A Roman pilgrimage may be out of reach for many Catholics this Jubilee Year, but, for most, a Jubilee indulgence is so easy to come by that it would be foolhardy to miss the opportunity to obtain one. In fact, Catholics won't need to travel outside their home diocese to gain the exact same spiritual benefits available to the thousands who will make their way to one of the holy sites in the Eternal City this year.

So what is an indulgence and why is the Church offering one to us right now?

For many, the mention of “indulgences” conjures an image of Martin Luther, exasperated over some Church officials profiteering off the selling of indulgences in the early 1500s, posting his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral and launching the Protestant Reformation. This is unfortunate, since such a conception is based on distortions.

What's an Indulgence?

To understand an indulgence — the removal of all or part of the temporal punishment due to sin in return for specific, Church-approved works and interior dispositions — one must understand sin in relation to God's justice and mercy.

Essentially, each sin we commit creates a cost that must be paid. While it's true that God, in his boundless mercy, forgives us when we confess our sins and resolve to sin no more, the “cost” of our offense is still owed — in the same way that justice is not fully restored after a boy who breaks a neighbor's window apologizes to his neighbor and is granted forgiveness.

The boy has indeed been forgiven — morally, he's been let “off the hook” — but, for justice to be done, he still has to pay for the damaged window. Indulgences are, in effect, payments to fix the windows we've broken through our sins.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it this way: “An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins” (No. 1478).

Just Rewards

The practice of granting indulgences came from the earliest Christian martyrs. The prayers of a condemned Christian were held in such high esteem that fellow Christians would travel great distances, sometimes at the peril of their own lives, to visit those in prison waiting to die a martyr's death. At the time of the visit, the travelers would ask the soon-to-be-martyr for the favor of prayers for the traveler's sins. As the faith spread and pilgrimages to Rome and other places became a popular devotional practice, the custom of granting spiritual favors in exchange for an individual's sacrificial efforts involved in making the pilgrimage continued.

The practice of gaining indulgences exploded in popularity in the 1200s at the encouragement of St. Francis of Assisi. Spiritual rewards came to be granted not only for pilgrimages, but also for other works of devotion, penance and charity.

By the time of Luther, it had become common to grant indulgences in exchange for financial donations to various charitable causes, including large building projects such as churches and cathedrals. The upheaval of the Reformation helped bring about a re-evaluation of the administration of indulgences, but the Church never condemned the principle behind indulgences.

On the contrary, almsgiving continues to be encouraged to this day. One of the good things to come out of that turbulent period was the Church taking steps to ensure that the focus of giving alms returned to the interior disposition of penitents.

The Jubilee Indulgence

A Jubilee indulgence is only granted during a Church-proclaimed Jubilee Year — a rare occasion, indeed — and it is also plenary, which means “full.” This means that one Jubilee indulgence completely nullifies all temporal punishment due to sins that have been committed up to that point in a penitent's life. In other words, if you died immediately after obtaining a Jubilee indulgence (without sinning in that brief intervening time), you'd bypass purgatory and go straight to heaven.

In Pope John Paul II's Bull of Indiction of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, issued on Nov. 29, 1998, the Holy Father clearly delineated how to obtain this great gift of mercy. The acquisition requires certain interior actions, to be performed in conjunction with one of several prescribed exterior works (see the accompanying article below for specifics).

“The whole Jubilee journey, prepared for by pilgrimage, has as its starting point and its conclusion the celebration of the sacraments of penance and of the Eucharist, the paschal mystery of Christ, our peace and our reconciliation,” wrote the Pope. “[T]his is the transforming encounter which opens us to the gift of the indulgence for ourselves and others.”

Help Souls in Purgatory

Indulgences may be obtained only for the penitent or for someone who has died. An indulgence cannot be obtained for another living person since that person could seek an indulgence on his or her own.

“After we die, we will not be able to distract ourselves from the one thing necessary; namely, union with Christ,” explained Norbertine Father Hugh Barbour of the Diocese of Orange, Calif. “In purgatory, souls must suffer temporal punishment due to their sins so that they will be able to enter fully into the purity and glory of Christ.

These souls suffer in hope because they know they will eventually be united with God in heaven, but the sufferings are more severe than we can imagine here.”

As censor librorum for his diocese, Father Barbour judges books on their doctrinal content and recommends whether or not they should receive an imprimatur (“let it be printed”) or nihil obstat (“nothing stands in the way”) from his bishop.

Unlike our condition on earth, the dead are separated from their bodies until the final judgment. “Without their bodies,” added Father Barbour, “they have no way of distracting themselves from yearning to be with God.

They also have no way to hasten their passage through purgatory because they are frozen, as it were, in the state of charity in which they died. Our prayers can help them enter heaven faster.”

Lent, he points out, is an especially good time to obtain one (or many) Jubilee indulgences for ourselves, for our deceased relatives and friends or for the souls in purgatory, especially for those who have no one to pray for them.

Karen Walker writes from San Juan Capistrano, California.