Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, 72, was appointed Major Penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary in Rome in 2003. He discussed indulgences, and in particular the special indulgence associated with the Year of Eucharist celebration proclaimed by Pope John Paul II.

How is the decision to grant a plenary indulgence made? Does the announcement of a plenary indulgence, such as for the Jubilee Year or the Year of the Eucharist, come primarily as a result of the Holy Father’s prerogative?

The successor of St. Peter, the Pope, possesses the power of the keys of heaven to bind and to loose. Those keys are able to open the Kingdom of heaven by taking away impediments to heaven which exist in the faithful, namely, sin and the temporal punishment due to actual sin.

The sin is taken away though the sacrament of penance. The temporal punishment, due to divine justice for actual sins, is taken away through an ecclesiastical indulgence. For a reasonable cause the Pope may exercise those powers through the granting of an indulgence. The “reasonable cause” that occasioned this particularly rich indulgence was the proclamation of the Year of the Eucharist by Pope John Paul II in the autumn of 2004.

I met with the advisors the Holy Father has granted to the Apostolic Penitentiary. These five theologians or canonists are collectively called the Segnatura. I sought their counsel concerning ways in which the Apostolic Penitentiary might assist in implementing the vision of the Holy Father expressed in his 2004 Apostolic Letter Mane Nobiscum Domine.

In that letter he wrote, “During this year Eucharistic adoration outside of Mass should become a particular commitment for individual parish and religious communities” (17). After receiving their advice, I requested from the Holy Father permission to issue the decree on special indulgences to be available to the faithful during the Eucharistic year. He readily granted that permission in December, 2004.

By delegation from the Holy Father, the Apostolic Penitentiary issued the decree. I pray that its purposes will be achieved.

How do you see the announcement of this indulgence as a continuation of the Holy Father’s continuing focus on the Eucharist, beginning with his encyclical on the Eucharist, later the apostolic letter, and the inauguration of the Year of the Eucharist?

The motives for issuing the decree conceding the special indulgence were two. The Holy Father wishes to help the faithful through the Church not only to pay the duty for sin, but also to encourage them to celebrate, worship and contemplate the mystery of faith, the holy Eucharist.

The specific indulgences granted all have an intimate connection with the faith and acts of the clergy, religious and laity before the Most Blessed Sacrament of the altar. The decree recommends various acts and prayers by which the faithful may gain a plenary indulgence and all are relation to the Eucharist.

Does the indulgence have practical significance for a practicing Catholic? Why should they be excited by it and make the effort to seek it out?

That indulgences may be gained on behalf of oneself or applied as suffrages for the dead, points to the dramatic nature of the communion of saints. Through an indulgence, the all-sufficient fruitfulness of Christ freely sacrificing himself upon the cross overflows onto the dead in purgatory for whom one prays or upon the living petitioner who is a member of his body on earth.

An indulgence is one channel for that “liquefying” of Christ’s Eucharistic body. Every Christian who gains an indulgence, i.e., the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin already forgiven, thereby projects his or her personality into eternity.

Such an act of love is another occasion for singing the praises of God. The remission is given by the apostolic authority of the Pope out of the superabundance of merits of Christ and of all the saints. What could be more dramatic?