Each day during the week of September 17 through 21, you'll find a new question and answer. Check back every weekday and scroll down to see that day's entry! Let us know what you think--or question!--by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q. How does one obtain a plenary indulgence? -- R.N., via email
A. To receive a plenary indulgence — which remits the whole of the temporal punishment incurred by a person’s sin up to the point when it is granted (as opposed to a partial indulgence, which remits punishments only in part) — a person must meet five requirements. These are specified in number 7 of the Norms of the Indulgentiarum Doctrina (1967):
“To acquire a plenary indulgence it is necessary to perform the work to which the indulgence is attached and to fulfill three conditions: sacramental confession, Eucharistic Communion and prayer for the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff. It is further required that all attachment to sin, even to venial sin, be absent. If this disposition is in any way less than complete, or if the prescribed three conditions are not fulfilled, the indulgence will be only partial.”
So, the five requirements are these: 1) perform the work; 2) go to confession; 3) receive Eucharistic Communion; 4) pray for the Pope; 5) be detached from all sin. Traditionally it is understood that you must go to Confession, receive Communion and pray for the Pope within one week (before or after) of performing the indulgenced work.
One important question: How can we know whether we’re completely detached from sin? Here’s a thoughtful response from TCA columnist Father Frank Hoffman:
“Some would suggest that it’s practically impossible to be detached from all desire to sin. Others, more hopeful in God’s mercy, would recognize such sentiments of detachment as a free gift from God that will not be lacking if we ask for it.
“In my instruction to youngsters who are eager to gain a plenary indulgence, I recommend that they simply repeat the words of St. Dominic Savio on the day of his First Communion: ‘Lord Jesus, I love you. I would rather die than ever offend you.’”
We should also keep in mind that even if we fail to be completely detached from sin when we perform a work for a plenary indulgence, we don’t lose our reward altogether: We can still receive a partial indulgence for the work done.
Q. What’s the real meaning of the number 666 in Scripture? Are those even the correct numbers?
J. G., via email
A. TCA columnist Father Ray Ryland recently answered this question in the magazine. Here’s his reply:
In Revelation 13 we read about St. John’s vision of the two beasts who for a time will exert their power in the world. Verses 17 and 18 give a hint for identifying the second beast. Its name is encoded in a number, 666. (Some ancient manuscripts read “616” instead of “666,” and some recent historical evidence suggests that “616” is in fact the more likely original reading.)
The “real meaning,” as you say, of this number is unclear and has been widely debated for many centuries. As you’ll find in the footnotes on this passage in several versions of the Bible, each letter of the alphabets used in ancient Greek and Hebrew (the two primary languages of biblical texts) has a numerical value as well. A number of letter combinations in various names can thus add up to 666 or 616, and a number of historical figures have been “nominated” for this dubious honor.
One likely possibility here is the Roman emperor Caesar Nero. The Greek form of his name in Hebrew letters yields the sum of 666, and the Latin form yields 616. When the book was written, Nero was known to Christians as a vicious enemy of the Church, responsible for countless martyrdoms, so it would certainly be fitting to view him as the “beast” depicted in this passage.
Since the time of the Protestant Reformation, some anti-Catholic apologists have claimed that Revelation 13:18 refers to the pope as the enemy of the true faith. His title, they say, is Vicarius Filii Dei (Vicar of the Son of God). Using the value of Roman numerals, the sum of the letters in that title is 666.
Here’s how the calculation works. As in Greek and Hebrew, some Latin letters are used for numbers. “I” = 1; “V” = 5; “X” = 10; “L” = 50; “C” = 100; “”D” = 500; “M” = 1000. Letters that have no numerical value are to be ignored in calculating the numerical significance of a name. The letter “U” is treated as “V.” Since there is no “W” in Latin, it is rendered as “VV.”
The Latin title Vicarius Filii Dei, then, would be VICARIVS FILII DEI. Now apply this numbering scheme to it. You get these numbers: 5 (V) + 1 (I) + 100 (C) + 1 (I) + 5 (V) + 1 (I) + 50 (L) + 1 (I); + 1 (I) + 500 (D) + 1 (I). The total is 666. Therefore, according to these anti-Catholic apologists, Scripture plainly identifies the pope as one of the two beasts who tried to destroy the true faith.
To unwind all this, start with the fact that Vicarius Filii Dei is not the pope’s title. It is never used in any official Church document. His title is “Vicar of Christ” (Vicarius Christi), which according to the scheme given above adds up to 214. The pope has other titles: Servus Servorum Dei (Servant of the Servants of God), Pontifex Maximus (Supreme Pontiff), Successor Petri (Successor of Peter). None come even close to adding up to 666.
Incidentally, this false identification of the beast in Revelation 13:18 with the pope has often been made in Seventh-Day Adventist literature. Suppose we were to apply this numbering scheme to the name of the founder of the Adventists. Her name was Ellen Gould White. Her name in Latin adds up to 666. According to Adventist logic, then, must we conclude that the founder of their denomination is “the beast”?
Cardinal John Henry Newman commented on the polemical attempts to equate the pope or the Catholic Church with one of the beasts or with the anti-Christ. He saw in those attempts a dim, distorted perception of the truth about the Church. These opponents of the Church, he said, looking at her from the outside recognize that she is no ordinary institution, that she is indeed supernatural. Since she cannot be of Christ, they reason, she must be of Satan. That slander, in other words, at least acknowledges part of the truth about her, she who is the supernatural Mystical Body of Christ.
Q. I just recently heard about the miracle of St. Januarius’ blood. Can you explain?
C. J., Cleveland, OH
A. Today, September 19, is the Feast of St. Januarius, bishop of Beneventum, Italy, who is believed to have been executed for the Faith in the persecution of the Roman emperor Diocletian about the year 305. We know very little for certain about his life and martyrdom; the traditional accounts are quite late and probably unreliable.
We are told that Januarius was beheaded and his body brought to Naples for burial in the church there. Since that time, numerous miracles have been attributed to the saint’s relics, such as halting the eruptions of nearby Mount Vesuvius. The most famous phenomenon associated with him, however, has to do with a vial of what is claimed to be his coagulated blood.
Several times a year (including his feast day) before a packed crowd of worshippers at the Cathedral of Naples, the container is exposed during a solemn ceremony. In a brief period, usually not less than two minutes or more than an hour, the dark, solid mass can be seen to detach itself gradually from the sides of the vial, to become liquid and of a more-or-less ruby color, and on some occasions to froth and bubble up, increasing in volume. Afterward, it re-solidifies.
This event has been well-documented for centuries (since 1389), one of the few recurrent non-medical, physical phenomena viewed as a miracle by many Catholics. Yet many believers as well as skeptics simply regard it as unexplained. Some attempts to study it scientifically have been undertaken, but Church authorities are understandably reluctant to open the vial, and so far all results have been inconclusive. No natural explanation offered so far seems fully convincing.
Intriguingly, the same process of liquefaction takes place with other, lesser-known, relics, nearly all of them preserved in the vicinity of Naples or with their origins in that city. These include relics claimed to be the blood of St. John the Baptist, St. Stephen the first martyr, St. Pantaleone, St. Patricia, St. Nicholas of Tolentino, St. Aloysius Gonzaga and others.
Catholics should keep in mind that even though the Church encourages the faithful to take part in the ritual surrounding the phenomenon, it has never been officially declared a miracle by Church authorities. Scientists are free to continue their investigations and speculations, and if some natural, scientific explanation were to be established for the phenomenon, such a finding would not in any way detract from the Church’s teaching or authority.
The old Catholic Encyclopedia article online (click here) provides more details from a Catholic point of view. For an analysis by secular scientists, click here.
Q. What exactly makes a church a cathedral?
L.D., Sarasota, FL
A. Our English word cathedral comes from a Latin term, which ultimately comes from the Greek word kathédra, meaning “chair.” Since ancient times, the chair has served as a symbol of spiritual teaching authority.
A cathedral is thus the church containing the chair of the bishop, and it serves as the central church of the diocese over which he has jurisdiction. The bishop is pastor of the cathedral, but he has so many additional responsibilities for the diocese that he typically appoints a rector, that is, a priest who assumes pastoral duties in the cathedral parish on his behalf.
Usually the cathedral is the site of the principal liturgical activities of the bishop and his diocese. Here the bishop is consecrated and enthroned upon his cathedra; here diocesan synods are usually held. In his cathedral, the bishop most properly ordains, confirms, blesses holy oils, celebrates the liturgies of the Sacred Triduum, and presides at Pontifical Masses. Bishops are often buried in a cathedral crypt.
The cathedral must be located within the diocese it serves, usually in the see city where the bishop exercises his authority. Occasionally, for various historical or geographic reasons, a diocese may have two co-cathedrals, usually in different cities but sometimes in the same city. A pro-cathedral is one used by the bishop as his cathedral until a more suitable church can be built.
St. Peter’s Basilica (see tomorrow’s Q&A for more about basilicas) is commonly identified with the Pope as the Bishop of Rome. But St. Peter’s is actually not his cathedral; that honor belongs instead to the Basilica of St. John Lateran , the cathedral of Rome and the mother church of all Catholic churches.
My home parish is the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist , the cathedral of the Diocese of Savannah, Georgia. It’s a breath-taking 19th-century neo-Gothic church, visited by many thousands of tourists each year. Y’all come see it sometime!
Q. What sets apart a basilica from other Catholic churches?
Y.G., Milwaukee, WI
A. Our English word basilica comes from a Greek term meaning “royal hall.” The name was first given in a Christian context to certain fourth-century churches in Rome and elsewhere that were constructed in a pattern largely derived from Roman public and private halls. The architectural plan included a portico (covered porch with columns); atrium (open space surrounded by colonnades); and narthex (an ante-room on the far side). The church itself was usually divided by columns into a nave and two aisles, with an apse at the end with the altar at its opening.
Today we have two kinds of basilicas. The major basilicas are the great Roman churches we usually associate with the word, such as St. Peter’s and the Lateran in Rome (see yesterday’s Q&A).) Minor basilicas are other important churches in Rome and elsewhere that a Pope has honored with this title, which is accompanied by ecclesiastical privileges, such as certain indulgences.
Their distinctive emblem is the ombrellino, an umbrella striped in the papal and senatorial colors of yellow and red. In earlier times this ombrellino was carried over the Pope as he traveled on horseback for official visits. Other insignia of minor basilicas include a bell (once used to alert people to the approach of the Pope) and the papal coat of arms, which is usually displayed in the sanctuary or above the front door.
There are presently more than 1500 basilicas worldwide, most of them in Europe. The United States has 60 minor basilicas. For a list click here.
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