Q. What is an indulgence?
A. “An indulgence is 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.” (CCC, 1471)
Q. So… what’s an indulgence?
A. Let’s say you break your neighbor’s window. You apologize to your neighbor, and he forgives you. So far, so good. It’s still right and just that you pay to fix your neighbor’s window.
It’s the same with our sins. We receive forgiveness of our mortal sins through the sacrament of Reconciliation and can receive forgiveness of our venial sins through the worthy reception of Holy Eucharist (CCC, 1394). Even after we’ve been forgiven, we need to fix the window. The Catechism explains that every sin involves an unhealthy attachment to creatures, and we must be purified of those attachments before we enter heaven. This purification is not an act of vengeance on the part of God; rather, it follows from the very nature of sin. This purification can take place on earth or in purgatory. (1)
An indulgence is an action we can undertake to help fix the window, and thereby reduce or eliminate the temporal punishment due from our sins.
Q. So how do I get an indulgence?
There are certain conditions that always apply to receive an indulgence:
- Make a sacramental confession. This can be done 20 days before or after the indulgence. (If you make a sacramental confession monthly, you would always be in the 20-day window.)
- Receive Holy Communion. This must be done on the day of the indulgence.
- Pray for the intentions of the Pope. This must be done on the day of the indulgence. There is no prescribed format. You can say, “For the intentions of the Pope,” and then say one “Our Father” and one “Hail Mary.”
You must also perform the indulgenced act, which often consists of a particular prayer, with the intention of gaining the indulgence. This website has a particularly thorough list of indulgenced prayers and actions:
Q. I see that some indulgenced actions are listed as plenary indulgences and some as partial indulgences. What’s the difference?
A. A plenary indulgence means you receive total remission of the temporal punishment from sin. In addition to the three certain conditions above, you must be free of all attachment from sin to receive a plenary indulgence. A partial indulgence means you receive a partial remission of the temporal punishment due to sins.
In addition, some indulgenced acts can only result in a partial indulgence. Here are four simple acts that, with the other three certain conditions, can gain you a partial indulgence:
- Make the sign of the cross. (Yes, just the sign of the cross! Make it slowly and reverently.)
- Spend time in devout mental prayer.
- Make an act of spiritual communion according to any pious formula. For example: My Jesus, I believe that You are present in the Most Holy Sacrament. I love You above all things, and I desire to receive You into my soul. Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You were already there and unite myself wholly to You. Never permit me to be separated from You.
- Pray the Memorare: Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me.
Here are three actions that can be performed any day that, with the other three certain conditions, can gain you a plenary indulgence:
- Thirty minutes spent in Eucharistic adoration.
- Thirty minutes spent piously reading Sacred Scripture.
- Public recitation of the Rosary (such as with a group at church or with your family) with pious meditation on the mysteries.
There are numerous other actions that can gain you a plenary indulgence when performed on particular days; for example, reciting the “Tantum Ergo” prayer on Holy Thursday (which is traditionally sung at the close of Holy Thursday mass).
Q. How can I know if I’m free from all attachment to sin, to gain the plenary indulgence?
A. You can’t know this for sure. Freedom from all attachment to sin is likely a high bar for most people. Strive to be free from all attachment to sin, and perform the indulgenced act piously. I can’t say for certain that you’ll receive total remission of the punishment due for your sins; but the Lord will surely look kindly on your efforts and reward your faithfulness.
Q. Does the indulgence apply to my future sins?
A. No, it only applies to sins you’ve previously committed.
Q. Can I perform an indulgenced act on behalf of someone else?
A. Yes! This is a great way to help those in purgatory get to heaven. Before you perform the indulgenced act, tell God that you’re doing this for a particular person. Or that you’re doing it for souls in purgatory with no one to pray for them.
Q. What if I perform an indulgenced act for someone already in heaven?
A. Saint Faustina, while praying for a certain soul during Eucharistic adoration, had the insight that “God does not always accept our petitions for those we have in mind, but directs these to other souls” (Diary, 621). Our prayers and indulgenced actions will always help some soul; they will never be wasted. So tell God who you are praying for, and leave the rest in His loving hands.
Q. Are indulgences bad? Isn’t that one of the things Martin Luther complained about?
A. Indulgences were popular in the Middle Ages and making a contribution to the building of a church or other project was an approved way of gaining an indulgence. However, it was not unusual for the practice to be abused by aggressive fundraisers making promises that were not aligned with church teachings. “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs” was reportedly a slogan being used at the time Luther published his 95 Theses, where he objected to this practice among other things. His objections would go beyond indulgences by making financial contributions, as he would ultimately reject the need for sacramental confession and deny the existence of purgatory.
The Council of Trent affirmed in 1563 the benefits of indulgences, declaring them “most salutary for the Christian people” while instructing bishops to be on guard lest the practice fall into abuse. In 1567 Pope Pius X wisely cancelled all grants of indulgences that involved fees or financial transactions.
- The Catechism, citing the Council of Trent, adds that “a conversion that takes place from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.”
Image: The Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni (downloaded from Wikipedia Commons).