Could you please explain what an “indulgence” is and how someone may obtain one?
This is a very good question because many Catholics do not have a full understanding of what an indulgence is or how to gain one. In order to answer your question, we will have to discuss sin and the consequences of sin, and that is a subject we often do not want to talk about. We may think that it makes God seem harsh and unforgiving, but this is not so at all. In fact, the opposite is true. Our God is a loving, merciful and forgiving Father. When we incur a consequence or punishment due to our sin, it is always a means to a true conversion of heart and the complete purification of the sinner.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states the following: “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). The doctrine on indulgences is closely linked to the Church’s teaching on purgatory and the communion of saints.
In order to understand the Church’s practice of granting indulgences, we must realize that sin is, above all, an offense against God. When the sin is grave, it can even cut off our communion with Him. Sin has two consequences eternal punishment and temporal punishment, depending on the type of sin committed. Eternal of course means forever, so that refers to the possibility of hell, or eternal damnation. Temporal, on the other hand, refers to something that lasts only for a time (not eternal). It is this temporal punishment that we are concerned with when we speak about indulgences. In other words, even after sin has been forgiven and communion with God has been restored, there still remains some attachment to sin and this needs to be purified either here on earth, or after death in purgatory, before the soul can go to be with God (CCC 1472). Now, who wants to go to purgatory? If you do not, then indulgences are a means to avoid it.
One may ask, “Where does the indulgence come from and how is it that the Church has the power to grant them?” This requires an understanding of the doctrine of the communion of saints, which teaches that there is a link between (1) the faithful who have already reached heaven, (2) those whose souls are being purified in purgatory, (3) and those who are still struggling on earth in their journey towards heaven. And all of the saints, no matter what state they are in, care for one another (CCC 1475).
We believe that those saints who died in faithfulness to God’s friendship and love have gone to be with Him in heaven. We also believe that, by their good works, the saints have earned merit and that all of this merit makes up the Church’s treasury. This would of course include the merit earned by Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Church, by the “power of the keys” given to Peter by Christ, has authority to dispense merits from this treasury as she sees fit. When these merits are applied to the saints in purgatory, who are in a state of purification in order to enter heaven, or to the saints on earth who are still struggling to reach heaven, they have the power to remit or wipe away their temporal punishment due to sin. An indulgence is partial or plenary, as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin.
If you would like to know more about indulgences and how to gain one, a very good source would be a publication authorized by Pope Paul VI titled Handbook of Indulgences. All of the prayers and practices and norms are listed there and would be too many to include here. For example, norm 17 of the Handbook states that, “A plenary indulgence is granted the Christian faithful who devoutly take part in the adoration of the Cross during the solemn liturgy of Good Friday.” Keep in mind that plenary means a “total” remittance (wiping away) of all temporal punishment due to sin. Usually, as in the one just mentioned, in addition to a particular good work, the Church requires three basic conditions for obtaining an indulgence: Confession, Communion, and prayer for the Holy Father. For additional norms, one would need to consult the Handbook.
The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead for the remission of temporal punishment due to sin (CCC 1471). We should especially never neglect to pray for the souls in purgatory. They long to reach heaven, and we can help them. And how consoling it is to know that they in turn will pray for us when they have arrived at that beautiful home that awaits us all.
© Copyright 2003 Grace D. MacKinnon
For permission to reproduce this article, contact Grace MacKinnon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Grace MacKinnon is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine and teaches in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas. Her new book Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith is available in our online store. If you enjoy reading Grace’s column, you will certainly want to have this book, which is a collection of the first two years of “Dear Grace.” Faith questions may be sent to Grace via e-mail at: email@example.com. You may also visit her online at www.DearGrace.com.