Pope Benedict XVI is offering relief from purgatory to Roman Catholics who travel to Lourdes over the next year, the Vatican said yesterday.

Pilgrims to the shrine in south-west France will receive “plenary indulgences” from the Pontiff. The indulgences will be available from this weekend until Dec 8, 2008.

Is it just me or does anyone else love indulgences? The way some react to it like we’re dragging Western civilization back into the Dark Ages is just wonderful. I know that’s not a good reason to like indulgences but it’s like gravy.

The Pope’s announcement is the latest initiative to get more pilgrims to the shrine, famous for the reported healing properties of its water. In August the Vatican opened an airline service offering pilgrims direct flights from Rome to Lourdes.

For those who cannot make the journey to France, the Pope will also grant indulgences to Catholics who pray at places of worship dedicated to the Madonna of Lourdes from Feb 2 to Feb 11. Indulgences may also be granted under special circumstances to people too sick to visit the shrine, the Vatican said.

The offer comes as the shrine prepares to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the apparitions in 1858.