During this last year, I’ve learned about a Catholic practice that is greatly misunderstood, and in some instances completely forgotten: Indulgences. Many Catholics think that the Church did away with this practice – that somehow Martin Luther was right. While the Church did reform some of the corrupt and illegitimate practices surrounding indulgences in response to Luther’s critiques, the doctrine of granting indulgences remains a truth of our Catholic Faith:
“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” (Code of Canon Law, no. 992; Catechism, §1471).
An indulgence atones for the temporal punishment due for sins already confessed; in essence, it shortens the time we owe in Purgatory by the performance of some meritorious work in this life, as directed by the Church. The Church, like a loving mother, rewards her children for the performance of good and holy works – she indulges us for doing good. An indulgence can obtain plenary atonement, meaning total, or it can be partial. The Church offers many ways for the faithful to receive indulgences. I want to share a few. For these, a partial indulgence is granted to the Christian Faithful who devoutly:
- Recite the Act of Contrition
- Recite the Anima Christi (Soul of Christ) – we do this every Sunday as a part of our Thanksgiving after Mass.
- Teach Christian Doctrine – Religious Ed. teachers: I’m looking at you!
- Study Christian Doctrine – Religious Ed. students: I’m looking at you!
- Read Sacred Scripture (this becomes a plenary indulgence when done for at least 30 minutes)
- Make the Sign of the Cross, while speaking: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”
- Recite the Rosary (this becomes a plenary indulgence when recited in a church or in a family).
This is a short list but there are many more. Notice something: all of this is very simple and the kinds of things all Catholics should regularly do anyway – but in order to encourage us to do it, the Church indulgingly rewards us. My absolute favorite indulgence, because of the habit it encourages, is the very first one listed in the official book of indulgences:
“A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian Faithful who, while performing their duties and enduring the difficulties of life, raise their minds in humble trust to God and make, at least mentally, some pious invocation”
This indulgence “intends to assist the Christian faithful in fulfilling the command of Christ: ‘You need to pray always and not stop’ (Lk 18:1). It also admonishes them to carry out their duties in such a way that they maintain and increase their union with Christ.” To receive an indulgence, there are certain conditions. One must be in a state of grace, meaning not in mortal sin. In mortal sin there is a spiritual block in our soul, and the only grace that is active in our lives is the actual (though not sanctifying) grace prompting us to go to confession. To receive a plenary indulgence, in addition to being in a state of grace, the faithful must:
- Have the interior disposition of complete detachment from sin, even venial sin;
- Have sacramentally confessed their sins;
- Receive the Holy Eucharist;
- Pray for the intentions of the Holy Father (this can vary, but usually an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be)
Indulgences can always be sought for oneself or the souls of the deceased, but never for other persons living on earth. These kinds of “indulgenced” works can have a positive and sanctifying effect on our souls, and when offered for the departed, assist them in speedily entering their heavenly reward. Indulgences are quite beautiful and cause greater conformity to Christ for those who seek them with faith and devotion. With abundant grace so readily available to us, we should often seek this treasure from the Church as we strive to become the saints God is calling us to be. May God bless you in the week ahead and may Mother Mary lead you more deeply into the Sacred and Merciful Heart of Jesus. I remain,
Affectionately Yours in Christ,