The Apostolic Pardon forgives temporal punishment due to sins (not the sins themselves). Presuming that we die in a state of grace, anything for which we have not done adequate penance in this life (which is also called the “temporal punishment” due to those sins) can be forgiven us through the Apostolic Pardon. The Apostolic Pardon is often given when it is rather certain that the person is nearing death. It is given after the conferral of the Sacraments of Penance, the Anointing of the Sick and viaticum.
The current form of the blessing is: “Through the holy mysteries of our redemption, may almighty God release you from all punishments in this life and in the life to come. May he open to you the gates of paradise and welcome you to everlasting life.”
The Handbook of Indulgences states: “Priests who minister the sacraments to the Christian faithful who are in a life-and-death situation should not neglect to impart to them the apostolic blessing, with its attached indulgence. But if a priest cannot be present, holy mother Church lovingly grants such persons who are rightly disposed a plenary indulgence to be obtained in articulo mortis (‘at the approach of death’), provided they regularly prayed in some way during their lifetime. The use of a crucifix or a cross is recommended in obtaining this plenary indulgence. In such a situation the three usual conditions required in order to gain a plenary indulgence are substituted for by the condition provided they regularly prayed in some way” (No. 28).
The granting of the apostolic blessing (or pardon) is not an automatic guarantee that no purgation is necessary. Surely, the blessing helps, but as the norm states above, the usual conditions for obtaining a plenary indulgence apply: confession, Communion and (if possible for the dying) prayer for the intention of the pontiff. It is further required that all attachment to sin, even venial sin, be absent. If the latter disposition is in any way less than perfect, the indulgence will be partial only.
The last condition especially is difficult to attain to, though perhaps easier if death is near. Nevertheless, while we cannot know the state of anyone’s soul perfectly, even of those who would be later canonized as saints, neither can we simply presume they met the required conditions, one of which is difficult.
Msgr. Charles E. Pope is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.