Pope offers indulgences to Lourdes shrine visitors

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Catholics who visit the miracle shrine at Lourdes over the next year will receive “indulgences” which the Church teaches can reduce time spent in purgatory.

The Vatican said on Wednesday that Pope Benedict is offering the indulgences to pilgrims from this weekend.

The shrine in southwestern France is preparing to commemorate the 150th anniversary of when the Madonna was said to have appeared to a peasant girl at Lourdes in 1858.

The shrine’s waters are said to have healing powers.

While some Catholics may consider indulgences an anachronism, Benedict and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, have assigned great spiritual importance to them.

The Church teaches that people who do not go directly to paradise or hell after death must spend some time in purgatory, where they can be purified of residual sin before entering heaven.

Indulgences offer remission of temporal punishment -- suffering in this life or the next in order to purify a soul of sins which have already been forgiven in confession.

“Plenary indulgences” would be granted to pilgrims visiting the shrine during the year from December 8, 2007, until December 8, 2008, the Vatican said.

For those who cannot make the journey, the Pope will also grant indulgences to Catholics who pray at places of worship dedicated to the Madonna of Lourdes from Feb 2-11.

Indulgences could also be granted to people too sick to visit Lourdes under special circumstances. The Pope is expected to visit Lourdes next year, possibly in September or October.

Writing by Phil Stewart; editing by Robert Woodward