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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 December 2007, 16:44 GMT
Pope approves Lourdes indulgences
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI places great importance on indulgences
Pope Benedict XVI has authorised special indulgences to mark the 150th anniversary of the Virgin Mary's reputed appearance at Lourdes.

Catholics visiting the site within a year of 8 December will be able to receive an indulgence, which the Church teaches can reduce time in purgatory.

Lourdes has drawn pilgrims since Mary was said to have appeared in 1858 to shepherdess Bernadette Soubirous.

The waters of the French shrine are said to have miraculous healing powers.

A plenary indulgence offers full pardon of the temporal punishment (suffering in this life or the next) due to sins already forgiven in confession
Purgatory is a kind of spiritual waiting room - for people who do not go directly to paradise or hell after death - to purify souls of residual sin before they enter heaven

The Pope is expected to visit the shrine next year.

The pontiff also said believers who prayed at places of worship dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes from 2-11 February next year - or who were unable to make the journey - would also be able to receive indulgences.

The decree was signed by US Cardinal J Francis Stafford, who is head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court dealing with indulgences and matters of conscience.

Indulgences became infamous in the 16th century for being sold rather than earned, helping, historians say, trigger the Protestant reformation.

While some might consider indulgences an outdated concept, great spiritual importance have been assigned to them by Benedict XVI and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

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