By Andrea Tornielli
Cardinal Mauro Piacenza is the Major Penitentiary, the head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, the ecclesial tribunal responsible for issues related to the forgiveness of sins in the Church.
In this interview with Vatican News, Cardinal Piacenza explains the Decree published on Friday, which grants special indulgences to those suffering from Covid-19 (the “coronavirus”), and to their caregivers, friends and family, and those who assist them by their prayers. 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” (St Paul VI, Indulgentiarum doctrina, Norm. 1; cf. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Indulgences”, para. 1471-1479.
Vatican News (VN): Can you explain the origin of the decree on the indulgence in this time of emergency on account of Covid-19?
Cardinal Major Penitentiary Mauro Piacenca (MP): The supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls. The Church is in the world to proclaim the Gospel and to offer the sacraments; that is, the superabundance of gifts and divine grace that are put at the disposition of all. The crisis we are going through at this time, now unfortunately affecting many countries throughout the world, is manifest to everyone. We are living in a situation of emergency: there are hospitals that are at risk of not being able to receive the sick; there are sick people who are forced to live in isolation, and sadly, even to die without the comfort and closeness of their loved ones; there are sick people who are lacking the closeness of a priest for the Anointing of the Sick and for Confession. There are very many people in quarantine, and entire cities in which the population remains closed up in their homes because of the norms issued by the authorities to contain the contagion.
VN: What are the most urgent necessities?
MP: The extraordinary nature of these times demands extraordinary measures to help, to be close, to comfort, to assist, and to ensure that people are not lacking the caress of God in the face of suffering and the prospect of imminent death. For this reason, the Penitentiary, acting in the service of the Pope and with his authority, has issued the decree on indulgences.
VN: Can you list the details of this provision?
MP: First and foremost, a plenary indulgence is offered to all people suffering from the coronavirus who are in hospitals or quarantined at home. It is also offered, under the same conditions, to healthcare workers, family members, and caregivers. Furthermore, an indulgence is also offered to all those who, during this pandemic, pray for it to end, pray for those who are suffering, and [pray] for those whom the Lord has called to Himself.
VN: What are the conditions for receiving the grant of the indulgence?
MP: They are very simple. The sick and their caregivers are asked to unite themselves spiritually, wherever possible through the media, to the celebration of the Mass or the recitation of the Rosary or the Stations of the Cross or other forms of devotion. If this is not possible, they are asked to recite the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and an invocation to Mary. All others — those who offer prayers for the souls of the dead, [and] for those who suffer, and plead for an end to the pandemic — are asked, where possible, to visit the Most Holy Sacrament or to part in Eucharistic adoration. Alternatively, [they can] read the Holy Scriptures for at least half an hour, or recite the Rosary or the Way of the Cross. As is evident to all, the recitation of prayers and the reading of the Bible can be done without leaving home, and therefore in full compliance with the rules to counter the spread of contagion.
VN: And those who are close to death?
MP: Those who are close to death and are not able to receive the Anointing of the Sick, or to confess, or to receive Communion, are entrusted to Divine Mercy. The plenary indulgence is granted to each of them, provided that they are duly disposed and have regularly recited some prayer during their lifetime.
As can be seen, a great mantle of mercy is spread over all those who wish to receive it.
VN: The decree speaks everywhere of those suffering from the coronavirus. What is the significance of the fact that the indulgence is not offered to those who are sick from other causes?
MP: Let us always recall the good of souls: the decree offers extraordinary measures due to the general emergency we are experiencing. It extends to all the sick, because all those who are hospitalized today are experiencing, in one way or another, the consequences of the emergency on account of the pandemic.
VN: Let’s talk about the sacrament of Confession. Apart from individual, face-to-face confession with a priest, are there other possible ways to celebrate the Sacrament?
MP: General absolution, without individual confession, can always be given in imminent danger of death, or — the Code of Canon Law states — in cases of "grave necessity". As Apostolic Penitentiary we have made it clear that, especially in the places most affected by the contagion and until the phenomenon has ceased definitively, cases of grave necessity occur. And so the diocesan bishops, for the good of souls, can make decisions in this regard, as can priests in cases of sudden necessity, alerting their bishop or informing him as soon as possible after administering the sacrament. One might consider giving general absolution from the entrance of the hospital wards where the infected faithful are in danger of death, involving them as much as possible.
VN: What can you say about individual confession?
MP: We recommend that, where [individual confession] takes place, it should always be celebrated in full respect for the norms to contain the contagion, and therefore at a suitable distance with the use of masks, obviously always safeguarding the sacramental secret.
As the Holy Father also did in his homily at the Mass of Santa Marta on Friday 20 March, I would like to recall here the importance of the act of contrition when one is unable to confess. It is a possibility mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: the examination of conscience and the recitation of the Act of Sorrow, a true contrition accompanied by the intention not to sin anymore and to go to the confessional as soon as it is possible, are pleasing to God, reconcile us with Him and obtain the forgiveness of sins.