ASK FATHER: What is a “privileged altar”?

From a reader…


I’ve occasionally seen high altars inscribed with the phrase, “altare privilegiatum.”

1) What does (did?) this mean and how did an altar become privileged?

2) Does this still apply today?

Sometimes you will find in older churches a plaque or inscription at an altar that says ALTARE PRIVILEGIATUM, or “Privileged Altar”.   It used to be that when, usually -rubrics permitting – a Requiem Mass was read at that altar, a plenary indulgence was granted to the person for whom the Mass was said.  This was primarily for the sake of the Poor Souls in Purgatory.  On feasts days, etc., another Mass could also gain the indulgence.  The “privilege” was attached to the place, not to the physical altar,  Also, the privilege could also be given to a certain priest, so that no matter where he celebrated a plenary could be gained!  Very cool.

Alas, this is no long in effect.  Pope Paul “The Suppressor” VI abolished all these privileges attached to altars in 1967 with his Apostolic Constitution Indulgentiarum doctrina.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. WmHesch says:

    The way I read Norm number 20 in Paul VI apostolic letter, ALL altars are now privileged.

    The only other way to read it (i.e. That NO altars are privileged) would be inconsistent with the sentiment expressed in the same sentence that suffrages for the dead be applied “to the widest extent possible”

  2. WmHesch says:

    Also prior to the indulgence reform, altars were privileged for the souls of anyone enrolled in the brown or blue scapular… Which at the time was almost all practicing Catholics.

    A priest could apply to Rome for the privileged altar “ad personam”- the faculty was seldom refused, and it typically came with the condition of having a privileged altar twice a week.

    In the US, bishops had the faculty of designating one altar in every parochial church privileged, so by 1968, almost all requiem Masses were said on privileged altars.

    Paul VI simply went a small step further by extending it to everyone. Analogously, the papal blessing parchments used to have the practical purpose of extending the plenary to a person and their relatives to the 2nd degree inclusive. Pope Paul simply extended the indulgence “in articulo mortis” to everyone.

  3. Giuseppe says:

    I like to think of Pope Clement XIV as “The Suppressor”

    [Sure! I’m good with that, too!]

  4. KateD says:

    What does the the term, in Indulgentiarum Doctrina, “toties quotes” refer to?

  5. Latin toties quoties means “as often as”, or rather, “However so often the conditions occur.” So, once it was possible to get a toties quoties indulgence even many times a day by doing the indulgenced work many times, etc. Today that is not possible.

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