What are indulgences? For starters, they are an ancient “institution” of the Church that has never been suppressed, superseded, or suspended. Yet many of us never learned about them. Or perhaps we did learn or hear about them, but were given the impression that they are no longer relevant or important. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Indulgences are a great gift; they help both us and the souls in Purgatory. In this sense, the general ambivalence about indulgences certainly hasn’t benefited anyone over these years of neglect. It is time that we rediscover what they are and start trying to seek them in earnest, for our own benefit and that of the holy souls.
A healthy appreciation and use of indulgences will help us to grow in Christian maturity.
But what is an indulgence? I am going to make a series of posts on this topic. First, I will provide an edited version of an “old-timey” text that I found in an old raccolta (a collection of indulgenced prayers), which I edited a bit for clarity and from which I removed some information that was either no longer current or not useful for our purposes. In subsequent posts I will provide a more recently-written explanation, as well as more information about how to obtain indulgences.
The adapted “old-timey” explanation follows.
Punishment, like a shadow, follows all sin, whether mortal or venial, and it is not usually remitted to the full when forgiveness is obtained. Eternal punishment, incurred by mortal sin, is always remitted with the guilt, but some temporal punishment generally remains due to the justice of God. This temporal punishment is inflicted by God either in this life or in Purgatory; but we may anticipate the divine justice by doing works of penance, or by availing ourselves of Indulgences.
The guilt of sin, then, is one thing; the punishment another. The guilt is remitted when a person truly repents – typically by means of the Sacrament of Penance, though venial sins may be forgiven apart from that Sacrament. But though the punishment, or a portion of it, may be remitted with the guilt, some usually remains, as a debt of satisfaction to be paid in this world or the next. This truth is clearly indicated in the sacramental penances that accompany Absolution. The satisfaction remaining due is left altogether to the individual’s personal activity in applying himself either to works of penance, or to some equivalent. That equivalent is to be found in Indulgences.
In the early Church, sacramental penances were typically much heavier; for various reasons they have become much lighter in modern times. This, then, is another indication as to why additional works of penance, or the use of Indulgences, is indicated for the satisfaction of the divine justice.
What, then, is an Indulgence? An Indulgence is the remission by the Church, on specified conditions, of the whole or a part of the debt of satisfaction remaining due for sin. The Church has power to absolve from guilt; she has also power to remit the punishment. The one power she exercises in the Sacrament of Penance, the other she exercises when she grants an Indulgence. And it is clear from what has been said that an Indulgence is supplemental to Absolution, and presupposes the forgiveness of the guilt of sin.
Theologically considered, an Indulgence is not a mere exercise of spiritual power and authority on the part of the Church: it is truly a payment of a real spiritual debt, made out of the Church’s Treasury of spiritual merits, in which are stored up the superabundant merits of Jesus Christ and the accumulated merits of our Lady and all the Saints. With this inexhaustible fund at the Church’s command, she has the means of satisfying the debts due from her children to the justice of God.
In form, an Indulgence usually is granted by the Pope. It attaches to a specified prayer or good work an additional satisfactory value. Indulgences thus are either Plenary or Partial, inasmuch as they grant either a whole or a partial remission of the debt of punishment that is due. In either case the actual benefit obtained depends upon the dispositions of the penitent and the care and accuracy he employs in fulfilling the conditions laid down.
It only remains to add that, though the Church has no direct jurisdiction over the souls in Purgatory, she authorizes and encourages, as a work of supreme charity, the application of Indulgences to the needs of those afflicted souls. And we may confidently assure ourselves that these suffrages are most acceptable to the Divine Majesty, amid the rejoicing of all the heavenly court, to the great glory of God, and to the incalculable benefit of both the suffering souls and their earthly benefactors.