The Apostolic Penitentiary (Latin: Paenitentiaria Apostolica), formerly called the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary, is a dicastery of the Roman Curia and is one of the three ordinary tribunals of the Apostolic See. The Apostolic Penitentiary is chiefly a tribunal of mercy, responsible for issues relating to the forgiveness of sins in the Catholic Church.
The Apostolic Penitentiary has jurisdiction only over matters in the internal forum. Its work falls mainly into these categories:
The head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Major Penitentiary, is one of the few Vatican officials who retain their positions sede vacante. If the Major Penitentiary is a cardinal elector he is one of only three persons in the conclave allowed to communicate with those outside the conclave, so that he can continue to fulfill his duties (the other two being the Cardinal Vicar of Rome and the Vicar General for the Vatican City State). The Major Penitentiary is a titular archbishop and is normally a cardinal. Since 21 September 2013, the Major Penitentiary is Cardinal Mauro Piacenza. The second-highest-ranking official in the Apostolic Penitentiary, the regent, is Msgr. Krzysztof Józef Nykiel.
During the Middle Ages, the Apostolic Penitentiary had two major functions. The officium minus related to the spiritual care of Christians, and the ability to listen to confessions and absolve sins of grave nature, whose absolving was reserved to the Pope. The officium maius related to the power to grant grace to those petitioned the Pope in relation to: (1) absolution for breaking the regulations of canon law (2) dispensations to act against Church regulations (3) licenses not to observe ecclesiastical norms regarding the exercise of the faith and (4) official declarations. The Penitantiary developed around the 12th century, with its powers gradually increasing and being expanded by subsequent popes.
Normally confessions of sins are handled at the local level by priests and their bishops and are not heard by the tribunal. The work of the Apostolic Penitentiary involves sins, such as defiling the Eucharist, which are reserved to the Holy See. In late 2006, then Major Penitentiary Cardinal Stafford said this offense is occurring with more and more frequency, by ordinary faithful who receive Communion and then spit it out or otherwise desecrate it.
The Apostolic Penitentiary also specifies actions for which indulgences are granted, either permanently (in the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum), or on special occasions, such as the Year for Priests (19 June 2009 to 19 June 2010), during which a plenary indulgence is granted, on 19 June 2009, on first Thursdays, on 4 August 2009 (150th anniversary of the death of Saint Jean-Marie Vianney), and on 19 June 2010, to all the faithful who attend Mass, pray for priests to Jesus Christ the Eternal High Priest, offer any other good work they do that day, and satisfy the conditions for any plenary indulgence (detachment from all sins, the Sacrament of Penance within the last or next couple of weeks, holy communion (Eucharist in the Catholic Church), and praying for the Pope's intentions). There are also adaptations for those unable to go to church, and daily indulgences available only to priests.
In the Papal Bull Misericordiae Vultus (Latin: "The Face of Mercy"), Pope Francis decreed that the Church would observe a Special Jubilee Year of Mercy lasting from the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (a Holy Day of Obligation) on Tuesday, December 8, 2015, until the Solemnity of the Feast of Christ the King of the Universe on the last Sunday before Advent, in November 2016. For this, he allowed certain qualified priests to serve as "Missionaries of Mercy" to each Diocese, with the faculties to absolve even sins that are reserved to the Holy See through the Apostolic Penitentiary. Normally, a priest or even a bishop would not be able to do this unless the person was in danger of imminent death. The Pope has the power, as the earthly absolute sovereign of the Catholic Church, to make this special change for the year.