From a reader…
I recently read about the indulgences formerly attached to being touched by the ‘penitential wand’ in Rome in the Raccolta. I’ve been trying to find more information about this practice online, all to no avail. I wonder if you could write about it? Seems like something as ‘rigid’ as this could do us well these days!
Right. We are now into serious Catholic cool arcana.
The penitential virga or ferula, bachetto penitenziario, wand, or rod, is sadly out of use … for now.
These were instruments – longish rods – used by special confessors with wider jurisdiction and my major and minor penitentiaries, especially the Major Penitentiary of the Church, whose jurisdiction when it comes to matter of confession or indulgences is second only to the Pope’s.
I suspect it’s use stemmed from Ps 23: “Virga tua et baculus tuus consolata sunt… Thy rod and thy staff they have comforted me.” The sight of these churchy gizmos would have given great confidence and consolation to the penitent or one seeking an indulgence; he would know that this confessor had greater jurisdiction.
In the great Roman Major Basilicas there were special indulgences granted to pilgrims on certain days of the year and special occasions. You would approach the Major (or Minor) Penitentiary, seated on his great throne-like chair (for he was like a tribune or judge), kneel before him and – if you had a document saying that you had fulfilled your pilgrimage, etc., it would be brought to him – he would then bop you on your penitential head with the penitential wand in his benignity, thus granting you the indulgence. There is still one of these chairs in St. John Lateran.
At first, I think there were only 10 days indulgence granted by Benedict XIII, of happy recollection, and Benedict XIV of even happier memory increased that to 40. on certain days it was of 100 days. In 1917 it was increased to 300 days… inflation?
When we are elected Pope, this practice will return.
Their use extended even into the time of Our predecessor Paul VI. There were attached to the doors of the confessionals in St. Peter’s a rod rather like a standard fishing in dimensions which the penitentiaries, confessors, would use to grant indulgences with a tap on the head to those who passed by and requested one.
It is to be suspected that sometimes their use might possibly have been – in the right hands – wrong hands? – a source of general amusement. This may be why Paul VI made the mistake of getting rid of them.