The final clearing of the effects of sin

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | November 4, 2016

The apostolic pardon prepares the dead to meet God

Many of us know that Catholics should request a priest when they are approaching death. Most of us also know that, with a priest present, we have the opportunity to receive the sacrament of anointing, as well as make a last confession and receive viaticum (last Eucharist).

However, not as many of us know that a priest can also administer “the apostolic pardon for the dying.” This is sometimes called the “apostolic blessing (or benediction) with plenary indulgence.”

The apostolic pardon is part of the pastoral care given to the dying that prepares a soul to meet our loving God in the best possible state. That pastoral care covers many elements besides what was once called “the last rites.”

The apostolic pardon is a plenary indulgence, which means that it frees a person who receives it from any temporal punishment, after death, due to sin, even sin already forgiven by the sacrament of reconciliation.

The granting of the pardon is something that belongs to the pope in his role as successor to Peter, the one who holds the keys to the kingdom. Jesus promised Peter that “whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 18:18). Through the pope, this pardon is extended to all bishops through the order of apostolic succession. A priest, in turn, receives the ability to impart the apostolic pardon from his bishop.

The pardon is a plenary indulgence, and indulgences can be a confusing topic. Think of them as gifts from a loving parent who wants to give you everything. Our God is a loving and indulgent God. He showers us with grace and forgiveness. And he has given the church — the body of Christ — ways to share these gifts.

“Indulgence” comes to us from a Latin word (indulgeo), meaning “to be kind or tender.” Following the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI issued a teaching on indulgences called Indulgentaium Doctrina (1967). In it, he explained indulgences as “the remission of the temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven insofar as their guilt is concerned.”

But wait a minute, someone must be saying by now, what about reconciliation? Isn’t that all about forgiveness of sin? Why are you still talking about “punishment?” And what’s “temporal punishment?”

Absolution grants forgiveness of sins — it takes away guilt, as Pope Paul VI said. That’s why the sacrament is often called “reconciliation;” our sins are washed away and we are reunited in right relationship with God and each other.

However, there are consequences for every action, and sin is no different. While we are indeed reconciled through the sacrament, there is still the matter of just restitution. Think of it in terms of repairs after an accident. Even if we say we’re sorry about a broken window or smashed fender and are forgiven, the window or car still needs fixing. Someone has to do it and someone has to pay for it.

That repair payment serves as an analogy for what we call “temporal remission of sins.” This is where a plenary indulgence — with “plenary” meaning “completely” — comes in. Reconciliation does the repair work and the plenary indulgence (of which the apostolic pardon is one) pays for it — through the grace of God and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

The apostolic pardon developed during the time of the Crusades and was extended by the pope to soldiers setting out to the Holy Land, in case they died in battle without the final sacraments. The pardon could be received more than once, but not for the same illness or risk of death. Of course, since things happened to these soldiers after the pope’s pardon was given — some of them sinful — it became necessary for the apostolic see to extend the ability to grant the pardon to the bishops and, through them, to priests.

To this day, the pardon can be granted to a person only once during any particular illness. However, should that person recover and later become sick again, the pardon can be given again.

So, when you are dying, the ideal is to have a priest hear your final confession, anoint you, give you viaticum (which literally means “for the journey”) and impart the apostolic pardon.

But life is not usually ideal. What if no priest is there to administer the pardon? Well, remember: God is loving and indulgent.

The Handbook of Indulgences (n. 28) says, “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 (confession, anointing and viaticum) are substituted for by the condition ‘provided they regularly prayed in some way.”

So, as long as you have “regularly prayed in some way” at some time during your life — which, when you think about it, offers pretty wide parameters — the church itself grants you the apostolic pardon. (It’s good to have a cross or crucifix present, too.)

God is loving and indulgent and wants all to be saved (1 Tim 2:4). Because we need reassurance of this, especially as we approach the unknowns of death, God has given his church a multitude of blessings to impart. This apostolic pardon is one of them.


Sources: “Chancery Bulletin” of the Green Bay Diocese;;; Homiletic and Pastoral Review at;; Father Z’s blog at;  the 1983 Code of Canon Law; U.S. Catholic Catechism of Adults;; and “The Catholic Encyclopedia”


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