ASK FATHER: What’s up with the ‘penitential wand’ and indulgences?

16_12_26 rod wand ferula penitentiary confessorFrom 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.

16_12_26 easter-in-rome-the-major-penitentiary-in-st-peters-church-granted ferulaI 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.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. APX says:

    Was the penitential wand only used for that, or was it the same stick used in the formal rite of lifting an excommunication?

    I found this is the Roman Ritual and often wondered about it:

    The penitent kneels before the priest, and, if a male, his shoulders are uncovered down to his shirt. The priest, who is seated, lightly strikes the penitent with a rod or cord, reciting the following psalm:

    Psalm 50: “Have mercy on me, O God,” etc. (see Psalm 50)

  2. jhayes says:

    EWTN has this useful explanation of what those old grants of “so many days” indulgences actualy meant – and the fact that they have been abolished.

    In the past partial indulgences were “counted” in days (e.g. 300 days) or years (e.g. 5 years). Catholics often mistakenly thought that this meant “time off of purgatory.” Since there is no time in purgatory, as we understand it, it meant instead the remission of temporal punishment analogous to a certain amount of penitence as practiced in the early Church. This was a very generous standard, since the penitence required for sacramental absolution in the early centuries was arduous, indeed. However, with Pope Paul VI’s 1968 revision of the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum (Collection or Handbook of Indulgences), this confusing way of counting partial indulgences was suppressed, and the evaluation of a partial indulgence left to God.

    There are many prayers still circulating on prayer cards and in prayer books which have partial indulgences in days and years attached to them. However, all grants of indulgence issued prior to 1968, unless re-issued in the Enchiridion or specifically exempted by papal decree or privilege, were suppressed by Pope Paul VI. Thus, these many specific prayers with their attached indulgences, as well as the manner of measuring partial indulgences, are no longer valid. Some of them may still receive an indulgence, though, because of being re-issued in the new Enchiridion (e.g. the Anima Christi, the Prayer before a Crucifix and many other formal prayers). All other prayers previously indulgenced could, nonetheless, receive a partial indulgence under the general grants of indulgence which Pope Paul VI, and Pope John Paul II in his 1999 revision of the Enchiridion, established. These general grants establish partial indulgences for devout prayer, penitence and charity, and are a new and very generous inclusion in the Church’s grants of indulgence. They have made it unnecessary to grant specific indulgences to prayers and other pious acts, as was done in the past.


  3. Huber says:

    When you are Pope, Father, please also institute an “unpenitential wand” for use in whipping unrepentant promoters of heresy (and maybe the odd infidel tourist misbehaving in an Archbasilica).

    [No no. They will be turned over to the reinstated Noble Guard, which will be a less than agreeable experience.]

  4. jaykay says:

    Hmmm…I’m thinking it adds a new dimension to “I will make you fishers of men”(ooops, persons, mustn’t be rigid). But, this is so cool! A cool tool, a baculum frigidum, even. Sed non rigidum. Numquam rigidi estote.

  5. chantgirl says:

    Wait, all of those ruler-toting nuns (I’ve heard tales, but never met one!) weren’t carrying penitential wands?

    As a parent, a penitential wand sounds like it might be a useful implement, more to inflict penance than to absolve of it ;) Perhaps I will rename my spatula the “penitential wand”.

  6. Cantor says:

    Nearly the opposite of Aubrey’s day when the bailiff with a touch of his “tipstaff” would arrest you for debt!

    [Nice O’Brian reference! But the idea is the same: the staff is a symbol of jurisdiction.]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  7. WmHesch says:

    Their use could arguably still be VALID, simply as an accoutrement, to the First and Third General Grants of Indulgence

  8. JonPatrick says:

    Chantgirl, when I attended Catholic School in England in the 1950’s the nuns had recourse to a cane about 2-3 feet long, about the diameter of a fishing rod, which was used to deal with various kinds of misbehavior, usually a couple of wacks around the ankles (we boys all wore short pants in those days so we were somewhat vulnerable in that area).

  9. APX says:

    all of those ruler-toting nuns (I’ve heard tales, but never met one!)
    I’ve never met one either, but my mom took piano lessons from the Ursaline sisters and apparently they used to smack students’ fingers if they used the wrong fingers while playing. My mom gave my piano teacher permission to do the same…

  10. Fr_Sotelo says:

    So now we know where Harry Potter got his idea for a wand. Always copying Mother Church.

  11. Doug says:

    I’ve read all the scripture there is on your Eucharist. 12 men reclining at table; cup of wine; plate of flat bread; simple instructions to be followed. Later, the Grand Commission; ‘Go, teach.’ Now I see here [electronic] pages of notes and comments on this obscure corner of [non-Biblical] history, to be cherished by its In Crowd.
    It’s no wonder that many commentators, including one of your fellows regularly on, notice that young people are avoiding your “catholic” religion in droves. Connection?

  12. Worm-120 says:

    Doug young people are leaving religion period. Most of my age group (20somethings) isn’t to be found in religious houses of any denomination. But the ones who stay or converted are often very interested in history and cool catholic trivia:)

  13. FrCharles says:

    Now I have a better interpretation of when Fr. Florio always used to ask me in the morning, Sei abbacchiato?

    [Well… that’s like asking if you are down or tired… “beat” in the sense of being depressed or weary. It does come etymologically from Latin baculum.]

  14. FrCharles says:

    Thanks, Fr. Z. Just being funny. Fr. Florio was our General Postulator when I first came to Rome. Once I helped him burn up the holy cards of blesseds who had become saints. Blessed New Year to you!

  15. robtbrown says:

    Doug says:

    28 December 2016 at 5:20 PM

    I’ve read all the scripture there is on your Eucharist. 12 men reclining at table; cup of wine; plate of flat bread; simple instructions to be followed. Later, the Grand Commission; ‘Go, teach.’ Now I see here [electronic] pages of notes and comments on this obscure corner of [non-Biblical] history, to be cherished by its In Crowd.
    It’s no wonder that many commentators, including one of your fellows regularly on, notice that young people are avoiding your “catholic” religion in droves. Connection?

    In so far as you have read all the Scripture there is on the Eucharist, could you please cite the Scriptural text instructing us not to consult later commentators on the Eucharist? What is the Scriptural basis for avoiding the commentaries of Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose, and Thomas Aquinas?

  16. Doug says:

    Worm, I have a hard time thinking of someone who is interested mostly in “cool… trivia” as a useful member of any religious group.
    Isn’t it true that the young often see themselves as correctors of the world they inherit? They’re often a pain in the apse, but their intentions are good and they have the vitality of youth. (Ec 12:1) What I did- and do- enjoy is having a handle on the many problems of the day. Scripture gives me this, not Canon Law. If someone asks a young Catholic if there will ever be an end to badness on the earth, can he (or she) take them to a key part of the Paternoster, “on earth as it is in heaven”? That answer would be a start at easing the mind of the hearer and taking him to a source of wisdom and authority beyond man’s. And do I understand correctly that your Pope sees the value of evangelism, that is, ‘spreading good news’? What do you think?

  17. Doug says:

    Robt, St Paul was one such commentator (1 Cor 11:23 ff.) He begins, “For the tradition I received from the Lord…”, then he goes on to describe the same scene I paraphrased from the Gospel accounts. Compare that with the complexity of the Mass today. No mention of the presence of a monstrance or its handling. Both species offered and taken by the celebrants (plural). The appurtenances of today were brought in over time, and any historian of religion can tell you of a time when it was worth a man’s life to insist on partaking of the wine. All these things were discussed by the Fathers and Doctors (as you call them, I think). None of them laid out the Mass as done today; all was put together over time. So, my first question would be, ‘Which Father or Doctor should I read?’


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