§ 48. What is a Privileged Altar?
274. In his book on Indulgences Beringer defines a privileged altar as follows: "A privileged altar is one which is endowed by special favor of the Pope with the privilege of imparting a plenary indulgence to the priest who says Mass there, which indulgence is to be offered by way of suffrage for a soul departed in the state of grace; so that this soul is released from the torments of Purgatory by application of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin and all the saints." This definition is in full accord with a Brief of Pope Pius VI., dated August 30, 1777, in which the grant of such a privilege is explained as follows: "Every time a priest, secular or regular, will celebrate Mass on this altar, we grant to the soul of the departed faithful for whom the Holy Sacrifice is offered an indulgence by way of suffrage, so that the soul is released from the torments of Purgatory by virtue of the treasury of the Church; that is, by application of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin and all the saints."
275. This privilege is local; that is, it is restricted to a certain place, viz. to the altar for which it was granted. The same privilege however may be granted also to a priest personally, and then it is called a personal privilege of the altar. A personal privilege of the altar therefore means that the indulgence is not connected with a certain altar in a certain church, but with the person of the priest; so that a plenary indulgence is gained through a Mass said by a priest thus favored as if he had said the Mass at a privileged altar.
To gain such an indulgence the following conditions must be observed:
a) The Mass must be said for the soul of the person to whom we intend to apply the indulgence.
b) The privilege of the altar can be applied only to one soul, even when the Mass is said for several or all the faithful departed.
c) The priest celebrating Mass at a privileged altar, or having the personal privilege of such an altar, may apply the ordinary fruits of the Mass to several souls; but he must single out at least in his mind the soul of a particular person in Purgatory to whom he intends to apply the privilege of the altar, or the indulgence gained by this Mass.
d) On days when it is permitted the priest must say the Mass of Requiem in black vestments, when he intends to apply the privilege of the altar to the soul of a deceased person.
276. A difference between the indulgence of a privileged altar and other indulgences applicable to the souls in Purgatory is observable in the fact, that the gaining of the former is surer, because by the privilege of the altar the plenary indulgence is connected with the celebration of Mass, and is not dependent on the state of grace of the priest celebrating, or of the person ordering the Mass. This indulgence is a plenary one; and according to Beringer, it is sufficient of itself to procure to the soul for whom it is applied an immediate release from Purgatory, because the Supreme Pontiff, in virtue of his spiritual power, grants sufficient atonements and merits from out of the treasury of the Church to cause the release of that particular soul.
Another question is, whether or not this indulgence is applied in every case and in its full extent to the soul for whom it is intended. According to a declaration of the S. Congregation of Indulgences, July 28, 1840, this application is beyond the power of the Church, and depends solely on the mercy of God. Since we can never know whether the indulgence of the privileged altar is obtained to its full extent by the soul to whom we intend to apply it, it is certainly better and more salutary to have several Masses celebrated for our deceased, even if these Masses be said at a privileged altar.
It is strictly forbidden to exact a larger stipend or alms for a Mass connected with the privilege of the altar than is allowed for an ordinary Mass of the same rite. A priest having accepted a stipend with the understanding that the Mass is to be said at a privileged altar is bound in justice to say the Mass at that altar, and to apply it and the indulgence to the soul for whom the stipend was given and accepted. If however the priest has the personal privilege, he may say the Mass at any altar. So the S. Congregation decided February 16, 1852; and this declaration was approved by Pius IX. March 15, 1852.