For the Nov. 2 feast of All Souls, a fresh look at the Church’s teaching on indulgences — which can be gained for the suffering souls in purgatory (and for ourselves) not just on special occasions but every day of the year. By Joseph Pronechen.
“To indulge,” according to Webster’s dictionary, is to “treat with excessive leniency, generosity or consideration.” Sometimes parents might “indulge” their misbehaving but contrite child by mitigating the severity of a deserved punishment. Likewise, the Church stands ready to dole out indulgences to the faithful.
That’s how Father Bryce Sibley, pastor of St. Joseph Parish and St. Louis Church in Parks, La., explained indulgences to pilgrims at St. Peter’s when he was a seminarian and Vatican tour guide.
Here’s a frequently used word picture to illustrate the concept. Imagine a child who, acting in rash anger against his parents, throws a rock through a window of the family home. Then, struck by the pangs of a guilty conscience, he confesses to the crime and expresses sorrow for it. They ground him for a week and, when he promises never to repeat an awful act like that again, they forgive him.
All well and good, but what about that shattered glass? As the Catechism explains, in No. 1473, even after obtaining forgiveness of our sins via sacramental confession, “temporal punishment of sin remains.” In other words, the broken window still needs to be fixed. And the repair can only be paid for, and done by, the window-breaker himself. All by his lonely.
Except that it doesn’t have to be done that way. The penitent culprit may be able to find some generous hand to help with the repair work.
Enter the Church. Enter indulgences.
“Christ has given the authority to our mother, the Church, to indulge her children,” says Father Sibley. “It’s like a mother who might say, ‘You’re confined to your room for the next week, but if you take out the garbage and clean up your room I’ll let you out early.’ She doesn’t have to do this.”
Just so, the Church can give us chances to pay the broken-window bills most of us are ringing up in this life — the “invoices” that will otherwise be waiting for us to pay upon our arrival in purgatory.
Best of all, contrary to popular perceptions, the Church doesn’t limit her offer of such atoning aid to particular times and places. It’s available every single day.
And then, not only for our own souls but also the suffering souls in purgatory. We can work off their debts, too.
There can be no better time to consider this liberating doctrine than Nov. 2, the feast of All Souls.
Loosed at Last
Even children can understand indulgences, says Nashville Dominican Sister Marie Blanchette, principal of Overbrook School in Nashville. She recalls a student named Michael who was in her religion class years ago at St. Mary Star of the Sea School in Hampton, Va.
When Michael entered high school, his brother died in a car accident. Michael visited her to review the lesson she’d taught on how to gain indulgences.
“He came up the driveway with paper and pencil and said, ‘I want my family to gain an indulgence for my brother.’ What a powerful witness in that child’s time of need that he was able to do something for his brother,” says the nun. “It’s so comforting to know that we can do something to help someone even after they’ve died.”
The Catechism notes that indulgences are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of Penance (No. 1471). “An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin,” we read. “The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.”
For its part, penance points to Christ’s solemn directive to the apostles and their successors: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18).
Indulgences have long been a stumbling block for non-Catholics. Indeed, the unlawful selling of them by some unscrupulous priests and bishops helped set off the Protestant revolt of the 1500s. But today they’re far more misunderstood than misapplied.
In the 1967 apostolic constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina (Whereby the Revision of Sacred Indulgences Is Promulgated), Pope Paul VI reaffirmed and simplified indulgences and had the official handbook Enchiridion of Indulgences revised in 1968. He clarified that the aim in granting indulgences is twofold: to help the faithful expiate the punishment due for their sins and to urge them to works of piety, penance and charity.
Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa, author, Bible scholar and host of “EWTN Live,” stresses this charitable aspect of indulgences.
“Those in purgatory cannot actively gain indulgences,” he points out. “This is where getting an indulgence for your dead relatives is you acting in charity.”
Father Pacwa, who explains indulgences in greater detail in his latest book, Go in Peace (Ascension Press, 2007), adds that, if the person you’ve been praying for is no longer in purgatory — and that’s not something we can know in this lifetime — you can let the Lord apply the indulgence to the soul of whomever you want or whomever needs it most in God’s eyes.
That’s just what 13-year-old Lin Marzialo, a freshman at St. Cecilia Academy in Nashville, did during last year’s class trip when she and classmates met a sad young man whose wife had just died. Lin spent the rest of the day to gain an indulgence for the man’s wife, helping her soul to get to heaven.
Nor was that a one-time deal for the youngster. Every night Lin prays to gain indulgences and apply them to the souls in purgatory, especially “for people who don’t have anyone to pray for them,” she says.
When seeking indulgences even for yourself — the only living person you can gain an indulgence for — it’s crucial that you have the proper motive, says Father Pacwa. When Paul VI did away with specific numbers of days to gain indulgences by certain prayers, he wished to correct the mistaken notion that it’s possible to pile up so many indulgences that we can “pre-pay” for all the sins we will commit in this lifetime.
“The right reason is always going to be the reason of Christian charity,” explains Father Pacwa. “There’s never going to be anything wrong with Christian charity. We must do whatever possible to build up our charitable concerns for the poor souls and to deal with our own souls. That’s a good thing too. That’s what my Bible says.”
So go ahead. Indulge yourself and the souls in purgatory too. Just don’t treat this most magnanimous of all Church doctrines like a “Sin Freely and Get Out of Jail Free” pass — or you may find broken windows awaiting your attention on the other side, after all.
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.
To Gain Indulgences
To gain a plenary (or full) indulgence — something you can do once a day — you must:
• Be baptized and in the state of grace.
• Go to sacramental confession several days before or after the work. (One sacramental confession suffices for gaining several plenary indulgences.)
• Receive Holy Communion on each day the indulgence is sought.
• Pray for the intentions of the Holy Father. An Our Father and Hail Mary satisfies this.
(Communion should be received and the prayers for the intentions of the Pope should be said the same day the work is performed.)
• Perform one of these works to which the indulgence is attached:
A. adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for at least a half an hour;
B. devout reading of the Sacred Scriptures for at least half an hour;
C. pious exercise of the Way of the Cross (walking them in church or where properly erected); and
D. recitation of the Marian Rosary in a family, or in a church before the Blessed Sacrament, or public oratory or group, religious community or pious association.
• All attachment to sin, even to venial sin, must be absent. Otherwise, the indulgence becomes partial, not plenary.
• Have at least a general intention to gain the indulgence. You can’t receive an indulgence unintentionally or by accident.
Partial indulgences have fewer norms. See the Enchiridion for three “General Grants” and specific prayers and devotional use of certain objects of piety properly blessed by any priest that carry partial indulgences. This document is available online at catholicliturgy.com; you can also read Indulgentiarum Doctrina under Paul VI’s documents at Vatican.va.
— Joseph Pronechen