Continuing in my series on indulgences, today I provide a more contemporary explanation, originally written by another priest in the Diocese of Birmingham and subsequently adapted/expanded by me with the help of another priest-friend of mine. Hopefully the examples provided help to make the concept of indulgences a bit more understandable. Also, reading different texts and explanations provides different approaches to the topic and collectively can help us reach a fuller understanding. If you didn’t see yesterday’s post, it is here.
First, we must understand a few things about sin and punishment. Whenever a person commits a mortal sin, if he does not repent of that sin then he merits an eternal punishment (hell). This punishment is freely forgiven (and thus avoided) when the person makes use of the Sacrament of Confession. For example, if someone steals a car and wrecks it, God can forgive him of the theft and destruction of property. This is a manifestation of God’s mercy.
When a person commits any sin – mortal or venial – there is also a temporal punishment, because every sin offends God’s justice and does damage to the Body of Christ. Thus we must make reparation for our sins. If we die in God’s friendship (that is, in the state of grace), but before we make full reparation, the remaining temporal punishment will be purged in Purgatory prior to our entry into Heaven. From the example given above, while the sin of the theft and destruction of property is forgiven by God’s mercy, yet in justice it remains for the person to restore what he stole and damaged. This restitution is the temporal punishment due to his sin.
On earth, the temporal punishment due to sin is at least partially remitted by the penance assigned us in the Sacrament of Confession. Very often, however, we must do more than the assigned penance to make full restitution for our sins. This is because the penances that we are given in Confession are usually relatively light; we must also remember how greatly all sin offends God’s justice and love. It is for these reasons that the Church down through the centuries has always exhorted Christians to do penance above and beyond what is assigned in Confession. Indeed, the Church knows that we need some help and encouragement in this area, which is why she even legislates a certain “minimum” amount of penance that we must do: i.e., some act of penance every Friday of the year, specified on the Fridays of Lent and also Ash Wednesday as abstinence from meat, as well as fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. (Even though there are age and health limitations on the precepts of fasting and abstinence, nevertheless, all who have attained the use of reason are called to do penance!)
Beyond doing penance, another way for our temporal punishment to be remitted is through the reception of indulgences. An indulgence is the application, by the power of the Church, of the merits of Christ and the saints for the remission of temporal punishment due to our sins. Within the Communion of Saints there is a sharing of spiritual goods; the Church, through the power given to her by Christ to “bind and loose”, can apply the merits or spiritual goods won by Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints to others within the Communion of Saints.
There are two types of indulgences. A plenary indulgence grants the remission of all temporal punishment due to a person because of his sins. (The word “plenary” means “full”.) A partial indulgence grants the remission of some temporal punishment. In most cases, the indulgence can be applied to the one performing the work or to a soul in Purgatory. The reception of an indulgence, of course, presupposes that a person has first received God’s forgiveness for at least his mortal sins.
In order to receive a plenary indulgence, the following five conditions must be fulfilled:
1. Make a sacramental Confession within 20 days before or after the day the indulgence is sought.
2. Receive Holy Communion (also within 20 days before or after).
3. Pray for the intentions of the Holy Father (usually by praying one Our Father, one Hail Mary, and one Glory Be).
4. Have complete detachment from all sin, even venial sin (in other words, a complete rejection of the desire to commit any sin whatsoever).
5. Complete the specific prayers or works declared by the Church for the reception of the indulgence.
If any of the first four conditions is missing or lacking, the person may still receive a partial indulgence. There are also some prayers and works which the Church has designated specifically for the gaining of partial indulgences. In any case, whenever an indulgence is made available the Church indicates whether it is plenary or partial.
Although indulgences primarily satisfy God’s justice, they also show us God’s great mercy. They are not intended as simple mercenary transactions, but as encouragements and aids to our growth in holiness, which is love of God and love of neighbor.
So we can see that indulgences are not magical; they are not superstitious; and they are not at all for sale. Rather, they are a way that God has given us to share in the superabundant merits of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints for the perfection of our souls. The acts by which we gain them conform our lives more and more to the way of our Lord Jesus Christ. How could we pass up such a great gift from our Merciful Lord, given to us through His Church?