the Blessed Sacrament, making Eucharistic Adoration or reading the Sacred Scriptures for a half an hour or more. They can also recite the Rosary of Divine Mercy, asking God to rid the world of the pandemic, to relieve the victims and for the salvation of all those who have died. It says they should have the intention of going to confession and receiving the Eucharist and praying for the pope’s intentions once this is possible after the pandemic ends.

The note of the Apostolic Penitentiary regarding the administration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation explains that in the time of Covid-19 the sacrament can be administered in the normal way where possible through the individual confession, but it recognizes the possibility of the administration of “general absolution” to members of the faithful together without “individual confession” in times of “imminent danger of death,” as explained in the code of Canon Law 961. It recalls that the decision regarding the presence of this danger lies with the local bishop.

The Apostolic Penitentiary in its note has determined that “the cases of grave necessity” envisaged by Canon Law 961 apply today “especially in places that are most affected by the pandemic contagion, and last until the [Covid-19] phenomenon has ended.” It added that “any further specific determination” regarding general absolution “is assigned by law to the diocesan bishops, always taking account of the supreme good of the salvation of souls.”

It is up to the diocesan bishop to advise priests during the present pandemic on how best to administer the sacrament by individual confession.

It said that whenever a priest is faced with “the unforeseen situation of having to impart sacramental absolution to several faithful”—in other words, to give general absolution, he should first inform the bishop, if possible, or otherwise tell him afterward.

It also says it is up to the diocesan bishop to advise priests during the present pandemic on how best to administer the sacrament by individual confession, taking all the necessary precautions regarding health and the protection of the seal of the sacrament. It said, moreover, that the bishop together with the local health authorities should consider the need and opportunity of establishing teams of “extraordinary hospital chaplains,” on a voluntary basis and respecting the health norms, “to provide spiritual assistance to the sick and the dying.”

It reminds bishops and priests to tell the faithful that in situations where they cannot obtain “sacramental absolution” they should seek to make an act of perfect contrition and entrust themselves to the mercy of God, and ask pardon, with the intention of going to confession when possible.

Pope Francis expressed his ongoing concern for people affected by the coronavirus epidemic worldwide in an interview given to Domenico Agasso, the Vatican correspondent for La Stampa, an Italian daily.

He said the coronavirus pandemic reminded him of “when the Apostles were with Jesus in the boat and a storm arose and they shouted to him saying, ‘Master, we are drowning’.”

He said “that prayer helps us to understand our vulnerability. It’s the cry of the poor, of those who are drowning, who feel in danger, alone. But in a difficult, desperate situation, it’s important to know that there is the Lord whom we can hold onto. He sustains us in many ways. He transmits strength and closeness, as he did to the disciples in the midst of the storm when they asked for help.”

In this crisis, Francis said, “I do not wish to distinguish between believers and non-believers. We are all human beings and, as human beings, we are all in the same boat. And nothing that is human can be alien to a Christian. Here one cries because one suffers. We have in common our humanity and suffering…. We should not make a difference between believers and non-believers. Let us go to the roots: our humanity. Before God, we are all his children.”

He added that when the pandemic ends, the experience may be a little like after the end of World War II. “There will not long be ‘the other’ but the ‘us,’” Pope Francis said, “because we can only get out of this situation all together.”

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