Pope Francis delivers his blessing from the window of his private library overlooking an empty St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, March 22, 2020. During his weekly Sunday blessing, held due to virus concerns in his private library in the Apostolic Palace, he urged all Christians to join in reciting the ''Our Father'' prayer next Wednesday at noon. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Pope Francis will offer plenary indulgence in response to coronavirus

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Pope Francis announced on Sunday (March 22) that he will be delivering an extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing and indulgence due to the coronavirus pandemic that has been disrupting the world and has had its largest outbreak in Italy.

“Next Friday, March 27, at six in the evening (Italian time) I will preside over a moment of prayer on the sacristy of the Basilica of St. Peter’s with an empty square,” Francis said after his weekly livestream of the Angelus Prayer on Sunday.

“We will listen to the Word of God, we will raise our plea, we will adore the Holy Sacrament, and at the end I will give the Urbi et Orbi Blessing, which allows the possibility to receive the plenary indulgence.”

The Urbi et Orbi, meaning "to the city and the world," is a blessing usually delivered by the Roman pontiff at Christmas and Easter. It offers plenary indulgence, the forgiveness of sins, to faithful present and those watching through media outlets.

The prayer will be livestreamed by Vatican News and broadcast by numerous media outlets all over the world, a Vatican statement announced on Monday (March 23).

People wishing to receive the plenary indulgence usually must have confessed their sins and received Holy Communion. However, most masses and sacraments have been banned in Italy, where the coronavirus pandemic has killed 6,078 people as of Monday, and over 60,000 are known to be infected.

Starting last week, Pope Francis has encouraged Catholic faithful to turn to “spiritual communion” and “individual confession,” rarely used practices that allow those who do not have access to the sacraments to still take part in them.

The Vatican department charged with matters of conscience, the Apostolic Penitentiary, announced on Thursday (March 19) that it would be offering indulgences for all those affected by the coronavirus and the medical workers who are the most exposed to contracting it.

“The present moment in which the entirety of humanity finds itself threatened by an invisible and insidious illness, which for a time now has bullied its way into everyone’s lives, is punctuated day after day by anxious fears, new uncertainties and especially by widespread moral and physical suffering,” the statement by the Apostolic Penitentiary reads.

For this reason, it stated, faithful will have to take necessary precautions to access the sacrament of confession, following the leadership of the diocesan bishop. In the places hit the hardest by the virus, such as Italy’s north, the Apostolic Penitentiary allowed priests to issue a collective indulgence after receiving permission by their local bishop.

It also suggested the creation of extraordinary groups of chaplains, on a voluntary basis and with the permission of health authorities, to administer sacrament to the sick and the dying. Where this isn’t possible, it said, faithful may personally ask for forgiveness for their sins, even mortal sins, with the promise of going to confession as soon as possible.

In a majority-Catholic country where hundreds are dying every day from coronavirus without access to sacraments, these practices have found a new life and purpose, changing the way faith is experienced in Italy today and with unknown consequences for the future.

“We wish to respond to the virus pandemic with the universality of prayer, compassion, tenderness,” the pope said. “Let’s remain united. Let our closeness be felt by those people who are the most alone and the most tested.”

Francis also announced he will be praying the Our Father on Wednesday (March 25), and he encouraged church leaders and faithful all over the world to join him “in these trying days, while humanity trembles due to the menace of the pandemic.”