QUAERITUR: privileged altars

From a reader comes a good question:

Do the spiritual concessions attached to a privileged altar still apply? I heard from a priest that they no longer do.
If a pastor of a church suspects his high altar was (or is) a privileged altar, but could not find the words altare privilegiatum, is there a place he could write to eg. Holy See, to confirm the status of the altar?

In some places, usually distinguished churches of a certain age – built long before the rethinking of how Holy Church speaks about indulgences –  there were altars to which special indulgences or privileges were attached.  You can see these altars pretty frequently in Rome.

However, my understanding is that these special privileges not longer apply, despite the fact that perhaps there remain inscriptions over or near the altars themselves.

For a clear answer… I suppose one would have to write to the Sacra Penitenzieria Apostolica or else the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments.  As a matter of fact, it would be nice to have a clear answer on this, so that the question can be settled.

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  1. When Pope Paul VI issued his legislation on indulgences in 1968, although I am not sure what number in the document, he grants that any priest who celebrates Mass with the intention of gaining the indulgence for the deceased can receive the so-called privileged altar indulgence for that deceased.

    Formerly the priest who celebrated Mass at a privileged altar and had the intention to gain the indulgence applicable to the faithful departed, gained the same indulgence as that gained by celebrating 30 day consecutive Masses referred to as the set of Gregorian Masses.

  2. Fr. BJ says:

    I highly recommend Dr. Ed Peters’ short book on Indulgences, http://www.ltp.org/p-1801-a-modern-guide-to-indulgences-rediscovering-this-often-misinterpreted-teaching.aspx

    I just read it, and it cleared up many questions that I had. If memory serves, I think he might have mentioned something about the privileged altars also. In any case, I believe the book will be able to clear up that questions as well at least by deduction from the information he presents. Very fine book!

  3. Papabile says:

    I am at work now, so do not have access to it. However, there was a dubium posited in the 1970’s that asked the question, and it was answered that the privileges no longer attached.

    One can find it in Documents on the Liturgy.

  4. MB says:

    This same question was addressed by Colin Donovan, STL on EWTN\’s Q&A site back in 2004:


    cf. #20 in Indulgentiarum doctrina.

    Donovan: \”Thus, the grants of privileged altars were suppressed. It should be noted that the following year in Enchiridion Indulgentiarum he suppressed all general and particular grants of Indulgence issued previously. However, in suppressing these grants he made new even more generous grants, so that while particular prayers on prayer cards and in prayer books with explicit grants attached (300 days, 5 years etc.) are no longer valid, any devout prayer (including those older ones) gain a partial indulgence.\”

    Personally, I feel it\’s a bit unfortunate. I think having certain altars designated as \”privileged\” helped to foster in the minds of the faithful the importance of indulgences in the life of the Church, militant and suffering; moreover, it helped to highlight the \”binding and loosing\” powers of holy mother Church.


  5. This was a good topic for discussion.

  6. Breier says:


    It’s hard to see how the grants are more generous. A partial indulgence now means that the temporal punishment remitted by a prayer is doubled. So an indulgened prayer is a prayer times two, for purgatory purposes. Is that equivolent to 300 days of the amount of temporal punishment remitted by 300 days of old style canonical penance? Seems doubtful to me.


  7. J.J. Tay says:

    In 1967 Pope Paul VI decreed in his Apostolic Constitution Indulgentiarum doctrina,

    Norm 20. Holy Mother Church, extremely solicitous for the faithful departed, has decided that suffrages [WHAT SORT?] can be applied to them to the widest possible extent [HOW WIDE? HOW POSSIBLE?? WHAT EXTEND??? COULD POPE PAUL VI NOT BE a LITTLE MORE PRECISED]at any Sacrifice of the Mass whatsoever, abolishing all special privileges in this regard.

    I fail to see the generosity, that with the publishing of this document thousands of privileged altars suddenly lost their special status.

    Purgatory and Indulgence were never taught, nor were we instructed to pray for the dead – I suspect many priests (from that generation) know nuts about it. How then are these priests going to apply the so-called “suffrages” to the faithful departed?

    Is it still worth a try, for someone (especially a clergy), to write to Rome to clarify? The abolishment of privileged altars was never published or specifically spelt out. If there were indeed such an abolishment, could the Holy See instruct on how the “new” suffrages work?

    If, with the stroke of a pen, thousands of privileged altars had lost their concessions – Couldn’t Holy Mother Church, through the holder of the keys, reinstate the status of these altars?

  8. Michael R. says:

    According to “The New Regulations on Indulgences” by Fr. Winfred Herbst (published by TAN Books), the effect of Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution is that all altars are now privileged.

  9. Mark says:


    I agree. The new “matching grant” system of designating the relative value of partial indulgences grants much less satisfaction objectively.

    However, grants of thousands of years of canonical punishment’s worth of indulgence…may have been rather superfluous. I mean, the treasury is infinite, so it’s not like they need to budget…but such large amounts had started to trivialize indulgences, perhaps, created a “partial indulgence inflation” of sorts?

    Because we must remember, as Catholic Encyclopedia says in their article on indulgences:

    “This, however, does not imply that the Church pretends to set aside the claim of God’s justice or that she allows the sinner to repudiate his debt. As St. Thomas says (Supplement.25.1 ad 2um), ‘He who gains indulgences is not thereby released outright from what he owes as penalty, but is provided with the means of paying it.’ The Church therefore neither leaves the penitent helplessly in debt nor acquits him of all further accounting; she enables him to meet his obligations.”

    Contrary to popular understanding, an indulgence does NOT cancel the debt of temporal punishment. Rather, it provides a means for paying that debt.

    A subtle but important distinction. There is no free lunch. A Catholic cannot just go to confession, communion, say a public rosary for the intentions of the Pope and think that they’d get right to heaven if they died right then and there. Even if they were totally detached from sin for the moment, per the requirements of a plenary indulgence, it would be delusional to claim that they were suddenly spiritually perfect, holy, were totally full of virtue and charity, had achieved Transforming Union, etc. Our personal sins after baptism still wound us, and confession and penance (and the indulgences that can substitute for it) are not a legalistic toggle-switch sort of thing that provide an automatic blank slate. You have to really become not lazy. Not gluttonous. Not lusting. Not prideful, etc. Catholic sanctification is not just “covering the dung heap with snow”. It is about, by God’s grace, actual transformation, actually becoming holy. I doubt many people come out of a partial indulgence suddenly humble, zealous, self-controlled, totally docile, etc. And if they arent like a little baptized baby in that regard, like an innocent little child, they cannot expect to avoid purgatory.

    An indulgence, like any penitential satisfaction…has to actually be APPLIED to transforming your soul. A plenary indulgence gives the full boon of satisfaction needed to do so (as, honestly, a partial indulgence of 30000 years would also have probably pretty much achieved).

    But who was or is actually applying them fully like that? Almost no one. Very few people I know come out of an indulgence at the full flowering of sanctifying grace, which if you dont achieve on earth, is what you get grown through in purgatory.

    Like the distinction between efficacious and sufficient grace, a plenary indulgence or large partial indulgence is SUFFICIENT to achieve that, to pay all that debt, but not necessarily EFFICACIOUS if you dont fully apply it to your spiritual perfection. And who, if we’re being honest, does? There was too much an attitude in the past of a legalistic get-out-of-jail free card, or of hoarding up partial indulgences without ever using them to pay the debt through spiritual transformation. But that’s like receiving a charitable grant to help pay of your debt…and then forgetting that you still have to use it to actually pay off the debt…and so going out and spending most of it on a car for yourself, or just leaving it under your mattress. Saying “But I have the money” is no good to the lender. You have to give it to him for the debt to be ended.

    The Church gives us the indulgence. It is up to us to give it back to God. Many forget that little caveat.

    What we call temporal punishment due to God’s justice, in the language of the Latin “legal/justice analogy”…in the Eastern “love/medicinal analogy” is really just a way of saying that the soul must be perfect and fully healed and fully grown before entering heaven, and that if we dont achieve that perfection, that death to self, on earth through ascetic self-denial…our encounter with Christ as judge will achieve it in the next life, except on the downside it wont be also meritorious (on the upside, however, there is no chance of failure).

    Like exercise, like fasting, self-denial, breaking out of the incurvatus in se…necessarily is painful and humiliating. And indulgences are a spiritual assistance in this regard from the Communion of Saints mediated by the Church, as Pope Benedict says in his encyclical Spe Salve, adopting more of this tone, “Now a further question arises: if ‘Purgatory’ is simply purification through fire in the encounter with the Lord, Judge and Saviour, how can a third person intervene, even if he or she is particularly close to the other? When we ask such a question, we should recall that no man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other—my prayer for him—can play a small part in his purification. And for that there is no need to convert earthly time into God’s time: in the communion of souls simple terrestrial time is superseded. It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain.”

    But dont think that indulgences cancel your debt. They just provide you with the means of paying it.

  10. Mark says:

    I never understood the purpose of privileged altars anyway.

    They seem to have represented a reversal of priorities.

    The PRIMARY way to help the dead is to offer Masses for them.

    In this sense, all altars are already “privileged” because Masses can be offered on them, for the dead, it goes without saying.

    Adding a plenary indulgence in addition to that, while it does no harm…seems a bit of a puny afterthought, and by treating such altars as “special” might create in the faithful a pseudo-superstitious notion of the relative value of indulgences vs the Mass itself.

    The satisfactory value of the Sacrifice of the Mass is sure to be much more important to that soul than the mere suffrage of an indulgence. So why the enthusiasm over the privilege? It seems to be sort of celebrating removing a speck, when a log has also been removed if you see what I mean…

  11. RBrown says:

    Adding a plenary indulgence in addition to that, while it does no harm…seems a bit of a puny afterthought, and by treating such altars as “special” might create in the faithful a pseudo-superstitious notion of the relative value of indulgences vs the Mass itself.

    The satisfactory value of the Sacrifice of the Mass is sure to bbe much more important to that soul than the mere suffrage of an indulgence. So why the enthusiasm over the privilege? It seems to be sort of celebrating removing a speck, when a log has also been removed if you see what I mean…
    Comment by Mark

    It must be understand that not only is the mass is objectively a sacrifice of infinite value, its subjective element, present in both the offerer and those for whom it is offered, limits the effect according their devotion.

    The subjective element is why people would rather have had Padre Pio say a mass for their intentions than a sinful priest. And it explains the need for multiple masses.

    It also is applied to indulgences. For example, objectively there is no difference between a mass said in a parish and one said while on a pilgrimage.

    St Thomas has a very interesting article on this: ST, IIIa, 79, 5.

  12. RBrown says:

    Should be: It must be understood . . .

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