Some might ask: Indulgences? Are they still around? Didn’t they go out with the Middle Ages? We might remember hearing about the abuses of indulgences in the past – how they were sold to finance the building of St. Peter’s Basilica, and how Martin Luther reacted against such worldliness by starting the Protestant Reformation. Do we still believe in them nowadays?
Yes, indulgences are alive and well!
What is an indulgence? We believe that the graces received by Mary and the Saints forms a treasury that we can dip into. It is as if the saints were sharing a bit of the grace that made them holy, and we (or the Holy Souls in Purgatory) are blessed to receive it. So, yes, we still believe in indulgences!
What do indulgences do? The simple answer is that they take away temporal punishment due to sin. Imagine that your soul is a block of wood. Committing a sin would be like driving a nail into that wood. We go to Confession, and the nail is removed. But the wood is not back to normal – there is still a hole, a wound (what we call “temporal punishment”). This needs to be filled in. Indulgences help to “fill in” the wounds that our sins cause in our soul.
Consider – when we sin, we are training ourselves in vice. A lie makes it harder to be an honest person; a greedy act begins to form us to become a greedy person. So although our sins are forgiven in Confession, we still need to be re-fashioned into the Image of Christ, putting on His virtues. Thus, indulgences help us (or Purgatorial souls) to become more fashioned into the image of Christ, more free from attachments to sin and vice and the things of this world.
There are two types of indulgences: plenary and partial. A plenary indulgence means full remission of temporal punishment – a complete re-fashioning of Christ-within-us. But here’s the challenge – it’s very, very, VERY hard to get. To obtain a plenary indulgence means that we perform the necessary act of piety (such as attending Stations of the Cross, a half-hour of Scripture reading, pilgrimage to a holy place, etc), pray for the Holy Father, go to Confession & Communion within a week’s time, and be free of ALL attachment to sin. This last caveat makes it quite difficult! I recall one saint (I believe it was St. Philip Neri, but don’t quote me on that) who was leading a Eucharistic Procession for the people of Rome to gain a plenary indulgence. He was granted a vision of the souls who were there, and he saw that only one person out of a thousand actually had the detachment necessary for the indulgence – it was a simple, pious, old woman. So most people do not actually gain plenary indulgences because our hearts are not yet pure enough to love the Lord fully. (See Pope Paul VI’s document Indulgentarium Doctrinis for more details).
But never fear! We do have partial indulgences which start the process of re-fashioning us into Christ. Partial indulgences are often misunderstood. Some prayer books will say “500 days indulgence” or “Seven Years Indulgence” attached to certain pious works. Those are NOT the amount of time off of purgatory! Purgatory, being outside of time, cannot be quantified. Those days or years are actually a reference to the initial reason for indulgences – to lessen difficult penances from Confession. It used to be common, in the early Church, for priests to give penances such as “Three years of bread and water” or “Not allowed to receive Holy Communion for two years” (common for those who had publicly denied the Faith under persecution). So if a prayer or action has a note with “100 days indulgence” next to it, it means that it will shorten such a severe penance by 100 days.
Despite the ancient and venerable tradition of indulgences in our church, I shy away from talking about them because there is a danger of wanting to “gain an indulgence” rather than grow in love for God. We should ultimately pray, go on pilgrimage, attend Mass, read Scripture so that we can thank God for His awesome love, offering our small love back to Him. When people say, “I am going to Confession to gain an indulgence” I want to say to them, “Well, you should really be going to Confession because you wish to repent of your sins.” We should never do anything solely for the purpose of gaining an indulgence, as if our relationship with God was one of commerce (I’ll give you a few prayers, God, if you give me a shorter purgatory sentence).
Now, I know that most people don’t think that way. But I fear that the idea of indulgences lessens the purity of our motivation. Rather than seeking an indulgence, we should be motivated solely by love for God to do these acts of piety. We should want to pray even if there was not an indulgence attached to it! So, let us not worry about whether we get this indulgence or that indulgence. Let us just pray for the souls in purgatory, and live our life with radical love for God. He will take care of removing temporal punishment and forming Christ within us!