(I thought I’d blogged on this before, but I can’t find it, so I guess not.)
Today is the feast day of St. Gertrude the Great, famed for her mystical experiences. She is most famous today perhaps for a prayer attributed to her which is said to release 1,000 souls from Purgatory every time it’s said. Unfortunately, the claims associated with this prayer are deeply problematic. (The text of the prayer itself is fine.)
First, there’s no evidence that it actually comes from St. Gertrude. It’s not found anywhere in her extant writings.
Second, it makes a mockery (unintentionally, to be sure) of the Church’s practices concerning indulgences. A plenary indulgence releases one person from Purgatory, and a person can only gain one plenary indulgence a day. Plenary indulgences are given for such things as half an hour of Eucharistic Adoration, half an hour of study of the Scriptures, and the public recitation of the Rosary. They also require Communion and Confession within a reasonable timespan, and freedom from attachment to sin. All this is for one soul. Does it make sense that a single, very brief prayer could substitute for 1,000 such acts?
Third, the mathematics doesn’t work. If 1,000 people say this prayer for 1,000 days (around 2 years and 9 months), and if 1,000 souls are freed each time the prayer is said, that would free 1,000,000,000 (one billion) souls from Purgatory. Given the number of people who pray this prayer, it would seem the Purgatory would have been emptied long since!
Fourth, this devotion is akin (and probably stems from) a flood of similar devotions that arose around the end of the 19th Century. The Holy See–specifically, the Sacred Congregation on Indulgences–found it necessary to issue two statements on these devotions. The first condemned several devotions described in detail in the decree. Apparently the Congregation then became aware of more widespread problems and issued a set of general principles condemning “indulgences … which are circulated in books, pamphlets (printed or handwritten) in which–based on trivial or even superstitious reasons, and uncertain revelations, or under illusory conditions—indulgences are promised going beyond the usual ways of grace;” and “Pamphlets and books … in which is promised to the faithful the liberation of one or of several souls from Purgatory by the recitation of one prayer or a few prayers.” (Both translations mine.) The first decree is in Acta Sanctae Sedis 31, pp. 727 ff., and the second is Acta Sanctae Sedis 32, pp. 241 ff. I have appended to this post relevant sections of the decrees both in Latin (not all OCR errors fixed, probably) and in my English translation.
By all means, pray for the poor souls! But it would be better to concentrate your efforts on means of more certain effectiveness.
Acta Sanctae Sedis 31, pp. 727 ff.
From the Sacred Congregation on Indulgences
A decree concerning false Indulgences
Many pamphlets have been sent to the Sacred Congregation established for Indulgences and Sacred Relics which set forth prayers with unauthorized indulgences attached to them; moreover, grave doubt arises from law and merit concerning their authenticity. Again this Sacred Congregation, in order that Christ’s faithful may no longer be led into error—especially in these times when a pretext from the midst of the Church is taken by [her] enemies for the sake of mocking the invaluable treasury of indulgences, which is to be administered with righteousness, holiness, and integrity—considered it its duty to command that these pamphlets be brought for examination. Since there is indeed found in them the promulgation of indulgences that are false, apocryphal, and in every way unauthorized, the Congregation has in no way delayed to judge that these pamphlets ought to be prohibited, and that the Indulgences set forth within them are declared to be apocryphal and false.
Therefore the Eminent Fathers assembled in general committee at the Vatican on 5 May 1598, after every mature consideration, unanimously voted: The above-mentioned pamphlets referred to this Sacred Congregation are to be proscribed in every way, and the the Indulgences attached to them (should they be recited) are apocryphal and falsely attached.
Approved by Pope Leo XIII in an audience held 26 May 1898.
[The Congregation then gave a list of the pamphlets in question. I have not tried to translate them in full; instead, I have given brief summaries that I hope are adequate to identify the problematic materials.]
- A litany to the Blessed Virgin Mary of Sorrows (not the Litany of Loretto) said to have been composed by Pope Pius VII. The first few invocations are:
- Sancta Dei Genitrix,
- Sancta Virgo Virginum,
- Mater crucifixa,
- Mater dolorosa,
- Mater lacrymosa,
- A devotion to the Crown of Thorns.
- A revelation attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux.
- Corona de los Merecimientos de la Pasión y Muerte de Nuestro Señor Jesu Cristo (A crown of the merits of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ)
- Words from the Blessed Virgin Mary of Sorrows when she received in her arms her beloved son. Alleges that 15 souls are released from Purgatory when the prayers are said. Approvals attributed to Pope Innocent XI, confirmed by Pope Clement III, Pope Benedict XIV, and Pope Pius IX.
- Extract from the life of Blessed Innocent, brother of the Friars Minims, of singular virtues and miracles, who died in Rome on 15 December 1631. (French)
- A prayer to the Savior of the World, claiming to be indulgenced by Popes Boniface VIII and Benedict XIII. Also a prayer attributed to Pope St. Gregory (it doesn’t say which). Also a prayer to the Holy Cross releasing five souls from Purgatory, said to be approved by Pope Eugenius III. Also a prayer against the plague. Also a prayer with an indulgence said to be granted by Pope Pius VI.
- A devotion to the drops of Christ’s Blood, said to be encouraged by Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Mathilda, and St. Bridget. [This one is still in circulation in some circles, BTW. I found a copy among the devotionals in a parish I was visiting.]
- A devotion to St. Anthony referring to him as the “great wonderworker” or “caster-out of demons.”
- A pamphlet in Italian entitled: “The Crown of the Lord: its origin, meaning and indulgences, and some methods for reciting it with devotion and spiritual profit”
EX S. CONGREG. INDULGENTIARUM
URBIS ET ORBIS. Decretum de Indulgentiis apocryphis.
Ad hanc S. Congregationem Indulgentiis Sacrisque reliquiis praepositam plura delata sunt folióla quae preces referunt cum indiscretis indulgentiis eisdem attributis, ac proinde iure meritoque de illarum authenticitate grave dubium obortum est. Porro haec S. Congregatio, ne Christifideles diu in errorem pertrahantur, utque, hisce praesertim temporibus, Ecclesiae hostibus omnis e medio tollatur praetextus irridendi inaestimabilem Indulgentiarum thesaurum, qui pie, sancte et incorrupte est administrandus, sui muneris esse duxit haec folióla ad examen revocare, et siquidem repertum est in illis promulgari Indulgentias falsas, apocryphas et omnino indiscretas, haud cunctandum existimavit quin praefata folióla prohibeantur, et in eisdem assertae Indulgentiae declararentur apocryphae et falsae.
Quare Emi. Patres in generalibus Comitiis ad Vaticanum sub die 5 Maii 1898 coadunati, omnibus mature perpensis, unanimi suffragio rescripserunt: praefata folióla ad hanc Sacram Congregationem delata fore omnino proscribenda, eisque adnexas, uti dictitatur, Indulgentias apocryphis et falsis esse accensendus.
Acta Sanctae Sedis 32, pp. 241 ff.
From the Sacred Congregation on Indulgences
A decree concerning norms and regulations for distinguishing true indulgences from false ones.
[Rules I-III state that all the indulgences in the official Collection are authentic; that new ones may be added in the future but should be submitted to the Congregation before being printed; and that Ordinaries and heads of religious confraternities, sodalities, etc., can grant indulgences as long as the Congregation approves them.]
Rule IV: Indulgences are not to be held as authentic whether in general or in particular if they are held in books, pamphlets, etc., or even in the imagination, if they are printed without the approval of a competent authority; and this approval is to be granted after a diligent examination and by express statement.
All indulgences are apocryphal, or at least are revoked from now on, which speak of any temporal concession of a thousand or more than a thousand years.
Plenary indulgences should be suspected which claim to grant a concession by the recitation of only a few words, except for indulgences at the hour of death.
Indulgences should be rejected as apocryphal which are circulated in books, pamphlets (printed or handwritten) in which—based on trivial or even superstitious reasons and uncertain revelations, or under derisive conditions—indulgences are promised going beyond the usual ways of grace.
Rule VIII: Pamphlets and books are to be regarded as rejected in which is promised to the faithful the liberation of one or of several souls from Purgatory by the recitation of one prayer or another; and said indulgences, which usually are attached to promises, are to be held as apocryphal.
Apocryphae, vel nunc prorsus revocatae, sunt omnes Indulgentiae mille vel plurium millium annorum quocumque tempore concessae dicantur.
Suspectae habeantur Indulgentiae plenariae quae asseruntur concessae recitantibus pauca dumtaxat verba: exceptis Indulgentiis in articulo mortis.
Reiiciendae sunt ut apoeryphae Indulgentiae, quae circumferatur in libellis, foliis seu ehartulis impressis vel manuscriptis, in quibus ex levibus aut etiam superstitiosis causis et incertis revelationibus, vel sub illusoriis conditionibus promittuntur Indulgentiae et gratiae usum et modum excedentes.
Ut commentata reiicienda sunt folia f et libelli, in quibus promittitur fidelibus unam alteramve precem recitantibus liberatio unius vel plurium animarum a Purgatorio: et Indulgentiae quae dictae promissioni adiici solent ut apoeryphae habendae sunt.
Apocryphae, vel saltem ut graviter suspectae, habeantur, Indulgentiae recentioris assertae concessionis, si ad inusitatum numerum annorum vel dierum producuntur.