You’ve gone to confession. You’ve been forgiven, and the guilt of sin is gone. But there’s still the penalty of temporal punishment due to sin, any sin.
If temporal punishment is not expiated in this life, it has to be expiated in purgatory.
The good news is that you can wipe out most — or all — of that penalty by gaining the generous gift the Church has offered for centuries: the gift of indulgences.
This is a good topic to consider during November, the month dedicated to the holy souls in purgatory.
What kinds of indulgences are there, and how can the faithful receive them?
Pope Benedict XVI has announced that the Church is granting plenary indulgences under particular conditions during this Year of Faith. But the Church gives the faithful many ways to gain indulgences every single day — even one plenary indulgence per day.
The Catechism defines an indulgence as "a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian, who is duly disposed, gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church, which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints" (1471).
Father John Trigilio, co-host of EWTN’s Web of Faith 2.0, author and president of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, shared several insights about indulgences.
"The beauty of indulgences makes personal the idea of Divine Mercy," he explained. "And it shows the integral connection of mercy with the sacrament of penance. Most times, people … don’t see that mercy is the main component of the sacrament. It’s because of that that the Church can grant not only absolution, but bequeath these indulgences, which are always connected with the sacrament of confession."
One of the conditions for obtaining a plenary indulgence is making a sacramental confession within a certain timeframe.
"This is God’s mercy; not something he owes us, but a bonus, a gift that comes from his loving heart," said Father Trigilio.
Author Susan Tassone agrees. "It’s a solid sign of God’s tender love and mercy," she said. Her latest book is Prayers, Promises and Devotions for the Holy Souls in Purgatory (see book review on page 11).
"It refers to God’s love and kindness and how he lavishes his love on us," Tassone emphasized, pointing out that "indulgence" comes from the Latin indulgencia, "which means to be kind or tender."
What are the main requirements for every plenary indulgence? Be in the state of grace, go to confession, have no attachment to even venial sin, and on the day seeking the indulgence receive Communion, pray for the Holy Father’s intentions and do the prescribed work (see sidebar on page B2 for more details).
Blessed John Paul II drew several biblical connections for indulgences from his work Incarnationis Mysterium during a general audience in 1999: "The starting point for understanding indulgences is the abundance of God’s mercy revealed in the cross of Christ. The crucified Jesus is the great ‘indulgence’ that the Father has offered humanity through the forgiveness of sins and the possibility of living as children (John 1:12-13) in the Holy Spirit (Galatians 4:6; Romans 5:5; 8:15-16)."
Indeed, Jesus granted what should be considered the first plenary indulgence to the Good Thief.
"The guy admitted he was a sinner and certainly merited punishment for his sinful life," explained Father Trigilio. "Jesus in his mercy said, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’"
The biblical basis for indulgences is seen in Jesus giving the keys to Peter with the authority to bind and loose (Matthew 16:19; 18:18). Father Trigilio said that means not only "to absolve sins in the name of Christ, but also to remit penalties."
John Paul II noted in his 1999 audience that the Old Testament shows "how normal it is to undergo reparative punishment after forgiveness. God, after describing himself as ‘a God merciful and gracious ... forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,’ adds: ‘yet not without punishing’ (Exodus 34:6-7). In the Second Book of Samuel, King David’s humble confession after his grave sin obtains God’s forgiveness (2 Samuel 12:13), but not the prevention of the foretold chastisement (12:11; 16:21). God’s fatherly love does not rule out punishment, even if the latter must always be understood as part of a merciful justice that re-establishes the violated order for the sake of man’s own good (Hebrews 12:4-11)."
As pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Marysville, Pa., Father Trigilio explains indulgences to his parishioners using an analogy.
"Imagine when you were a kid and did something wrong, and Dad said, for punishment, you had to clean out the garage and the attic for three weeks. Then he saw after the first week you learned your lesson and repented; so your father said you didn’t have to do anymore with the garage and attic.
"An indulgence is remission of the punishment you should have gotten. But the Father said you learned your lesson, and he wiped out the temporal punishment of the sins that had already been forgiven."
Echoing the Catechism (1476-1478), John Paul explained that the Church has "full confidence of being heard by the Father when — in view of Christ’s merits and, by his gift, those of Our Lady and the saints — [the Church] asks him to mitigate or cancel the painful aspect of punishment by fostering its medicinal aspect through other channels of grace."
Indeed, the Catechism calls "these spiritual goods of the communion of saints the Church’s treasury." The Catechism goes on to say that this has "infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God" (1476). In addition, "This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. … In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints" (1477).
So, how do we tap into this treasure?
First, only a living person can gain indulgences for himself; the faithful may also obtain them for any deceased person.
Second, John Paul reminded, the gift of indulgences "does not reach us without our acceptance and response." Before looking at the specific conditions, we must know "they’re not a discount — you have to have the proper disposition required for the indulgences," explained Tassone. "With them, we can satisfy our debt, but they’re also an aid for growth toward spiritual perfection, and it’s also an aid to help towards our own deeper conversion of heart."
Indeed, in his 1967 apostolic constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina (Whereby the Revision of Sacred Indulgences Is Promulgated), Pope Paul VI said the aim was not only helping the faithful to expiate punishment due to sin, but urging them "to perform works of piety, penitence and charity — particularly those which lead to growth in faith and which favor the common good."
For example, gaining an indulgence and applying it to a soul in purgatory is a work of charity.
Paul VI said indulgences are "free gifts," but must be accepted from one who pledges to: "love God, detest sin, place … trust in the merits of Christ, and believe firmly in the great assistance they derive from the communion of saints."
Paul VI also cautioned, "Indulgences cannot be gained without a sincere conversion of outlook and unity with God."
He also cleared up misunderstandings in the revised Enchiridion of Indulgences (Third Edition, 1968), which had some norms restated in the Fourth Edition (1999) under John Paul II.
Catholics should also know the various other opportunities for receiving indulgences. The Enchiridion lists the various prayers and pious works that are indulgenced (for partial indulgences, giving alms to the poor, piously wearing a crucifix, scapular or holy medal around the neck, doing a work of mercy). Annually, there are special plenary indulgences. The Year of Faith-related ones require visiting a minor basilica dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, apostles or other saints, or piously visiting the place where one was baptized to renew baptismal promises.
In addition, the first eight days of November are "an opportunity to gain a plenary indulgence and apply it to particular souls" by visiting a cemetery and praying for the dead (plus meeting the other required conditions).
"Don’t be stingy or be afraid to offer them for souls," Tassone said. "Take advantage of indulgences."
Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.
Conditions for Indulgences
Other than on special occasions, to gain a plenary indulgence, which is possible once a day, you must:
1. Be baptized and in the state of grace.
2. Go to sacramental confession several days (up to 20) before or after the work. (One sacramental confession now suffices for gaining several plenary indulgences.)
3. Receive Communion on each day the indulgence is sought.
4. Pray for the intentions of the Holy Father. An Our Father and Hail Mary satisfy this requirement. (Receive Communion and pray for the intentions of the Pope on the same day the work is performed.)
5. Perform one of these works/acts to which the indulgence is attached:
A. adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for at least half an hour,
B. devout reading of the Scriptures for at least half an hour,
C. pious exercise of the Way of the Cross (praying in church or where properly erected),
D. recitation of the Rosary as a family or in a church before the Blessed Sacrament or part of a public oratory or group, religious community or pious association.
6. All attachment to sin, even to venial sin, must be absent. Otherwise, the indulgence becomes partial, not plenary.
7. Have at least a general intention. You can’t receive an indulgence unintentionally or by accident.
Partial indulgences have fewer norms. The Enchiridion explains "general grants" and specific prayers and devotional use of certain objects of piety properly blessed by any priest that carry partial indulgences.
— Enchiridion of Indulgences