Indulgences

It is a holy and pious thought (2 Mc 12:45) to pray for the dead. In the month of November the Church remembers in a special way the souls in purgatory and how we can help them by our prayers.

An important, but forgotten, practice that can benefit the souls of the faithful departed, as well as ourselves, is the gaining of indulgences. Pope Paul VI taught: “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” (Cited by CCC 1471).

In order to understand the reason for indulgences it is important to understand the difference between the temporal and eternal punishment due to sin. The Catechism teaches us: “Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the ‘eternal punishment’ of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the ‘temporal punishment’ of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain” (CCC 1472).

Sacramental confession and the reception of absolution restores the relation to God that has been wounded by sin, but does not, of itself, free us from the unhealthy attachment to creatures that results from sin. (cf. CCC 1459) This is the reason why the priest gives a ‘penance’ when someone confesses their sins. By means of penance a person makes amends, or makes ‘satisfaction’, or does ‘expiation’ for his sins.

By granting indulgences, the Church makes use of her authority to ‘bind and loose’ and draws upon the communion of saints, applying the satisfaction made by Christ and the saints to satisfactory value of good works we perform, either for our own benefit, or for the benefit of the souls in purgatory.

In 1967 Pope Paul VI revised the rather complicated discipline of indulgences.  Now all indulgences are either plenary, providing complete satisfaction for sins, or partial, increasing the satisfaction in proportion to the charity with which the work or prayer is performed. To gain an indulgence a person must be in a state of grace at least by the completion of the indulgenced act and must, at least in a general way, intend to gain the indulgence. For a plenary indulgence there are further conditions: freedom from all attachment to sin, even venial sin, sacramental confession, reception of confession, and prayer for the intentions of the Pope (which can be satisfied by the recitation of one ‘Our Father’ and one ‘Hail Mary’, or by any other prayer recited for that intention). An indulgence can either be gained for oneself, or applied to the souls in purgatory, even for the benefit of a specific soul.

Through the granting of indulgences, the Church gives instruction and encouragement to the faithful in the practice of prayer and good works. More information can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1471 to 1479) and the Manual of Indulgences, which contains a listing and explanation of general and particular indulgences.

Of particular note are the four general grants of indulgences.

“1. A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who, while carrying out their duties and enduring the hardships of life, raise their minds in humble trust to God and make, at least mentally, some pious invocation.

  1. A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful who, led by the spirit of faith, give compassionately fo themselves or of their goods to serve their brothers in need.
  2. A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who, in a spirit of penance, voluntarily abstain from something that is licit for and pleasing to them.
  3. A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who, in the particular circumstances of daily life, voluntarily give explicit witness to their faith before others.” (Manual of Indulgences)

Some notable actions to which a plenary indulgence (under the conditions mentioned above) is granted are: visiting the Blessed Sacrament for adoration lasting at least half an hour; devout recitation of the rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a church, chapel, or family gathering, or any gathering of the faithful; reading Sacred Scriptures with the reverence to the divine word for at least half an hour.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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